I left a comment on this answer in which I made a reference to a word that many people find offensive (although I didn’t use or even mention the word itself). I referenced the word because it was an example of the type of word that the question was asking about: insults ending in -er.

Another user took me to task, scolding me for referencing an offensive word.

I think this is absurd. Does this user really expect us to pretend offensive words don’t exist? Is that really a reasonable way forward? This is what I imagine the policy someone who was offended by my comment might propose:

Discussion of words that people might find offensive is strictly forbidden. Not only are you not allowed to use or mention such words, but you may not even allude to their existence.

Is there anyone who actually supports such a policy?

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@Cinque I'm really quite confused by this; if you're going to be offended by certain words, you should probably not click on questions that are specifically devoted to discussing those words. He didn't even use "the N-word" directly, he actually said the phase "the N-word" instead in an attempt to avoid offending people, but if he'd just used the word directly I don't think it would have mattered much. There's a difference between mentioning a word and using it to describe someone, and the latter is much more offensive than the former –  Michael Mrozek Sep 6 '10 at 23:43
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@Cinque, no you didn’t write the proposed policy I put there, but it does seem to be the policy that your comments imply I should comport myself by. If I have misrepresented what you think the policy should be, please try to explain. I am truly curious to understand where you would draw the line between appropriate and inappropriate. –  nohat Sep 6 '10 at 23:51
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@Cinque, you have not been clear in your objection to my comment. Please explain what the policy is you think that I should follow that would have resulted in me not making that comment. Is the policy that I should pretend that offensive words don’t exist? Scolding me and then not explaining why is no help to anyone. –  nohat Sep 7 '10 at 0:53
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@Cinque: If someone were to ask the etymology of "niggardly", should such a question be off-limits because it might lead to a mention of the N-word's existence (even though they are unrelated)? –  mmyers Sep 7 '10 at 20:24
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Hand-waving this away seems silly—there is more to be said here. It's disappointing to see an almost personal attack here. If we're going to advocate the censorship of mere lemmata, let alone actual words, we need an absolutely crystal clear policy devoid of exceptions, or nothing at all. –  Charlie Sep 9 '10 at 1:48
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@Cinque After a couple days’ reflection, I just want to say that I appreciate where you are coming from and understand why you felt offense by my comment. I think, however, that the ramifications of withholding comments like that for fear I might offend someone because I merely alluded to the existence of an offensive word are far too negative to take seriously any policy proposal to do so. I do wish you had given credence to the idea that the word was relevant in this case. In the future I will endeavor to be more cautious but I cannot promise that I will never mention the “n-word” again. –  nohat Sep 9 '10 at 6:02
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Late to the party, but... I'm far on @nohat's side. I even chastised people for says "f-word" instead of "fuck". This is a language site. Prudes or otherwise easily offended should stay away, or execute extreme caution. –  Jürgen A. Erhard Feb 10 '11 at 12:43
    
I have deleted some comments because they have been re-assigned to me, but it was not me who wrote them. I apologize if this can create confusion in who reads the comments in this thread. –  kiamlaluno May 20 '11 at 3:10

8 Answers 8

up vote 66 down vote accepted

Not only do I think that a person should be able to discuss an offensive word or phrase in an academic fashion as appropriate, but I don't even think it should be necessary to disguise the word or phrase in any way. Of course, it is fine to go ahead and disguise the word as nohat did, but even if he had spelled out the actual word in that context I would still defend him.

Certainly, there are appropriate and inappropriate ways to use offensive words on a site like this, but I think we should be mature enough to recognize what constitutes academic discussion and what doesn't.

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+1. This whole episode is completely baffling to me -- it's the word he didn't use that he was called out for? –  mmyers Sep 7 '10 at 15:08
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@mmyers - Yes, @nohat is being berated by @Cinque for calling out the existence of the "N word" by referring to it as "the N word". I agree, quite baffling. –  ssakl Sep 7 '10 at 18:19
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The N word we're talking about is knickers, right? –  ErikE Sep 26 '10 at 8:48
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+1 this is quite frightening. Are people afraid to write some words? Do words bite, now? "The N-word", the "F-bomb" and things like that sound very stupid and childish to me. If you're unable to say "nigger" or "fuck" even if the context is appropriate, you're in trouble. Insulting people or cursing is one thing, but totally censoring a word no-matter-what is utter madness IMO. –  Lohoris Jan 18 '11 at 15:38
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With Looris. Words should not be disguised in any way. Yes, I don't think it's "fine" to do so, I think it hinders communication. Like "f-word". This is only fine if we can assume that everyone here knows what that means. Which we can't, given this is an international site with loads of non-native speakers. –  Jürgen A. Erhard Feb 10 '11 at 12:45
    
@Emtucifor: it appears for Cinque it's now "nohat" ;-P –  Jürgen A. Erhard Feb 10 '11 at 12:46
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Even the lofty Economist (the weekly news rag) prints words like shit, fuck, nigger, faggot, or cocksucker when it’s quoting actual speech. It would be journalistically dishonest not to do so. –  tchrist Jan 10 '12 at 19:30
    
@tchrist the policy on this site is that potentially offensive words shall be censored in the titles, but can be explicit in the bodies and comments. If you find this policy unacceptable, please refrain from participating on this website. Thanks! –  Jeff Atwood Jan 11 '12 at 1:05
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@JeffAtwood How is anyone supposed to know that is ‘the policy’, eh? Anyway, don’t worry. I’ll be a good little soldier and do whatever I’m told to. You know that’s how I am. –  tchrist Jan 11 '12 at 1:50
    
@Lohoris. "Do words bite, now?" Yes, actually, they do. PTSD is a real condition, and people can be triggered by words. That said, I agree with the policy of this site. –  TRiG Feb 28 '12 at 1:04

If you're going to pretend offensive words don't exist you'll need to close questions like that one as "not a real question", as they ask about fictional concepts like curse words. Personally I think people have conflated swearing with the discussion of swearing, and they're quite different -- the utterance of a "swear word" is not necessarily swearing.

I'm going to temporarily break out swearing here, so brace yourselves if you find this offensive:

  • If I say "fuck you", that's swearing
  • If I say "The word 'fuck' exists in the English language", that's not swearing. It's just not, except maybe in a semantic sense (I'm not familiar with the actual definition of the word)

There's no reason to be offended by the existence of swear words themselves, and pretending they don't exist on a site devoted to discussion of language would be laughable. If enough people have a problem with it, one approach is to have a tag that marks questions that talk about curse words, so people can ignore that tag (similiar to a NSFW tag on an RSS feed)

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I’m assuming your comments apply equally to swear words as to offensive epithets? –  nohat Sep 6 '10 at 23:53
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@Cinque There shouldn't be any difference when it comes to discussing the existence of a word, and again, nobody even said the word you're so offended by; everyone has used the phrase "the n-word", including you just now, because pretending the word doesn't exist is juvenile –  Michael Mrozek Sep 7 '10 at 0:23
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@Cinque, You say the word "added nothing". You're wrong. It was relevant and informative and contributed to the conversation. It did add something. That's the point. –  TRiG Jan 31 '11 at 21:58
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@Cinque: "this country"? The Internet is a country? slaps own forehead Of course, it even has a national anthem! (That well-known song from Avenue Q ;-) –  Jürgen A. Erhard Feb 10 '11 at 12:48

Does this user really expect us to pretend offensive words don’t exist? Is that really a reasonable way forward?

No, it is not. @Cinque does not have a right not to be offended by perfectly legitimate (though offensive to some) words in an intellectual discussion of English. If merely acknowledging the existence of something like the "N-word" becomes forbidden on this site, I for one will leave. What if someone asks a question about the etymology of the "N-word" and actually spells it out? How are the non-native speakers on the site supposed to even necessarily know which words are offensive?

All @Cinque has done by continuing this line of thought is to now make me curious about the etymology of the "N-word" itself. Also, if we cater to political correctness, how will non-native speakers even know to what we refer? Lots of words start with "N". Talk about the "N" word, the "F" word, and the "C" word. Even spell them out. Just don't call anyone a "N" or a "C" or tell them to "F" off.

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When I first visited Brazil, a woman who was learning English asked me (a native English speaker thus an authority to her) how in English she should describe black people. She used a variant on the N-word completely innocently. I quickly told her that word is offensive and gave the polite alternative, but how else could she have asked the question without saying the word? She meant no harm. And if she'd asked the question here, I would HOPE she would get a straight, intellectual, correct answer, WITHOUT getting flamed or otherwise mistreated for a perfectly innocent question. –  ErikE Sep 26 '10 at 8:54
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Why don't you use the words 'nigger', 'fuck' and 'cunt' yourself in your answer? As a non native speaker I have to guess those are the ones you are referring to. –  Per Wiklander Feb 24 '11 at 19:07
    
@Per - Because at the time, the topic of allowing this usage in the forum was still up in the air. This has since been resolved. –  ssakl Feb 28 '11 at 22:28
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Fair enough. You say it has been resolved. So was the resolution that we can talk about words of any kind here? –  Per Wiklander Mar 1 '11 at 23:01

When the Laura Schlessinger thing happened, I made a blog post here about why it isn't necessary to use (in the philosophical sense) the n-word in order for it to be offensive. Apparently for @Cinque, even mentioning the taboo avoidance term is enough to be offensive.

I don't want to say that Cinque's offense was illegitimate, but it does place us in an awkward position. The topic of the question was about pejoratives ending in -er, clearly bringing the n-word into relevance. What should be done then? nohat even used the normally accepted form to mention without saying the n-word.

With all due respect to Cinque's feelings, there must be some way to discuss taboo and offensive words when they are the topic of a question. Cinque, you haven't offered an alternative wording of nohat's comment, and not discussing the word at all is not a viable alternative.

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as a completely off-topic aside, in my opinion, there’s no need to lowercase my screen name “nohat” at the beginning of a sentence. In fact if you wanted to capitalize it all the time I’d be OK with that too. –  nohat Sep 8 '10 at 0:59

I think we can all agree that that word is offensive, but to prevent acknowledging the existence of that word or any word is beyond ridiculous.

I have attempted bodily harm to the one person foolish enough to call me a [offensive word]. That doesn't mean that I'll throw a hissy fit if someone wants to discuss that word's etymology. I probably won't read it, but I won't vote to close unless it turns into a troll-fest.

Words exist. We discuss them here.

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I am strongly against censoring ourselves in an academic context. It's the job of the linguist, speaker, and learner to recognize, understand, and dissect these words. I would strongly recommend changing the word in reference to the actual word, if nothing else but to prevent confusion–and hopefully remove some of the stigma involved with it. Further, suggesting that we avoid all reference to a word on a site that is about words is ludicrous. That said, I can understand that some people may not want to read these words. Is a "NSFW"-like tag appropriate?

This brings other, interesting topics to mind. Why do people find words offensive? What are the histories of these words? Also, I'm particularly looking forward to our discussion on fucking-infixation.

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It is always good to clarify a phrase like "fucking-insertion" with a link to relevant information :) en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Expletive_infixation –  Kosmonaut Sep 9 '10 at 3:01
    
I'll leave it to you and Google. Had better change the term though, thanks for that. –  Charlie Sep 9 '10 at 4:06

I used the word in question in Was the word "nigger" an expletive in Mark Twain's day?

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I like the the Guardian newspaper's guidelines for swearwords, it may also help us:

swearwords

We are more liberal than any other newspapers, using language that our competitors would not. But even some readers who agree with Lenny Bruce that "take away the right to say fuck and you take away the right to say fuck the government" might feel that we sometimes use such words unnecessarily.

The editor's guidelines are as follows:

First, remember the reader, and respect demands that we should not casually use words that are likely to offend.

Second, use such words only when absolutely necessary to the facts of a piece, or to portray a character in an article; there is almost never a case in which we need to use a swearword outside direct quotes.

Third, the stronger the swearword, the harder we ought to think about using it.

Finally, never use asterisks, which are just a cop-out

They discuss it in more detail here.

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