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Four-letter word

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The term four-letter word serves as a euphemism for words that are often considered profane or offensive.

The designation "four-letter" arises from the observation that many (though not all) popular or slang terms related to excretory functions, sexual activity, genitalia, blasphemies, and terms linked to Hell or damnation are incidentally four-character monosyllables. Notably, the term "four-letter word" does not strictly refer to words containing exactly four letters.[1][2][3]

The phrase has been in use in both the United States and the United Kingdom since at least 1886.[4]


Campaign button used in the 1976 United States presidential election.

Common four-letter words (in this context) widely considered vulgar or offensive include: cunt, fuck (and regional variants like feck, fick, fock, and foak), jism (or gism), jizz, shit, slut, twat, and tits. Notably, the term Piss (once an offensive swear word)[citation needed] has non-excretory uses (pissed off meaning "angry" in US English and British UK English; pissed meaning "drunk" in UK English) and has occurred with its excretory meaning in the King James Bible. Some of these words have been deemed legally indecent under the regulations of the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for TV and radio open-airwave broadcasting.

Other words of this length that may be upsetting due to religious or personal sensitivity include: arse (UK), damn, crap, hell, piss, wang, and wank (UK). Additionally, slurs related to racism, ableism, and an individual's sexual orientation may qualify, such as mong (in the UK not a racial slur,[citation needed] but short for Mongol, or someone with Down syndrome – previously called Mongolism), gook, kike, spic, coon, dago, and dyke.

Certain "four-letter words" have multiple meanings (some serving as given names) and usually only offend when used in their vulgar senses. Examples include: cock, dick, knob, muff, puss, shag (UK), and toss (UK). A borderline category includes words that are euphemistic evasions of "stronger" words and those that happen to be short, with both an expletive sound to some listeners and a sexual or excretory meaning (many also have other, non-vulgar meanings): butt (US), crud, darn, dump, heck, poop (US), slag (UK, NZ, AUS), slut, and turd.

Finally, some four-letter terms with limited usage can be considered offensive within the regional dialect they are used, such as mong and mary.

Occasionally, the phrase "four-letter word" is humorously used to describe common words composed of four letters. Examples include the word work, implying that work can be unpleasant, or the game of golf, jokingly referred to as a four-letter word when a player's pastime becomes an exercise in frustration. In 1993, Charlotte Observer journalist Doug Robarchek noted how many U.S. politicians have names with four letters, humorously observing, "Ever notice how many U.S. politicians have names that are also four-letter words? Ford, Dole, Duke, Bush, Gore ... and how many make us think of four-letter words?"[5]

Similar euphemisms in other languages[edit]

  • Chinese: The term 三字經 (lit. Three Character Classic) is used to describe swearing, as many such phrases in Chinese consist of three characters.
  • Dutch: A similar tradition occurs with "three-letter words", e.g. kut ("cunt"/"twat"), pik and lul ("cock"/"dick"/"prick").
  • Finnish: Rude words tend to be five-letter words, like the common swear word perse meaning "arse", or paska meaning "shit". Other offensive five-letter words refer to the genital region, eg. kulli and kyrpä ("cock"/"dick"/"prick"), along with pillu and vittu ("twat"/"cunt").
  • French: the word merde ("shit") is sometimes referred to as le mot de cinq lettres ("the five-letter word"), or le mot de Cambronne. Also, profanities in French are usually called gros mots (coarse words).
  • German: the phrase Setz dich auf deine vier Buchstaben! ("sit down on your four letters") is mainly used speaking to children, as it refers to the word Popo, meaning "rump" in baby talk. A variant, Setz dich auf deine fünf Buchstaben! ("sit down on your five letters"), alludes to the vulgar use of the word Arsch, meaning "arse" (UK) or "ass" (US).
  • Latin: a common insult used to be Es vir trium litterarum, meaning "you are a man of three letters". The underlying implication was that the addressed was a fur, meaning "thief", although if challenged, the speaker could always claim he simply meant vir, that is, "man".
  • Polish: the word dupa ("arse"/"ass") is called cztery litery ("the four letters"). Historically, also kiep, which formerly used to be a taboo word meaning "female genitals", but presently is a mild or humorous insult meaning "a fool" or a modern slang term for a cigarette. There is also a phrase Siadaj na cztery litery (sit down on your four letter), meaning sit on your arse.
  • Russian: the word хуй ("cock"/"dick"/"prick"), the most common obscenity, is called "the three-letter word" (russ.: "слово из трёх букв") or just "three letters" (russ.: "три буквы") and is one of the key words of the "Russian mat".

In popular culture[edit]

Generic references, not specifying the word:

A specified word that actually has four letters: Love:





  • A photo-montage by partner-artists Privat & Primat is titled "Jazz and Love are 4-Letter Words".


  • Good Omens's famous wall scene: Crowley's "I'm not nice; nice is a four-letter word"

A specified word that does not actually have four letters:

  • The band Cake made a play on words in their song "Friend Is a Four Letter Word."
  • The song "Baby, I'm an Anarchist" by Against Me! features the line "to you solidarity's a four-letter word."
  • In Degrassi: The Next Generation Episode 504, Mr. Simpson (Snake) says "...in my life, spontaneous is a four-letter word."
  • In the song "Absolute zero" by "Stone Sour", there is a line that goes as follows: "Man is a four-letter word, it's really absurd"

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Wright, Robin (29 March 2018). "For Trump, Diplomacy is a Four Letter Word". The New Yorker.
  2. ^ "Socialism Before it was a Four Letter Word". Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
  3. ^ "In Arkansas, Obama is a Four Letter Word Hampering Democrats". The Atlantic. 18 May 2014.
  4. ^ "four-letter word – Caught in the Web of Words". Retrieved 2021-12-28.
  5. ^ Doug Robarchek (September 29, 1993). "Outfront If You Ignore Deaths, Those State Rest Areas Are Perfectly Safe". Living. Charlotte Observer. p. 6C.
  6. ^ Elton John – I've Seen That Movie Too, retrieved 2024-02-24
  7. ^ "love is a four letter word". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 2001. Retrieved 2014-08-13.
  8. ^ Freddie Gibbs – How We Do ('93 Til Freestyle #3), retrieved 2024-02-24