Four-letter word

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The phrase four-letter word refers to a set of English-language words written with four letters which are considered profane, including common popular or slang terms for excretory functions, sexual activity and genitalia, blasphemies, terms relating to Hell or damnation when used outside of religious contexts, or slurs. The "four-letter" claim refers to the fact that many (but not all) English "swear words" are incidentally four-character monosyllables. The term was used in this sense as early as 1886 in the United States and Great Britain.[1]


Common four-letter words (in this sense) that are widely considered vulgar or offensive to a notable degree include: cunt, fuck (and regional variants such as feck, fick, fock and foak), jism (or gism), jizz, shit, slut, twat and tits. Piss (formerly an offensive swear word) in particular, however, may be used in non-excretory contexts (pissed off, i.e. "angry", in US English and British UK English; pissed, i.e. "drunk" in UK English) that are often not considered particularly offensive, and the word also occurs several times with its excretory meaning in the King James Bible. Several of these have been declared legally indecent under the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) TV and radio open-airwave broadcasting regulations.

A number of additional words of this length are upsetting to some, for religious or personal sensitivity reasons, such as: arse (UK), damn, crap, hell, piss, wang, and wank (UK). Racist, ableist, and slurs pertaining to an individual's sexual orientation may also 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.

Several "four-letter words" have multiple meanings (some even serving as given names), and usually only offend when used in their vulgar senses, for example: cock, dick, knob, muff, puss, shag (UK) and toss (UK). A borderline category includes words that are euphemistic evasions of "stronger" words, as well as those that happen to be short and have both an expletive sound to some listeners as well as 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, as several examples. Finally, certain four-lettered terms with limited usage can be considered offensive by some, within the regional dialect in which 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. Typical 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. Charlotte Observer journalist Doug Robarchek noted in 1993 how many politicians have names with four letters, "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?"[2]

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]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "four-letter word – Caught in the Web of Words". Retrieved 2021-12-28.
  2. ^ Doug Robarchek (September 29, 1993). "Outfront If You Ignore Deaths, Those State Rest Areas Are Perfectly Safe". Living. Charlotte Observer. p. 6C.
  3. ^ "love is a four letter word". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 2001. Retrieved 2014-08-13.
  4. ^ Freddie Gibbs, How We Do ('93 Til) lyrics