four-letter word

All Sources -
Updated Media sources (1) About encyclopedia.com content Print Topic Share Topic
views updated

FOUR-LETTER WORD. A word of four letters considered vulgar or obscene and referring to sex or excrement, such as (with varying degrees of offensive force) arse, cock, crap, cunt, dick, fuck, piss, shit, and probably fart. Such words are sometimes called ‘Anglo-Saxon’, although, of the above list, only arse, cock, and shit definitely derive from Old English. Cunt, fart, and fuck may, but firm evidence is lacking. Dick is a nickname for Richard, of uncertain age, while crap comes from Medieval Latin and piss from Old French. The phrase four-letter was first attested in print in 1923 and four-letter word in 1934. There are, in addition, some ‘honorary’ four-letter words, such as the five-letter but monosyllabic prick, screw. In English, there are no neutral terms for sex and excrement. Linguistic taboo makes four-letter words candidates for semantic extension and transfer: Shit! and Fuck! are interjections of disapproval or dismay. The form fucking often has an emphatic function in casual but ‘coarse’ conversation: I got my fucking hand caught in the fucking machine! Slurs used in referring to people's sexuality (such as four-letter poof, dyke) are often felt to be closer to ethnic slurs (such as four-letter dago, kike) than to typical ‘four-letter words’. The meaning of the phrase can be wryly extended, as in ‘Work is a four-letter word’. See SWEARING, TABOO.

views updated

four-let·ter word • n. any of several short words referring to sexual or excretory functions, regarded as coarse or offensive.