Why do people use offensive words?Why do people use offensive words?

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I  think people use offensive words first because they may hear it at home and not think twice about it.

Offensive words are often used to make an impression of cool or tough—some of the same reasons some kids smoke or drink.

It may be from a sense of frustration and/or anger, and it may be because they know of no other way to express themselves: they may lack self-control. I'm reminding of Scout using the n--- word in To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus tells her not to because it's "common." I really don't think a great many people understand this concept like we used to.

And when I'm in public and there are children around and somebody (usually a teen) starts swearing up a blue streak, it's all I can do to keep my mouth shut.

Of course, some words are perceived by some folks as offensive, while others don't seem to notice. Perception is everything: there may be a perception that hearing offensive language will impress others in some way—in either a perceived positive way (oh, he's cool) or in a negative way, to offend. And words are powerful tools with which to inflict pain.


kiwi eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I am finding that internationally what is considered offensive is very variable. In trying to establish a more polite society in our school our principal asked that we 'clamp down' on swearing. I asked for a definition of what was considered offensive so that we could communicate this to the students (being used to teaching the history of Anglo Saxon usage etc). As here in NZ a number of words I would consider offensive are used on the six o'clock news the discussion tailed off. I am still awaiting a response from the principal...

I find I am more disturbed by threatening or racist comments than words selected for shock value. Often the use of offensive words just indicates poor vocabulary or attention-seeking. It isn't always the words, but their intended meaning from speaker to subject that is key. I teach the origins and history of our most colourful language and often find that its useage then declines. Some students (and adults) are so used to certain words that they are not aware of their offensive nature.

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This is, to some extent, a matter of opinion.  I believe that the use of offensive words is a type of aggression.  If we look at the link below, we can see some suggestions as to why people might act in such a way.  The link says that

Aggressive behavior is often used to claim status, precedent, or access to an object or territory.

In other words, people act aggressively towards others to improve their own status or their place in a given community.

If you think about this in terms of a high school, it makes sense.  People generally pick on other people to make themselves look better.  If you can be offensive to other people, it shows that you are of higher status than they are.  By being offensive/aggressive, you show your own status.

So one reason for aggression is status.  People like to have high status and one way to show that you are relatively high in status (especially if you are insecure about your position) is to hurt others.

brettd eNotes educator| Certified Educator

That being said, not all offensive words are intended to show aggression or to claim status.  Since what is "offensive" varies from person to person and group to group, there are a variety of other sociological reasons for using such language.

Take, for example, the military, which has it's own very clear status levels in terms of rank and achievement, so when soldiers cuss, it is more likely due to the setting (overwhelmingly male) and the tradition (hence the phrase, "cuss like a sailor").

People also tend to curse more frequently around their social equals, people who are the same age, people in secondary social groups, friends, colleagues.  Conversely, we tend not to use such language around Grandma, or the boss, in other words, around people we have additional measures of respect for, or who we view as our social superiors.

There are, of course, many theories, and the link below details yet another.

megan-bright eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"Offensive" words can mean so many things as it is such a broad term. Since the question is not about swear words, but offensive words, then there are so many variables involved, such as who is the word offensive against and in what context is the word being used?

Offensive words can be anything from terms to describe someone with a disability, terms used to describe someone's weight, or terms used to describe someone's complexion and so on. In some cases, the use of a certain way may be so ingrained in someone that they may not even know it is offensive to others. For instance the word 'fat' may be offensive to some, and not offensive to others.

So some people may be using offensive terms out of ignorance to another group's sensitivity or out of malice.

larrygates eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I often tell my students that every four letter word they know was once commonly accepted in society. They became offensive because they were considered "low class," not the type of language one used in polite society. The word "vulgar" is from Latin meaning "the common people." It was not the language used by the elite. Swear words originally were a way of talking down to another; with the intent to offend. Some usages are more socially correct in some societies than others, for instance the German variation of the "S" word is considered mild; whereas in this country it is offensive. But to answer the question, people use them either because they are socially inept; angry, or just plain crude. Under no circumstances are they acceptable in polite society.

ask996 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I have to say a couple of things in response to this conversation. 1)It's shocking that people are equating cussing with social class, race, gender or education. This is an unenlightened viewpoint. The social group with which we associate might have a greater propensity for cussing, but it is not because of their class. People also have a tendency to cuss for the shock value. That being said, words themselves are not inherently good or bad, but the way society uses them can create negativity.

accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

#3 makes an excellent point about swearing being, to a certain extent, culturally determined. Therefore you will find certain individuals swear more than others because of aspects such as: their profession, their social class, their level of education, their race, and their gender. Looking at it from this point of view we can argue that swearing, like so many other factors, is actually culturally determined.

litteacher8 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Some offensive words are used to shock, some are used colloquially because no other word will do, and some are used by habit.  If the word was not offensive, it would not be significant.  Why do we use any of the words we choose?  If we are just saying the word to express an emotion, that is one thing.  Usually offensive words are used for one reason: because they are offensive.

lrwilliams eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I think that in a lot of cases people start using cuss words as teens where they are trying to fit in with peers. For many it becomes a habit that stays with them for life. Most people are able to determine when it is definitely not acceptable to cuss and when it might be more acceptable, unfortunately there are those that never learn that distinction.

rskardal eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I'm inclined to agree with Kiwi and Megan-Bright that words that are offensive are often offensive in the ears of the receiver rather than the speaker. If so, it might lead to an interesting discussion of when it's excusable to have inadvertantly offended someone and when not.

waynehollandorg | Student

The thing that interests me most re the subject of offensive words is the fact that the class of white males possesses no particular words that are offensive to them as a class. Individuals may take offense on a personal level, but never as a member of their class.

kihiray | Student

They do use offensive words at times to express their utmost anger towards the people they hate.

At times it could be a casual way of blending with one's peers especially if the peers are abusive,it could be very usaul for one to express oneself in that way.

saffia | Student

some people think its cool and thats what makes them do it.