Sworn Out

How vulgar can you be?

Caution: Adult content ahead!

Only a dork or scumbag wouldn’t acknowledge screwing up, though admitting error really sucks.

And only a crap publication wouldn’t print that sentence, though many may not know what those words really mean.

Some publications would never allow the use of vulgar slang for a penis, for example, yet that is one definition of “dork” in Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition. The other definition, labeled only as slang, is “a person regarded as stupid, foolish, awkward, clumsy, etc.” Calling someone a “dork” might be OK or not, depending on how it’s intended.

Both definitions first appeared in WNW’s Third Edition, published in 1988, so they’re relatively new to American English. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the first use of “dork” as slang to 1964, in American Speech magazine, which also hints at its origin: “The word dick itself serves as a model for two variants which are probably Midwestern, dirk and dork, also meaning ‘penis.’” A “dirk” is a long, straight dagger. Get it?

“Scumbag” has also been somewhat sanitized, defined only as slang in WNW: “a low, despicable person; lowlife.” It’s been popularized by television programs where police officers—or reporters—use it to refer to particularly despicable suspects. But more family-oriented publications might want to steer clear of it, since it means a condom. Sounds a bit dirtier now, eh?

“Screw” has two variations, one cleaner than the other. Someone who admits to “screwing up” is being less offensive than someone who claims to have been “screwed” by someone else. “Screw up” is listed merely as “informal” in WNW; the other type is listed as vulgar slang. Most people assume both are associated with sex, but that may not be the case: The OED lists examples of “screw” to mean cheat, bargain down, or otherwise do wrong going back to the 1600s, and associated with the thumbscrew, not sex. (Yes, you can show this to your editor to justify your use of “screw.”)

Not so “sucks.” Though WNW lists it only as slang (“to be contemptible or very unsatisfying, as because of low quality [this show sucks]”), it’s still very close to its origins, referring to fellatio. Daintier publications steer clear of it, though it’s all over the airwaves.

“Crap,” too, hasn’t moved too far from its origins but is acceptable in many publications. WNW calls it “somewhat vulgar,” except when it’s used as slang for actual excrement, which elevates it to pure vulgarity. (Another term for “crap” that starts with “s”is still mostly verboten, an interesting distinction based on something other than logic.)

Note that we’ve called all of those words “vulgar.” That’s not the exactly the same as “obscene” or “profane,” though there’s a lot of overlap. “Vulgarity” is crude slang; “obscenity” is offensive content relating to sex or bodily functions; and “profanity” generally refers to swearing, usually religious-based, like “Christ!” and “hell!” As with so many other things, whether a word is vulgar, obscene, or profane depends a lot on context and local standards: What’s “obscene” in Kansas may be perfectly fine in Utah.

Keep it as clean as your publication demands, unless it doesn’t give a damn.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.