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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, and (depending on the listener/reader) sometimes also certain terms relating to Hell and damnation when used outside their original religious context, and/or slurs. The "four-letter" claim refers to the fact that a large number of English "swear words" are incidentally four-character monosyllables. This euphemism came into use during the first half of the twentieth century.
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 and foak),jism(or gism),jizz,piss,shit,twatandtits. Piss in particular, however, may be used in non-excretory contexts (pissed off, i.e. "angry", inUS 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 (including even piss, despite its biblical pedigree) 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,fart,hell,wang, andwank(UK).Ethnic and sexual-preference slurs may also qualify, such as mong,gook,kike,spicanddyke. Several "four-letter words" have multiple meanings (some even serving asgiven names), and usually only offend when used in their vulgar senses, for example: cock,dick,knob,muff,puss,shag(UK) andtoss(UK). A borderline category includes words that areeuphemistic 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),crap,darn,dump,heck,poop(US),slag(UK, NZ, AUS),slutandturd, 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 asmongandpish.
Occasionally the phrase "four-letter word" is humorously used to describe any word composed of four letters. This is the case when used to mean the word work, alleging that the speaker's or writer's audience treats work as unpleasant, or when the game of golfis noted as a four-letter word because the player's chosen entertainment pastime becomes an exercise in frustration.
Similar euphemisms in other languages
- Dutch: A similar tradition occurs with "three-letter words", e.g. kut ("cunt"/"twat"), pik and lul ("cock"/"dick"/"prick").
- Spanish: the word puta ("whore") is sometimes referred to as cuatro letras ("four letters"), for example, Esa chica es una cuatro letras ("That girl is a four-letter").
- Chilean Spanish: the phrase "el cuatro letras" (the "four letters") is often used as a euphemism to refer vulgar slang for the penis as there are many local slang terms consisting in four letters for that organ. Examples
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