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, twat and tits. Piss in particular, however, may be used in non-excretory contexts (pissed off, i.e. "angry", in US 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, and wank (UK). Ethnic and sexual-preference slurs may also qualify, such as mong, gook, kike, spic 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), crap, 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 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 golf is noted as a four-letter word because the player's chosen entertainment pastime becomes an exercise in frustration.
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