What is an offensive word?

By | 2014/02/25

I recently participated in a reasonably long discussion on Facebook regarding the word, butthurt. A friend had never seen it before and wondered what other people thought of it. To say it sparked a wide ranging discussion is a bit of an understatement.

iStock OffendedThere were all sorts of answers and comments on the word, from the relaxed to the histrionic social justice warrior to the offended. (The histrionic social justice warrior approach of course was that butthurt is insulting towards rape victims.)

It was interesting though to see the comment that the word was offensive.

How is a word in and of itself actually offensive?

To start, it’s worth remembering the words of the redoubtable Mr Fry:

It’s now very common to hear people say, ‘I’m rather offended by that.’ As if that gives them certain rights. It’s actually nothing more… than a whine. ‘I find that offensive.’ It has no meaning; it has no purpose; it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. ‘I am offended by that.’ Well, so fucking what.

Stephen Fry’s words are quite pertinent, but the more important thing here is – can a word be offensive? Is it possible for a word to be so inherently unpleasant that it can be deemed to be offensive in any use? That no matter how or where the word is used, it’s wrong?

Well, no.

Deeming a word to be offensive is an attempt to completely preclude its use. (I should note that I dislike and do my best to avoid the word hate but I don’t deem it to be offensive – my avoidance is as much from my pseudo-synaesthesia as anything else.)

We can’t allow ourselves to get to the point where linguistically a word by itself, without reference to context or an idea becomes offensive. That includes the c-word, the n-word, the f-word, and certainly the butthurt word. Despite any original use of bad words, a word can be used for new purposes, or in a dry, academic way.

If you don’t believe that the usage of a word can evolve beyond any ‘original’ meaning but you refer to male homosexuals such as myself as gay then you’re a hypocrite.

Context is everything.

If you take offence at the mere mention of a word without any regard for its context, then the fault is with you, not the user of the word.

Offensive words don’t exist. We can debate the notion of offensive ideas until the cows come home, but an offensive word? There’s no such thing.