The R-Rated Blog Post: What Do We Really Mean by Our Words?

I am interested in how we translate those tricky swear words, innuendos, and inappropriate puns that we find throughout the elegiac poets. Poets like Catullus, Propertius, and Ovid often write what many of today’s society would consider wildly inappropriate poetry, yet their language and topics are meaningful, elegant, and packed with power. Those familiar with Catullus will think of poem 16, in which Catullus opens with probably the most crude line of poetry I have ever read: “Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo.” I’ll let you search for its meaning yourself. However, the vulgarity of this poem is part of its brilliance. The implications of how we judge someone based upon their words would be lost without it.

So we can see the brilliance in the Latin, but then how do we make that come across in an English translation? This leads me to the question of what we mean by the “swear words” we use. Why use them at all? What, for instance, does the word fuck really mean? In order to translate vulgarity from another language into own, shouldn’t we first understand the words in our own language that we want to translate them into?

Let’s start with one of the most commonly used, yet one of the most offensive words (by many standards, like the MPAA who rates films): fuck. The MPAA description of ratings says that “a motion picture’s single use of one of the harsher sexually-derived words, though only as an expletive, initially requires at least a PG-13 rating. More than one such expletive requires an R rating, as must even one of those words used in a sexual context.” The power over who can see a film, how it will be marketed, and how the film as a whole will be perceived can rest on a single word. Wow. Language holds an incredible amount of power, yet how often do we carelessly throw around words like this? (This blog post would already be given an R-rating!)

According to, its definition is as follows:

verb (used with object):, 1. to have sexual intercourse with. 2. Slang. to treat unfairly or harshly.
verb (used without object): 3. to have sexual intercourse. 4. slang. to meddle (usually followed by around  or with  ).
interjection: 5. Slang. (used to express anger, disgust, peremptory rejection, etc., often followed by a pronoun, as you  or it.  )

That doesn’t quite cover it, does it? There are so many more colorful and vibrant uses of this four-letter word that I’m sure you are already thinking of which doesn’t even come under this definition. In The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got that Way Bill Bryson states that this simple word “can be used to describe a multitude of conditions and phenomena, from making a mess of something (fuck up), to being casual or provocative (fuck around), to inviting or announcing a departure (fuck off), to being estimable (fucking-A), to being baffled (I’m fucked if I know), to being disgusted (fuck this), and so on and on and on.”

The online slang dictionary gives a few more examples, most of which come under generalized definitions of “an exclamation.” However, a lot of them seem to be blacked out. Other definitions include “to disregard, to take advantage of, to deceive, to kid.” gives the clinical “fuck is defined as an offensive curse word used to express anger,” and “fuck is an offensive curse word that is defined as to meddle with or to have sexual intercourse.” Venturing into Urban Dictionary with words like this is always risky, but they provide a much more rounded picture. Cave: Users included graphic descriptions, videos, and images. According to a few entries the definitions varies between expressing dismay, inquiry, or aggression, and to merely form an English superlative. With all its meanings, you can even create an entire sentence with few other words!

If nothing else, researching these definitions highlights how versatile vulgar language can be. There are so many definitions and implications, so how do you choose one? Let alone get it to mean the same things as the ancient poet meant by their words, many of which were probably just as versatile?

– Radha Deitenbeck

N.B. I used to find my links. I searched for “catullus 16,” “motion picture ratings,” and “definition of fuck.” The last search led me to the two colloquial dictionaries which I didn’t know existed and are good supplements to the well-known Urban Dictionary. Part of the trouble with these colloquial dictionaries is that anyone can post what they would like to them; there is no “authority check” prior to posting. However, with this subject, that is perfect. The connotations of these words exist in the minds of those in culture who use them. Those are precisely the people whose opinions I want when trying to ascertain what we mean when we curse.


7 thoughts on “The R-Rated Blog Post: What Do We Really Mean by Our Words?

  1. hopeadvancedlatin Post author

    What a cool topic to explore! I appreciate the way you transition through different ideas that all still relate to your overall topic (talking about movie ratings, to dictionaries, to the argument that slang dictionaries are a good source in this case). I especially enjoy your discussion about authority. I wonder what other words or subjects that your “average” person might have the best authority on? ~A. Hoffman

  2. hopeadvancedlatin Post author

    I found this post really interesting and something that I have always wondered about swear words is how they begin. Could I make up a word and then use it every time I mess up and then have it catch on with other people and it would become a swear word? Could I make up a word and then give it a vulgar definition and then use it as a replacement for regular swear words so people don’t think I am swearing? These are questions I have sometimes pondered. The problem I see with the first question I posed is having a new word catch on and people actually understanding what it means. So that’s why swear words are so interesting to me, how has “fuck” become know to almost every adult in the US if at one point it was made up? Another comment is that I agree that we must know what our words actually mean; I have often heard people just randomly throw out words when they go on a cursing rant and putting the words together makes no sense. I think a lot of the youth that think its “cool” to swear have no idea what the words actually mean.
    – Skylar H.

  3. hopeadvancedlatin Post author

    It’s almost laughable to me how taboo the FCC considers the word “fuck” to be, considering that I, as a college student, hear it at least once a day and that’s not even counting other swear words I hear even more often. Even in high school everyone swears all the time. Yet if there’s “fuck” more than once in a movie, it’s automatically R-rated? Haha.
    Really, though, what it all comes down to is what kind of meaning people give to a word. It’s weight and shock value are only there because people decided it’s a bad thing to say. Surely there are some words (that we might even use today) that people in archaic times declared bad words. In the words of Hermione Granger, “fear of a name only increases fear itself.” (muahah yeah I just went there!)

  4. hopeadvancedlatin Post author

    I completely agree with Carotrix (are for kids). I don’t really comprehend why swear words became taboo to begin with… Yes, the topics they refer to may not be appropriate for a certain situation, but isn’t that a problem of what the word refers to and not the word itself? I don’t really think there are any moral implications to “foul” language. It’s all about intent.

    -Arbiter Bibendi

  5. hopeadvancedlatin Post author

    Swear words are a big part of our society now a days. I will admit that I swear way to much and it is something that I need to change. It’s a part of my sinful nature that hurts my character. However, one of my friends brought up a serious question that is so simple, yet it made me speechless. What is so bad about swear words?

  6. Pingback: Do We Really Need to Swear? | Explorations from Latin 372

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