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What does it Mean to Cuss?

Rowdy ranchers peppered their language with cuss words as they told stories on the trail.
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  • Written By: Michael Pollick
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 07 September 2014
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To cuss is to use language considered to be obscene, socially offensive or irreverent simply for shock value or to assault others verbally. The deliberate use of bad or offensive language is often referred to informally as cussing or swearing. The words themselves may be called cuss words, swear words, expletives or four-letter words, among others.

The use of certain words as personal curses or expletives can be traced back to the very beginning of language, but many of these same words used in their proper contexts are not considered offensive or obscene. Words used to express eternal condemnation of a person's soul, such as d..n or h..l, for example, are liberally scattered throughout sacred texts such as the Torah or the Bible. To use these words out of context as personal epithets against others, however, is considered to be blasphemous or disrespectful to God.

When people cuss, they may also use words of a scatological nature, such as words describing bodily functions, sexual organs or sexual acts. These expletives often serve as obscene or shocking substitutes for more acceptable euphemisms. Some people choose to cuss in the misguided belief that a more offensive word or description would be more effective than the milder word it replaces. Cussing or cursing gratuitously is often perceived as being a more adult form of communication than the euphemisms available to adolescents and children.

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Most likely, the term to cuss began as an early American corruption of the term to curse. The overuse of offensive or obscene language soon became a favorite habit among the rough and rowdy ranchers and trailblazers who worked their way out to the western United States during the early 19th century. Perhaps as a form of male bonding, many men routinely peppered their language with cuss words and obscenities as they shared experiences along the trail.

Cussing is also associated with other salt-of-the-earth occupations such as merchant marines, longshoremen, coal miners and the military. A civilian who uses obscene language gratuitously may be said to cuss like a sailor on leave, for example. For some, cussing becomes second nature and they may not even be aware of the offensiveness of their language. Certain curse words have become popular space fillers in conversation, what professional linguists might call syntactical vacancies.

It would be extremely challenging to eliminate all forms of cussing or obscene language from society completely, but there are many people who do make an effort to correct this habit in public. Some people only decide to cuss whenever they are in an atmosphere where such language is tolerated. Others must make a decided effort to clean up their language around those who might be offended, however. Cussing is a habit which can be broken over time, but some believe that society in general must first address the issue of obscene or offensive language in the entertainment and music industries before any real improvements can be made.

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