English English language Expression Usage Writing

Graphic language

Q: I had to unsubscribe to your emailed posts after receiving one at work that discussed certain masturbatory terminology. I strongly suggest that you stop emailing such unprofessional content or notify people signing up for email delivery that some content may not be appropriate for the workplace. Should you choose to keep PG-13 rated material on your website and only email G-rated material, I’d happy return as a subscriber.

A: We’re sorry to see you go, but we object to your description of our “Jerk, jerky, and jerking off” post as unprofessional. We work hard on our posts, and our readers generally appreciate them, judging from the many kind responses and donations we receive.

We write a language blog, and some language is labeled vulgar, offensive, or impolite by standard dictionaries. Nevertheless, those dictionaries discuss such terms, and so do we when asked about them.

We don’t go out of our way to write about language that some readers might find offensive, but we don’t shy away from it either.

We imagine that many of our readers get the blog at work by email or RSS feed. You’re the only one who has raised concerns about receiving the occasional discussion of a graphic term at work—a term that’s probably in your office dictionary.

You suggest that we should warn people as they sign up for email delivery that some posts may be inappropriate for the workplace. We think our readers would be offended by such a warning and its implication that there’s something wrong with a scholarly discussion of a vulgar term.

In fact, not all standard dictionaries consider the phrasal verb “jerk off” vulgar. Here’s what the Collins English Dictionary has to say in a usage note on the subject:

“The term jerk off was formerly considered to be taboo, and it was labelled as such in older editions of Collins English Dictionary. However, it has now become acceptable in speech, although some older or more conservative people may object to its use.”

We don’t necessarily agree with Collins. We would indeed describe “jerk off” as vulgar, as we would a couple of the terms that the linguist John McWhorter cites in a July 1, 2013, article on Slate about the evolution of profanity:

Damnhellshit, and fuck are not what an anthropologist observing us would classify as ‘taboo.’ We all say them all the time. Those words are not profane in what our modern culture is—they are, rather, salty. That’s all. Anyone who objects would be surprised to go back 50 years and try to use those words as casually as we do now and ever be asked again to parties.”

The lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower says in that Slate article that words once considered taboo or offensive can over time become moderate oaths for various reasons.

“The entire category can change, so that, for example, words insulting one’s parentage, such as bastard or whoreson, are now relatively mild curses because we no longer place a particularly high value on such things.”

Sheidlower adds that the words “bastard” and “damn” were so offensive in the 18th century that “they would frequently be printed b–d or d—n.” But sensitivities change, he says. “Now, they are relatively mild oaths for most English speakers.”

In other words, language changes. And it’s the job of language writers to discuss its evolution.

Again, we’re sorry to see you go. If you don’t want to receive the blog by email at work, perhaps you can get it at home.

[Update: A few hours after this was posted, an I.T. person who reads the blog pointed out that it’s a “recipe for disaster” to get personal email at work, and that all email received at work is the property of the employer.]

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.