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I have seen in several movies that instead of "fuck" they use the words which are less vulgar, but I have repeatedly seen that they feel free to use "ass" or words like "jackass" or "asshole" or even the expression of "watch your ass", as what I have searched in dictionaries I consider the word "ass" as an offensive word, but as of what I have seen in the mostly American movies this isn't that bad to use, is it? If I use it where the conversion is friendly but polite, would it be considered as a rude manner or this is common?

This question came to my mind cause I remember once that I've been watching a show on CNN about one of Trump's quotes that contained "fuck" in his sentence, CNN censored the word, but they don't censor "ass" while Merriam Webster explains it as "impolite".

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    Related but not a duplicate: ell.stackexchange.com/q/39087/9161
    – ColleenV
    Apr 13, 2022 at 20:44
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    It's one of those cuss words that 'gets away with it' because there is a known, non-offensive use. Compare Bart's gleeful use of the colloquial (but acceptable) word for an illegitimate child in The Simpsons. Attach 'hole' (not whole) or 'wipe' as a suffix and you are in unambiguously vulgar territory, but on its own, the word can be used without offense. Technically, a jackass is also a (male) donkey, so in context that wouldn't be offensive either.
    – mcalex
    Apr 14, 2022 at 6:37
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    This depends on who you ask? There is no "official" list of vulgar words.
    – Tvde1
    Apr 14, 2022 at 8:48
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    @Tvde1 - sure there are many official lists of vulgar words. TV stations & movie censors have been using such lists for decades. This is a look at OFCOM, the UK regulatory authority's list - mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/read-what-ofcom-thinks-47-8987533 [There are more official versions of that list in producers' guides on TV channels. That's a newspaper's look at one.] Apr 14, 2022 at 9:44
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    @gonefishin'again. the fact that there are many lists shows it is entirely subjective and there is no one objective list passed down from the heavens
    – Tvde1
    Apr 14, 2022 at 10:40

5 Answers 5

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I caution you to avoid making judgements about the acceptability of words in general based on their occurrence in media. Perhaps more useful would be consider the times of day and to what audiences these words are used, and any content ratings on the shows they are used in.

  • Words used only in programming for adults only, shown only on for-pay channels in the middle of the night, will bring consequences if you use them in polite company.
  • Words used only after children's bedtime should be avoided in general.
  • Words being used in shows and movies for teens, but not in young children's shows, does NOT imply that they are 'not vulgar'. In some cases, they are used intentionally to draw a more restricted rating, that does not prevent them from being shown to teens.

Regarding 'ass' specifically, there are a few different senses of the word with varying levels of vulgarity.

  • A donkey. This usage is obsolete in America. You will only see it in the Bible, other literature from before about 1940, and in jokes and puns, because pretty much everyone knows about this meaning, even though it is obsolete in speech and modern writing. But this is the only non-vulgar use of the word in American English.
  • Someone who acts like a donkey, figuratively. A brash person who says inappropriate or vulgar things or who has bad manners or habits. An ass is someone whose very presence is off-putting. Using the word 'ass' to describe someone is considered vulgar in itself, but not severely so. Non-vulgar equivalents would be 'jerk', 'uncouth', etc. This is different from 'asshole', which usually is a mean and selfish person who does not mind causing offense or inconvenience to others. An asshole spreads conflict and misery wherever they go. Describing someone as such is also a vulgarity, at least in American English. Non-vulgar equivalents would be 'scumbag', 'slimeball', etc.
  • The buttocks. Using 'ass' to refer to the buttocks is always vulgar, but not severely so and not necessarily sexual.
  • Occasionally the sense of the buttocks will be used anthropomorphically, such as, "He drove into the ass end of my car." This would also be vulgar.
  • Note that in America 'arse' is not part of the lexicon at all, but everyone seems to assume here that it is a rude reference to the buttocks. So whether it actually means that or not, it's best to avoid this word with an American audience.
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    @user48 To my ears it's definitely vulgar, but it's not as crass or offensive as "fuck" ("get your ass over here" would be a softer version of "get the fuck over here", but perhaps harsher than "get over here". Although in certain contexts the use of vulgarity might actually be for rapport and thus soften it slightly). I don't understand the point about "arse" above - I don't know what else it would mean, and I've used it and heard it many times as an American. I think it's often used as a slightly-less-crass euphemism for "ass". I guess it's primarily British but still rather common. Apr 15, 2022 at 20:08
  • @DarrenRinger Thank you for the explanation, so generally it's better to be polite, safe better than sorry!!!
    – user141755
    Apr 15, 2022 at 20:37
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    ".. everyone seems to _ass_ume " --> ;-) Apr 16, 2022 at 14:25
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It's on the mild end of the vulgarity spectrum, but yes, generally considered somewhat vulgar. Just a few short years ago it would have been censored more often than it is today. In "friendly but polite" conversation I would avoid using it.

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    As Collen's link explains, ass in the US is equivalent to arse in the UK. However, when my mother read her children a passage from the Gospels to the effect that Mary went to Egypt riding on an ass, no-one in my upright Christian family ever saw reason to question it. However, when Jesus entered Jerusalem, for some reason it was on a donkey rather than an ass. Apr 13, 2022 at 22:43
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    Just to be clear, It's not considered vulgar when it refers to a literal donkey.
    – Darryl
    Apr 13, 2022 at 23:00
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    Trying to be even clearer: British/Commonwealth English uses ass for donkey, and also for a stupid person; it's not vulgar. And arse for the bottom, or more specifically the anus (also called arsehole) — and that is quite vulgar. The pronunciation is different, as well as the spelling. The latter has many derivatives (such as half-arsed, arsing around, can't be arsed), all of which are vulgar to some extent.
    – gidds
    Apr 14, 2022 at 9:12
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    @gidds as a Brit (late 20's, Standard Southern English speaker) I definitely associate arse primarily with the buttocks. The anus has to be the arsehole
    – Tristan
    Apr 14, 2022 at 10:13
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    @Tristan I was about to agree with you until I realised that 'you can stick that up your arse' (and variations) clearly align arse with anus. As ever, context. . .
    – peterG
    Apr 14, 2022 at 12:10
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To answer this from a UK perspective, "ass" is not a word for polite company, but is not considered too strong. This is not a complete reference, more a series of musings on the topic.

The British consider sexual swear words to be "the worst" type whilst still being broadcastable.
I suppose with some thought you could build a list of swearing 'types'.

Body parts & functions [not including overt sexual references]
Sexual references
Illness references, if they are not your own
Race or religion references, if they are not your own.

Of these four broad categories, ass belongs in the first, fuck in the second. In recent times, the third and fourth categories have gone rapidly out of fashion [& rightly so]. Until recent decades, they would have been above sexual references & could be considered milder terms. The map has changed a lot in recent times. You cannot call anyone 'mental' these days and expect to get away with it.
It's still acceptable, for instance, for a comedian to make an entire routine from the latter two categories… but they need to be very aware of their audience & they need to be mainly self-referential. It is very much OK for [for instance] a disabled african muslim to make jokes about all three. It is not OK to make jokes if you do not belong to any of those groups, other than in quite specific circumstances. There is a UK comedy show with three presenters, two of whom are disabled, one isn't. In that context all three presenters get to use the same references as jokes.

So long as they're vaguely Christian in origin/reference, religious swear words have long been acceptable to a British audience.

Sexual references: The UK has a 'watershed' at 9pm after which most of these terms can be used fairly freely these days; though not on the news. Everything has its place, of course.
There was a famous interview on a late night talk show with Samuel L. Jackson, who is quite well-known for using one particular phrase more than most. He said it within the first two minutes of the interview, prompting the host to shout "Oops!" then apologise & explain… "We can say most things at this time of night in the UK without any fear. We can say 'mother' and we can say 'fucker'… but we're not quite at the stage we can yet string them together as one word." Jackson was amused, if somewhat bemused. That particular peculiarity has since been removed. You can now say the whole thing, the flood gates are now fully open.

There was a time when haemophiliac references [whether that's what they were originally or not] were heavily frowned upon. Queen Victoria's husband, Albert, was a haemophiliac. This vanished long ago & by the 70's 'bloody' was being used in family entertainment comedies, so long as they were after the watershed.

There was one sexual swear word that strangely escaped censorship, "bugger". It was frequently used in British comedies in the 60s & later. I have no idea why that one escaped when the others didn't. You could say it at a time when you couldn't say 'arse' or 'shit'.

In TV and film, there has always been a kind of 'allowance' as to how much swearing could be broadcast in any particular show. I recall one comedy sketch about the use of swearing in a TV show. The characters being portrayed were a 'head of station' & a 'program maker'. After some introductory preamble, the discussion came down to which and how many swear words could be in the show. At one point the program maker made the bid, "I'll swap you three bloodys for a fuck."

There was a period in the 80s/90s when terms were going through a reshuffle much like the 'woke' movement of today. It was known as 'political correctness', abbreviated to PC. Though it tried to move in the right direction, it did get many things 'wrong' by trying hard to rename things that didn't make sense to rename. Any word with the subset of letters 'm, a, n' was in for some rough treatment, so we went through some iterations of chairman, chairwoman, chairperson before arriving at chair. Through these days it was jokingly said, "That's someone who calls a spade a manual earth moving implement". The 'bin man' became the 'refuse collector'.
Planets were renamed - or not actually renamed, but artificially …re-pronounced. [Emphasis syllables in italics]
Uranus [Your Anus], long the butt [& I use the term advisedly] of schoolboy jokes, became 'You ren uss'
This led to a rather famous skit on Spitting Image, where they had the puppet of the then current newscaster of the main national news show questioning this practise, then announcing a new moon which had been discovered orbiting Jupiter.
It was called 'Byoom Holl Ay' and of course, it was spelled… Bumhole.
YouTube link to the sketch

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    This was quite informative and funny, thanks. I think we can add another category to the most prevalent kinds of jokes as "political jokes". This is true that there's not a rule for swear words, cause on one hand you see the news censors "fuck" but you can repeatedly hear it in a cartoon like South Park. But no matter when these words are used in the daily life or watershed times, once they are said they become prevalent and some how their vulgarity would decrease. I think non native speakers use curse words easier than the native speakers, cause maybe they don't know how bad they are!
    – user141755
    Apr 14, 2022 at 14:37
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    There are religious references that have become acceptable through widespread use. "Oh my God!" used to be thought blasphemous, but since it's used about once every sentence in Friends, few people now bother to complain. Apr 14, 2022 at 15:18
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    @MichaelKay - you have to define your audience to use the term 'acceptable', that's why I chose film/TV, because it has set rules [or guidelines]. I have a group of friends whose conversation is quite intentionally the most un-PC/woke you could possibly imagine; but it never goes outside the group & it is not malicious, it is just amusingly 'awful'. [I honestly cannot give you examples;) We are a mix of races, creeds & abilities, so I guess we could claim the same 'get out of jail free' card as the show I mentioned in my answer. Apr 14, 2022 at 15:25
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    IME with social media and online forums, moderators don't care much about "shit" or "fuck" anymore, but "n-gg-r" or "f-gg-t" will automatically get you banned for at least a day.
    – dan04
    Apr 14, 2022 at 17:53
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    @Andy, I seem to remember the UK media having trouble when quoting Americans who referred to the people who planted bugs (listening devices) at Watergate as "buggers". Apr 15, 2022 at 16:24
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“Ass” is relatively mild. If I had to rank swear words, I'd put it somewhere between “hell” and “damn”. Probably OK in a conversation with friends, but you may want to substitute “bottom” or “rear end” when talking to young children or strongly non-swearing people.

“Asshole” is stronger, though, on about the same level as “shit”.

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    "asshole" as an insult definitely seems much weaker than shit to me, although as a Brit my standards may not align with US English. For me arsehole is equivalent to "jerk", "dick", or "prick". It's insulting and a little crude, but far from even being a mild swearword like "crap" which is itself less severe than "shit". As a body part I'd say it's less bad still
    – Tristan
    Apr 14, 2022 at 10:17
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    In your scale, is "hell" or "damn" worse? Apr 14, 2022 at 12:31
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    @ToivoSäwén It seems like the most vulgar way to refer to that particular body part to me. But maybe not the most vulgar word referring to body parts in general ("cunt" might be the leader there).
    – Barmar
    Apr 14, 2022 at 14:18
  • @Barmar not sure how your comment relates to mine? Apr 14, 2022 at 15:08
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    @Tristan As someone pointed out, there isn't some universal measure of vulgarity. That said, to me the word "a**hole" is just shy of the F word in its vulgarity. I would NEVER say it in front of my parents, for example. Ever. But crap? That's so mild I wouldn't even notice if a preacher used it during a sermon.
    – Darryl
    Apr 15, 2022 at 0:21
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In Australia, it is not particularly vulgar. The answer will vary depending on where you are asking about though. In the USA I imagine it is vulgar enough to be censored in some television broadcasts.

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    As an American, I can't think of any context it would be censored on television if the audience is for adults. It is said on network television frequently without incurring fines from the FCC (cable is unregulated as far as language). Interestingly though, asshole is likely to be censored, especially on network television. Often with the bleep only occurring on the "hole" part.
    – PC Luddite
    Apr 14, 2022 at 23:51

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