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I have just asked a question about the phrase 'give a damn'.

It has been edited, I would say bowdlerised, on grounds that the word 'damn' is marked as offensive in Merriam-Webster's online dictionary.

Really?

SUBSEQUENT EDIT

This is surprising and shocking. I thought this site took itself seriously. I am astonished by the sanctimonious objections to my question title. Do I need to affirm my support for wholesome family values (even though I was not actually swearing or exclaming)? And how is it that this question has been allowed to use the 'word' (whisper it!).

I would appreciate guidance about whether I may reinstate the missing letters from my question's title. How is it decided? Or do I just play cat and mouse with Tonepoet?

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    I'd be offended if someone said "damn you" to me, but I don't regard damn as "foul language". Certainly the title of the question did not use "needlessly foul language". I am astonished that the title was edited. – ab2 ReinstateMonicaNow Aug 9 '17 at 1:12
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    We exercise an abundance of caution in question titles. Anything goes in question bodies, answers, and comments, unless directed at a community member of course. – choster Aug 9 '17 at 1:33
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    @choster That is all. That is the answer. – NVZ Aug 9 '17 at 2:24
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    I don't find damn in the least offensive, but then again I'm not an evangelist reborn Christian. – Mari-Lou A Aug 9 '17 at 3:06
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    See e.g. english.meta.stackexchange.com/a/981/77227 There really isn't any definite way of determining whether a word is offensive or not. – herisson Aug 9 '17 at 3:41
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    I think this has to do with the pervasive puritan spirit of the site. – user66974 Aug 9 '17 at 6:13
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    @RaceYouAnytime you bet your goddamn ass there is :) – Mari-Lou A Aug 9 '17 at 7:13
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    It was said tongue-in-cheek but there's an element of truth there. It's a small "puritanical streak" which usually surfaces whenever questions hit the HNQ. Americans, in my personal experience, are more sensitive to "words" and the power they exude than many Europeans. Doesn't mean white Americans don't swear, but I think it was them who created the "X-word" phenomena, such as N-word, F-word, P-word (post Trump) etc. Oh, that would make a good question :) – Mari-Lou A Aug 9 '17 at 7:21
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    @Mari-LouA That would be a fantastic question. Quick, go ask it! And use one your famous clever titles! – Dan Bron Aug 9 '17 at 12:02
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    In response to the edit: Oh, for fcuk's sake just edit and write damn back in the title. – Mari-Lou A Aug 9 '17 at 13:46
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    Dan if you were a newcomer or a non-native speaker who didn't know or understand the word's meaning and connotations I would probably have done so myself. But you are neither one of theses things, it's your question and therefore your edit. If you feel nervous at the idea of doing this edit yourself then don't do it. It's up to you. – Mari-Lou A Aug 9 '17 at 15:00
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    Bear in mind you're talking to someone who once felt constrained to edit out the word "bitch" from a question title because of the number of downvotes she received, and RBF (resting bitch face) got a bit of slack too from a couple of users when I posted that question. "Bitch" is one of those words which make a number of users feel very uncomfortable. – Mari-Lou A Aug 9 '17 at 15:05
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    I just did my bit, but I am not going to engage in a rollback war. I think this hoo-ha about poor little old "damn" is insane. – ab2 ReinstateMonicaNow Aug 9 '17 at 15:10
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    @Dan - you asked a good question and got a very good answer (thats what we are here for). Just turn this page, I'd not ask on SE Meta (just a waste of time) and let users think whatever they like about how disturbing a term actually is (there is little one can do about that). Hope to see more questions from you. – user66974 Aug 9 '17 at 18:37
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    You should ask this question on the main page, keep it strictly as a language question though, and ask if there is a difference between American and British English. Be careful to avoid the POB trap, ask for evidence and recent examples of censorship. I think it could be a really good question. Everyone has an opinion on this issue so users will enjoy reading answers based on objective data (if there is any). – Mari-Lou A Aug 10 '17 at 8:46
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I understand why keeping the site from being offensive is important policy and good practice. However, I don't believe censoring the word "damn" accomplishes anything besides muddling titles and making the site look unprofessional.

There are currently 10 undeleted questions with the word "damn" in the title, assuming I've conducted my search correctly. The ones which are also not closed are listed here:

In my view, editing all these question titles to use "d--n" instead of "damn" would make the site look unserious. Major print publications don't use the word damn unless it's relevant to the context of the piece, but when it is, they do use it. The New York Times, to my knowledge, has never printed a headline with "damn" used for emphasis or color, but it also doesn't censor the word in its headlines.

And for those on the other side of the pond, The Guardian follows a similar practice:

I believe EL&U can stand on the same footing as major newspaper publications. We don't use "damn" in a title to add color or emphasis, but when we are examining the language around the word damn, we treat it with mature detachment.

This doesn't mean that The New York Times or other publications have no standards when it comes to offensive terms. They allow use of the word "fuck" only in highly contentious quotations and interview transcripts, where the word is relevant to the information the outlets are trying to express.

No one will ever agree completely on whether "damn" is offensive, let alone many of the other potentially suspect words that appear on EL&U for academic reasons. But I would assert that if "damn" is acceptable in a major print headline, then it should be acceptable on EL&U when used in the appropriate context of a discussion on language.

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This edit does not seem to have been mandated by site policy. The most formal "policy statement" that I've found cited is a Meta answer by Jeff Atwood, which reads in pertinent part

[W]e do ask that you mildly censor question titles because those can show up on the Stack Exchange homepage and other places where seeing an extremely vile curse word is definitely not welcome.

(Bolding in original, italics added.)

He has also stated in a couple of comments on an answer to another Meta question that

[T]he title has to be "radio-friendly". . . . Like a en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radio_edit#Editing_for_content except only in the title

It doesn't seem to me that "damn" is extremely vile as curse words go, and it isn't mentioned in the linked Wikipedia article.

Going by the "radio friendly" standard, damn on its own seems to be pretty universally allowed. There's an interesting National Public Radio (NPR) discussion of damn in conjunction with God, which points out that the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has ruled that even the longer version is not legally profane. The full phrase is more problematic, though, and the NPR folks polled some of their media compatriots to see how they deal with it; NBC apparently most often chooses to bleep out God but leave damn on the air.

Based on this evidence, I would not have thought damn needs to be censored in titles, and would favor rolling back to the original title.

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The original title is fine.

Why do I think so? First principles: the SE network exists to gather expert answers to good questions and make them available worldwide to people who need them. SE management does not, as far as I know, have any religious, philosophical, or “squick” issues with profanity. They just want to avoid practical problems that interfere with their purpose. And profanity has the potential to create problems:

  • Profanity is offensive to many people, and can drive people away who would otherwise create content. Solution: SE has said that when there is a way to post without using profanity, that’s what one should always do. For more information, see the Be Nice policy.

  • SE management tells us that profanity in titles is caught by content filters that block content (and even entire sites) from being distributed to people who need them. Solution: when it is necessary to post using profanity, as for example when analyzing profanity as an element of language, avoid profanity in titles. Necessary profanity in the body text is not a problem.

With that in mind, I observe in this case that there is no evidence of offense (no flags complaining about the post) and no evidence that it is triggering content filters (no feedback from SE management that we need to start taking “damn” out of question titles). Conclusion: the original title is fine.

It is a provisional judgment, obviously. If we start seeing complaints, then there is a practical problem and the decision could change.

Note that this all probably applies also to indecency, but I doubt it applies to obscenity, as defined by the US FCC. Obscenity is essentially nothing other than hardcore pornography, and probably has no place on the SE network for any reason whatsoever.

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    As I'm still the "new guy" on the moderator team, I've copied this to other EL&U moderators for review. I do not mean this to be misunderstood to be "official moderation policy", whatever that might be. – MetaEd Aug 9 '17 at 19:14
  • Just for practical consideration, I'd like to state one last thing before I retire from the discussion: I doubt we shall start seeing direct complaints, because the classes most affected by this decision would probably lack the ability to flag, since they might either already be blocked from the website, or don't have the account and 15 reputation points necessary to flag a post here. Only participating members, or maybe people who get the association bonus (if they are willing to register for an account) would have the option. Also, I wonder what words lists are used for blocking websites. – Tonepoet Aug 9 '17 at 21:09
  • @MetaEd Please. Don't censor the title. The use of damn is used here for logical discussion, not for calling out peers. – Black and White Aug 12 '17 at 17:29
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    That's, uh, exactly what I said. – MetaEd Aug 12 '17 at 17:31
  • @MetaEd Good! Then my comment was useless. :) – Black and White Aug 12 '17 at 17:31
3

Regarding Website Policy

Well, Merriam-Webster wasn't quite the reason I did it, so much as an ex-post-facto reference. I reacted upon seeing the word because I know it is policy to avoid them, and it is a somewhat urgent matter that is most especially applicable to new questions.

In response to the question Do we really need to add "NSFW" in question titles? Jeff Atwood wrote:

No, but we do ask that you mildly censor question titles because those can show up on the Stack Exchange homepage and other places where seeing an extremely vile curse word is definitely not welcome. In the body, and the tags, you may do as you see fit. (for prior art on this, see the "breasts" question, etc)

MetaEd also referenced this policy somewhat later on in Censorship of offensive questions a few years prior to his election:

In reality, the decision to censor titles is not open to debate. It is site policy, established by the business which owns the site. See the third question, "Should EL&U be removed from the multicollider, etc.?", where the site policy is clearly articulated by Jeff Atwood, StackExchange CTO. (And that is perfectly appropriate. It's their site and they can establish whatever policy they think is wise.)


One of these other places is twitter. Did you know your post was automatically featured on twitter ten minutes after I made the edit? Your post is going to reach widespread audiences and different people are going to have different opinions on the subject, and it is probably better safe than sorry in that regard.

Regarding the "'breasts' question" Jeff probably means this one, which suggests at one point the community even questioned the use/mention rule. If even a question containing the word tits was once considered questionable enough to be deleted for being offensive, then it stands to reason that damn is also off the menu.

Regarding how I edited the title, and only the title as per the guideline, I followed a practice I observed before of editing out the middle two letters and using filler to fill in the blank. It is relatively difficult to actually find examples because the symbols used, which are usually asterisks do not appear in search results. However, you can see one such example here: Etymology of "sh**hole"

Also, please note that not too long ago we were discussing Jesus H. Christ: so objectionable as to be deletable? with the following quotation from user Peter Shor:

The H. was inserted to avoid committing blasphemy by saying Jesus Christ. It's the same phenomenon as replacing damn with darn. So Jesus H. Christ here is presumably not the son of God but just somebody else with a very similar name.

Peter seems to suggest that he was trying to censor himself, and by using analogy with darn he is suggesting that damn is also worthy of censure. Granted, this was a use/mention violation, rather than a title question, but this represents prior indication that the word is considered offensive to the community.

Regarding General Offensiveness

I am having a relatively difficult time finding what I consider to be good reference to what are euphemistically referred to as four letter words. Damn is certainly among the list. The proposition lacks much contemporary dictionary support for my claim, but they do not even mark fuck as offensive. However it is worth note that there are many euphemisms for the term, including most famously dang and darn.

Here is what Wikipedia has to say on the subject of Four Letter Words:

The phrase four-letter word refers to a set of English-language words written with four letters which are considered profane, including common popular or slang terms for excretory functions, sexual activity and genitalia, terms relating to Hell or damnation when used outside of religious contexts or slurs. The "four-letter" claim refers to the fact that a large number of (but not all) English "swear words" are incidentally four-character monosyllables. This description came into use during the first half of the twentieth century.
Common four-letter words (in this sense) that are widely considered vulgar or offensive to a notable degree include: cunt, fuck (and regional variants such as feck, fick and foak), jism (or gism), jizz, shit, twat and tits. Piss (formerly an offensive swear word) in particular, however, may be used in non-excretory contexts (pissed off, i.e. "angry", in US English and British UK English ; pissed, i.e. "drunk" in UK English) that are often not considered particularly offensive, and the word also occurs several times with its excretory meaning in the King James Bible. Several of these have been declared legally indecent under the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) TV and radio open-airwave broadcasting regulations.

The term Four Letter Word is also defined in the Urban Dictionary.

Phrase that refers to any number of "bad" words, often seen in forum posts. Can mean shit, fuck, damn, and even other non-four-lettered-words such as ass and bitch. Can also refer to the basic four letter words with suffixes (ie "ed" "ing"). Usually said by some religious freak or ten year old that will get in trouble if their parents see it.
Poster 1

Damn man, that shit is fucking awesome! That bitch totally deserved it!

Poster 2
I could've understood what you were saying without all the four letter words…


One instance of the phrase I am particularly familiar with can be found on rules of the Caves of Narshe forums, where four letter words are forbidden under section 2 B of its rules. While their rules are not our own, I feel as if mentioning this provision can help to gauge the acceptability of such words on the web.

There is also a book entitled Damn!: A Cultural History of Swearing in Modern America By Rob Chirico © 2014 which capitalizes on the word's iconic status as one of the bad word for recognition:

Swearing, cussing, or cursing, out of anger, excitement, or just because, is something most of us do, at least to some degree. Turn on the television or open a magazine, and there it is. Damn! is an insightful and entertaining look at our evolving use of profanity over the last half-century or so, from a time when Gone with the Wind came under fire for using the word "damn" to an age where the f-bomb is dropped in all walks of life. Writer and artist Rob Chirico follows the course of swearing through literature, the media, and music, as well as through our daily lives. From back rooms and barracks to bookshelves and Broadway; and from precedents to presidents, the journey includes such diverse notables as George Carlin, the Simpsons, D. H. Lawrence, Ice T, Barack Obama, Nietzsche, and, of course, Lenny Bruce. If you have ever stopped and wondered WTF has happened to our American tongue, don't get out the bar of soap until you finish Damn!


This book also quotes Gone with the Wind's infamous line "Frankly my dear, I just don't give a damn!" which was quite a powerful line.

To be fair though, the word is not one of the words banned by the F.C.C., it only warrants a PG-13 rating in a film and the associated press accepts it, however they seem to advise only using it in direct quotations, and their blog article Too Vulgar to Print by Tom Kent from April 9 2014 notes that although the A.P. advises on spellings for the word now, even just a couple of decades ago that the word would have been considered unprintable. So what seems to have happened is that people became desensitized to it. However it is really quite borderline.

However, to be honest, my prior citation of Merriam-Webster was just an ex-post-facto reference. I acted upon my naturally accquired understanding of the word first.

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    This is a language site, and we get to talk about profanities, expletives and words that are taboo. But out of respect to visitors who might casually come across these inflammatory terms, it is good practice to "censor" them in titles precisely because they are highly controversial and contentious. Damn doesn't belong to that category. At best it is an innocuous outdated interjection, at worst, a mild offense. – Mari-Lou A Aug 9 '17 at 6:34
  • @Mari-LouA Of course I realize that we may mention them as necessary within the scope of the website, and personally, I would not want it any other way. However, what we may include in titles is only vaguely specified and probably not even really a matter that's up to our discretion, since it involves more than just English Language & Usage. Perhaps we should ask for clarification on the matter at Meta S.E. since it involves the hot network questions on the whole network's homepage, among other places, and the people we really wish not to offend at corporate are more likely to respond there. – Tonepoet Aug 9 '17 at 6:57
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    No, I wouldn't ask over at SE Meta if I were you. 60%-80% of users are from StackOverflow, so profanities are totally irrelevant in SO questions in any way, shape or form. In fact, expletives are egregious in nearly all the SE sites excluding language ones (perhaps taboo words are on topic at SE Interpersonal Skills, it's plausible). I don't think clarification is needed, just use good old-fashioned common sense. – Mari-Lou A Aug 9 '17 at 7:06

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