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Discussing recently abbreviations such as WTF, TFA, and OMG as being more commonly used in American English writing (or messaging) as forms of expression. There seems to be some debate over if or when these abbreviations cease to convey their original meaning and become an expression in and of themselves — at least socially.

Specifically there seems to be one side assuming that the abbreviation of a profane phrase is still profane and the other side not profane. Certain abbreviations now so common I'm wondering if they truly aren't profane. I was curious if there is an official transition or definition when terms cease to be profane by abbreviation.

It appears to me that WTF and OMG no longer represent their original meanings rather have become forms of expressions themselves. In generally they are far more socially acceptable than the original phrase spoken aloud and as such shouldn't be treated as a profanity.

I was hoping of some academic or official linguistic explanation of the transition.

  • I really don't think you're going to find an actual answer as questions like "what is considered profane" are so ill defined that they don't really have an answer. It all comes back to that famous Potter Stewart quote "I shall not attempt to further define [hardcore pornography]... but I know it when I see it." That said, I wish you the best of luck in finding an answer. – acattle Aug 27 '12 at 3:05
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    i think abbreviating by acronym can be treated as a similar process to simple apocope in speech, as in Eng. Zounds! <- "God's Wounds", Mex. Sp. "Inguesu!" <- "¡chingue su madre!" in both cases the abbreviated form is/was less offensive than the full form. – jlovegren Aug 27 '12 at 12:32
  • Thanks everyone for the comments, it's very helpful to get started. @acattle I do agree profanity is hard to define as an evolving social construct. I'm still hoping there is some objective way to measure, at least within a defined society, the variance of profanity, politeness or social acceptance of a word or phrase. This is certainly getting more interesting to me. Thanks again. – matthewnreid Aug 28 '12 at 0:32
  • I wonder if Steven Pinker has included this type of thing in his studies of profanity etc? – hippietrail Aug 29 '12 at 19:19
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See sec. 3 of Crespo Fernandez (2005) (link broken, but see Pragmalingüística, 13, 2005, 77--86) and references therein for some basic comments about the place of euphemism in linguistic politeness. That author treats euphemism as a politeness strategy meant to satisfy the maxim of tact, one of Leech (1983)'s politeness principles. Hopefully that can get you started.

LEECH, G. (1983), Principles of Pragmatics. New York: Longman

  • Thank you this is definitely the right direction. I was able to find the cached copy on Google the link currently isn't responding. Anyway, thank you very much. – matthewnreid Aug 28 '12 at 0:34

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