Famous Harmless Words (That Sound Incredibly Offensive)

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Language is a funny thing and some words sound nothing like what they mean, especially as the language evolves and adopts words from other languages. What often then happens is that two words sound similar but are completely different and one of them might be an expletive or have a sexual connotation. This is a list of some of the most amusing words in the English language as well as a couple of non-English words that are amusing to English ears


1. Ass


The American word for a human posterior (arse in British and Australian English) is always bound to cause snickers amongst young children, especially when they hear in nativity plays that Mary and Joseph travelled on an ‘ass’ to Bethlehem. An ass is, of course, a donkey but the lack of distinction made in spelling between that and the mildest of mild expletive slang words for the part of the body we sit on means this sounds ruder than it is

2. Dyke


A few years ago, it was considered an offensive word to refer to a woman ‘ usually making assumptions about her sexual preference. In the gay community, some have even reclaimed it to refer to themselves. The original meaning though comes from a term shared by archaeologists and geologists. It means a long dip in a natural or artificial feature. Offa’s Dyke is one of the most famous earthworks in the UK separating Wales from England ‘ at the time of building it separated the early medieval kingdom of Mercia from Powys

3. Feck


Because there were and still are restrictions against using one of the strongest swear words on television, the creators of the comedy Father Ted in creating the crude and drunken Father Jack invented a more acceptable version of the ‘f’ word. The show was very popular and the alternate word became so prevalent in Ireland where the programme was set and elicited humour rather than disdain that it has become a mainstay of Irish comedy ‘ most notably at the moment in Mrs Brown’s Boys

4. Focker


Similarly to ‘feck’ above, this rude sounding word is a traditional German surname. It raised some eyebrows in the early part of the 21st century when the Ben Stiller film ‘Meet the Fockers’ was released. The studio considered asking the movie makers to change the title until a survey revealed that thousands of people all over the country had it as a surname. The similar Focke(-Wulf) was a manufacturer of fighters before and during WWII. The name only fell out of use after the war when a series of mergers shed the name

5. Niggardly


More common in England than in the USA, it is understandable that nobody wants to use a word that sounds so similar to something offensive to black people. However, this word has absolutely nothing to do with the colour of people’s skin ‘ it has nothing to do with race, creed or religion. It actually means stingy ‘ you’d use it against somebody like Ebenezer Scrooge. It’s fallen out of use largely because of the word it sounds like but also because there are words that roll of the tongue far easier ‘ tight, stingy, skinflint.

6. Fahrt


Moving away from English for a moment, we would be forgiven for thinking that this German word for journey (or travel) was pronounced similarly to the English word for forcibly expelling air from one’s anus; it certainly looks like that written on paper and many a British school kid has snickered at reading it in early German lessons. But it isn’t pronounced that way at all ‘ it is pronounced as an ‘air’ sound – so fahrt when spoken sounds like ‘fairt’. German uses the umlaut to dictate how certain words are pronounced

7. Kunst


German has a number of rude-sounding words and none more so than this one which is remarkably similar to an English slang word for a woman’s reproductive organs. In fact, it actually refers to art and an art gallery is ‘kunsthalle’. In German it doesn’t even raise an eyebrow even though many will be aware of the similarity to the English word. Even worse is the German surname Kuntz ‘ several prominent footballers have had the name creating mild embarrassment for English speaking commentators and raising guffaws of laughter from rowdy fans.

8. Cock-Up


A thoroughly British English term which contains a slang word for male genitals but doesn’t actually mean what many people assume it means. The term means to make a mistake ‘ even knowing that information it is reasonable to assume that it has a rude meaning. It originally came from the printing process, when a mechanism came loose and the letter or number appeared out of place, it was said to be ‘cocked’, meaning disjointed ‘ hence any error now is considered ‘a cock up’

9. Rimshot


The immediate imagery conjured up with the use of this word usually invokes sexual imagery, the sort of imagery associated with the end of a conjugal act. Yet it has nothing to do with sex and nothing to do with any bodily functions. It is actually a musical percussion sequence and it is most commonly known when it follows a joke ‘ a punchline from a certain method of stand-up comedy. It is also used as a method in music itself – considered a technique of blues or jazz

10. Dongle


A dongle ‘ as most tech savvy people know ‘ is a small device plugged into a non-internet ready machine in order that it can use the internet. It is in effect a mini-modem and software package used as a proxy when on the move. The word usually conjures up imagery of male sexual organs because it is similar to a number of other euphemisms from North America and Britain



One of the great beauties of language is how much it changes over time. What once might have been considered normal is now considered offensive and vice versa. With imperial European powers spreading out over the course of the 17th century and later on, a number of foreign language words were incorporated into their languages demonstrating that it, just like people, will evolve.

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One Response

  1. Sam

    May 4, 2014 8:54 am

    The reference to the word ‘Kunst’ – also to be found in a number of Germanic languages, like Dutch, Danish, Swedish and Norwegian, and simply meaning ‘Art’ – as being a ‘dirty sounding word’ is thoroughly ignorant… This applies to some of the other words mentioned here as well. – Or does the dirty mind of schoolboys and immature undergraduates have stay a priority when it comes to English?…


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