Four-letter word

Four-letter word is an idiom that came into use in the twentieth century. An idiom is a word, group of words or phrase, or phrasal verbs that have a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. These figures of speech or literary devices often use descriptive imagery; common idioms are words and phrases used in the English language in order to convey a concise idea, and are often colloquialisms or descriptors that are spoken or are considered informal or conversational. An idiom may be a euphemism, an understatement or exaggeration, or an expression of irony or hyperbole. English idioms can illustrate emotion more quickly than a phrase or expression that has a literal meaning, even when the etymology or origin of the idiomatic expression is lost. An idiom is a metaphorical figure of speech, and it is understood that it is not a use of literal language. Figures of speech have definitions and connotations that go beyond the literal meaning of the words. Mastery of the turn of phrase of an idiom or other parts of speech is essential for the English learner. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions that native speakers understand such as in a blue moon, spill the beans, let the cat out of the bag, chin up, eye to eye, barking up the wrong tree, bite the bullet, red herring, hit the nail on the head, kick the bucket, blow off steam, jump on the bandwagon, piece of cake, hit the sack, and raining cats and dogs, as they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. In addition to learning vocabulary and grammar, one must understand the phrasing of the figurative language of idiomatic phrases in order to know English like a native speaker. It is possible to memorize a list of idioms, but it may be easier to pay attention to the use of idioms in everyday speech, where peculiar imagery will tell you that the expressions should not be taken literally. We will examine the meaning of the idiomatic phrase four-letter word, where it came from, and some examples of its use in sentences.

The expression four-letter word is a euphemism for an offensive word not usually used in polite company that is a sexual term, a swear word, or a scatological term. Though most of the offensive words that are considered four-letter words do actually consist of four letters, not all terms that are considered four-letter words actually consist of four letters. Any person, thing or institution may be idiomatically branded a four-letter word if it has become a disgrace or an embarrassment. At one time, four-letter words were only exchanged among the closest of male friends and were considered “locker room talk.” Now, the use of four-letter words is more accepted in casual conversation, but they are still considered forbidden in conversations with superiors or casual acquaintances. Four-letter words should never be used in business correspondence. While many consider the use of four-letter words acceptable, others consider their use crass and offensive. The idiom four-letter word came into use in the 1920s, a time when many slang terms and idioms were coined. The plural of four-letter word is four-letter words, and the term should be spelled with the hyphen.


Same will be true with the Iowa caucus, which became a four-letter word last week. (The Charleston Gazette-Mail)

As the story goes, Brooks stormed into the locker room during the second intermission, paced back and forth, pointed his finger, and used a certain four-letter word to remind his players that if they lost that game, they would take it to their graves. (The Bemidji Pioneer)

He created unflattering nicknames for his opponents, frequently treated compromise as a four-letter word, and viewed politics as a war for power. (The Canton Repository)

Unless you’re a sailor, using four-letter words in the workplace is generally frowned upon. (The Tennessean)

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