This trope is a common kind of euphemism, where a word that shouldn't or can't be used will be referred to as "the <letter>-word" instead. Or, alternately, the offending word will have key letters masked by dashes, asterisks, or other punctuation (such as "f--k" or "d@mn").
Usually occurs in Real Life as a specific form of Gosh Dang It to Heck and Bowdlerise, especially in performances for all-ages audiences. Might also appear for comedic value, such as using a euphemism for an innocuous word, or leaving it completely ambiguous what the substituted word actually is.
Inspiration for The L Word (in spirit, anyway). Also see Not Using the Z Word and N-Word Privileges, as well as the frequently related Country Matters. Sound Effect Bleep and This Trope Is Bleep are the audio equivalents.
- In the summer and fall of 2014, Eisneramper (a New York City-area accounting firm) was running both print and radio ads which began "Is your company afraid of the 'D' word?" (Which was "debt", and not "dinosaurs" as some would have prefered.)
- Burma-Shave roadside verses occasionally claimed to "take the H out of shave" – making it 'save'.
Anime & Manga
- The minions of Lord Pilaf of Dragon Ball are this way about the "K-word" (the K-word, of course, being "kiss").
- The issue of Quantum and Woody titled "Noogie" begins with the characters introducing the issue by saying that they've been forbidden to use the "N-Word", and will use the word "Noogie" instead. The idea is later subverted when a poor black character repeatedly calls Quantum "noogie". Quantum, whose full-body costume covers his identity, demands to know how the man knows he's black, only to be told "You're black? S-Word!"
- In an issue of Viz, Student Grant is being Politically Correct and is talking about saying the N-word. Of course, he doesn't say the word itself; he says the phrase 'the N-word'. However, one friend tells another that Grant "said 'the N-word'." Hilarity Ensues.
- Played for laughs in A Very Brady Sequel, when the villain confronts Mr. Brady with a threat to "kick your Brady butt!" The family gasps, and little Cindy exclaims "Daddy, he said the B-Word!"
- Beetlejuice, when the title character is about to marry Lydia:
Ghost Minister: Do you, Betelgeuse...
Beetlejuice: Uh-uh! Nobody says the B-word.
- There is, however, a practical reason: B can be summoned or banished by saying his name three times.
- Played with in a scene in Rush Hour 3. Carter and Lee are interrogating a man who speaks only French, so they enlist a nun, who's fluent in French, to translate. So, naturally, when she translates the prisoner's taunts, she summarizes with "Well, he used the N-word". For the rest of the scene, Carter and Lee ask her to translate things like "Tell this piece of S-word that I will personally F-word him up", complete with brief stops to determine the spelling of some of the words.
- A right-wing American senator in In the Loop repeatedly uses minced oaths rather than swear words. Whem Malcolm Tucker dresses him down, Tucker says, "You are a real boring fuck. Sorry, sorry, I know that you disapprove of the swearing, so I'll sort that out: You are a boring f-star-star-cunt."
- The trope is comically subverted in UK cop film Hot Fuzz. The police station's swear box has a list of prohibited swear words, each of which is bowdlerized—except the most offensive one.
- A Christmas Story: "It was the word! The big one! The queen mother of dirty words! The "F dash dash dash" word!
- The Parent Trap (Lindsay Lohan remake) makes use of this trope when Hallie-As-Annie talks to her mother.
Hallie: Doesn't designing all of these wedding gowns ever make you think about the f-word?
Elizabeth James: The f-word?!
Hallie: My father.
Elizabeth James: Oh, that f-word...
- Subverted in the South Park movie when Cartman calls Kyle a "fucking Jew" in class.
Mr. Garrison: Cartman, did you just say the F-word?!
- The 1958 film of Auntie Mame used this. The title character has given her nephew a pad of paper on which he can write down any words he hears and doesn't understand. When he mentions his father's opinion of her (basically that she's not fit to raise a dog, much less a child), she takes the pad from him and begins to write:
Patrick: What's that?
Auntie Mame: That's a "B", dear. The first letter in a seven-letter word that means your late father.
Roxie: Your BF's about to get F'd in the B!
Other Scott: Is this an Envy related dream?
Wallace: We don't use the E-word in this house.
- This often happened in Victorian fiction, to indicate that the characters are swearing without actually printing the offending word. Often the word is damn, rendered as d--.
- Which gets a little confusing when they also use hyphens to mask the names of people. Mister F--- and Miss S--- are fairly hilarious.
- "D---n the United States! I wish I may never hear of the United States again!"
- In Isaac Asimov's Forward the Foundation, the word "whore" is written "wh___".
- In Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, where everyone is conceived and born artificially, the word "mother" is considered an obscenity. Thus, when Bernard Marx is writing his report to the World Controller about the Savage, he writes the word as "m----".
- Terry Pratchett regularly uses this trope in his Discworld novels:
- Reformed vampires rigidly refuse to say "the B-vord" for fear of losing their resolve.
- In Going Postal, after Moist von Lipwig goes on a screaming tirade about Reacher Gilt's smug, weasely speech in the Ankh-Morpork Times, the ultra-prim Miss Maccalariat admonishes him to avoid using the K-word, the L-word, the T-word, the V-word, the Y-word, and both of the S-words in the future. "Murdering conniving bastard of a weasel" was acceptable, however, since he was talking about Reacher Gilt.
- One must not say the M-word ("monkey") when the Librarian is around, since it's his Berserk Button.
- He is an ape, after all.
- Then there's the other N-word, danced around by recurring character Quoth the Raven.
- In The Truth, Mr. Tulip habitually injects "--ing" throughout his dialog ("They never told us about no --ing dog."). It's eventually explained that, rather than being censored text, Mr Tulip actually has a 'speech impediment' that prevents him from pronouncing any part of the word except 'ing'. Lampshaded when other characters speculate on what "ing" means.
Sacharissa: "'Ing'. I feel so much better for saying that, you know? 'Ing'. 'Inginginginging'. I wonder what it means?"
- The best one, though, is one character's response to Tulip's comment when someone mis-identifies an antique instrument (It Makes Sense in Context). It also makes perfectly clear exactly what the word means.
Tulip: It's not a --ing harpsichord, it's a --ing virginal! One --ing string to a note instead of two! So called because it was an instrument for --ing young ladies!
Shadowy figure: My word, was it? I thought it was just a sort of early piano!
- Terry Prachett has noted that people have complained about the use of—ing in reading the book to school children. Pratchett reportedly could not understand their ire, as, he said, "It is essentially a self-censoring swearword" and as such better than children really swearing.
- Note that having characters pronounce the dashes and asterisks is a Running Gag in the Discworld novels as well:
"D* mn!" said Carrot, a difficult linguistic feat.
- At least as far back as Mort:
The leading thief glared at the solid stone that had swallowed Mort, and then threw down his knife. 'Well, ---- me,' he said. 'A ----ing wizard. I HATE ----ing wizards!' 'You shouldn't ---- them, then,' muttered one of his henchmen, effortlessly pronouncing a row of dashes.
- "7a", a Discworld euphemism for the number between 7 and 9, which is considered unlucky (as in, tends to attract eldritch nightmares) by magic users. Though Terry Pratchett often noted this point in his early novels, he tended to ignore it in later works...which led to a lot of surprise when Going Postal had Chapter 7a...
- Subverted in Reaper Man, where the Dean is forbidden by the Archchancellor from uttering "the Y-word" again, because Ridcully's gotten fed up with his colleague shouting "Yo!" every few seconds.
- In one rather bizarre novel called The Impossible Bird, characters who Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence can't say "death" unless they've killed someone on that plane. Other people are therefore very off-put if you say "the D-word."
- In Who Has Seen The Wind, while most characters just swear openly, one guy uses 'GD' in place of 'goddamn'.
- Harry Potter: "Effing" is a variation, fitting since the books are set in Britain ("Effing" or "f-ing" is a common euphemism for "fucking" in British slang).
- Similarly, from Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency:
Dirk: "Let's think the unthinkable, let's do the undoable, let's prepare to grapple with the ineffable itself, and see if we may not eff it after all."
- The Richard Matheson short story F---, set in a future where sustenance is no longer taken orally and as a result, the word food is considered obscene. The clever titling backfired on Matheson when the magazine that featured the story made him use a different title altogether because the unnecessarily bleeped one looked too obscene.
- Rather tediously lampshaded in Philip Jose Farmer's Sherlock Holmes/Tarzan crossover, The Adventure of the Peerless Peer, in which Holmes's grotesquely Out of Character line, "Watson, isn't that a** **** shooting a machine gun?" merits an editorial footnote questioning whether the word has one asterisk too few, or whether Holmes might have used the American formation since the a** **** under discussion was himself an American.
- The refrain of Rudyard Kipling's poem "The Sergeant's Weddin'" has the last word replaced with "etc." The context and rhyme make it plain the word is "whore," as the troops are delighted that their corrupt sergeant has been tricked into marrying a woman who'll make his life hell.
- In Richard Wright's Black Boy, characters threaten to hit each other with a "f-k-g bar."
- Booth Tarkington's Penrod uses these to hilarious extremes in his novel HARoLD RAMOREZ THE RoAD-AGENT oR WiLD LiFE AMONG THE ROCKY MTS.
Live Action TV
- An episode of Arrested Development plays with this. GOB Bluth buys a yacht called The Seaward, and his brother Michael is annoyed. Then their mother shows up at the tail end of the conversation and mishears "The Seaward" as "the c-word":
Michael (to GOB): I want you to get rid of The Seaward.
Lucille: I'll leave when I'm good and ready!
- The horrible, horrible Anvilicious episode of Big Brother 's Big Mouth following the ejection of a housemate for using the N Word.
- In The Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert once interviewed Jabari Asim, the author of a book about the N-Word. During the interview, Colbert had some fun with this trope:
- Colbert: First question: did you want to name the book the N-word, and they said "No, you gotta call it 'The N-Word'", or did you say "I want to name this book the N-word", and they assumed you meant, you know, 'The N-Word', while in fact you meant the N-word?
- Asim: I think I suggested calling it the N-word, and they though it's a good idea to play it safe and call it 'The N-Word'.
- Gordon Ramsey's The F Word. It's not rude, it's "Food".
- There was an early Malcolm in the Middle episode where the family meets the other families of Malcolm's krelboyne class. One mother acts hostile to Lois because Malcolm taught her son "The R word." Lois' only reaction is confusion over which word is meant.
- In MASH the guys say that "the cook made 'food' a 4-letter word".
- Played for laughs in Wings when Lowell is telling the guys about his fears that his wife is cheating on him.
Lowell: I actually called her the U word.
Brian: You called her unfaithful?
Lowell: No, I called her unsatiable!
Brian: That's "insatiable". You called her the I word.
Lowell: No, the I word is "indiscreet".
- In one episode of Father Ted, Mrs Doyle has been reading the works of a lady novelist staying at the parochial house and is shocked by the language. She refers to "the F-word", but this being Father Ted has to clarify "The bad F-word. Not feck. Worse than feck."
- Subverted in That '70s Show.
Eric: Mom said the "ass" word.
- Played with in Thirty Rock, when the maintenance guys are dealing with a gas leak.
Maintenance guy: I'm too old for this 'shhhhhh' sound the gas is making.
- In the British TV series Ultraviolet, it looks like a vampire and drinks blood like a vampire, but the word vampire is never used. Instead, they're referred to as "Code fives" (as in V, the Roman numeral for five).
- From the Community episode "Home Economics", Vaughn's song about "getting rid of Britta, I'm getting rid of the B..." (She's a G-D-B!). Has Alliteration since her name starts with a B.
- In an episode of The Charmings, Snow White is upset that her husband used "the F-word" in front of the kids... but since the Charmings come from a Sugar Bowl, the F-word in this case is "fiddlesticks".
- One episode of Outnumbered features a conversation which goes something like this:
Alexa: "She said the F word, the B word, and the K word."
Sue (to Pete): "What's the K word?"
Pete: "I think it's a misspelling."
- In Roseanne, Becky is sent home crying by her Jerkass boss, and her father and boyfriend find out that he called her a particularly nasty word. Her brother DJ pesters them over it, asking if it was "the b-word," "the f-word," or "the l-word." (He then admits he doesn't even know what "the f-word" is after being asked what "the l-word" is). And it's heavily implied Becky was called "the c-word."
- In the spoof newspaper article accompanying Jethro Tull's Thick as a Brick album, the supposed lyricist, 8-year-old Gerald Bostock, is said to have shocked everybody by using the word "g--r" during a BBC interview. The lyrics reveal the word to be "gutter".
- Say Anything's cover of Ol' Dirty Bastard's "Got Ya Money" uses "N-word!" as a Sound Effect Bleep for censoring... well... the N-word. It's hilarious.
- Nas's 2008 album was originally supposed to be called "Nigger", but after that sparked a huge media outcry (with the NAACP amongst the detractors), Nas changed the title to the far less memorable "Untitled".
- Stephen Lynch's "I Wanna F Your Sister" uses a whole slew of letter replacements, starting with "I just wanna F the S out of your sister," and continuing on to "I want to F her in the A, and just C all over her chin, I'd stick my fist in her V, and move it around, then move it to her A-hole," all while her brother begs him to "stop using letters!"
- The cleverly titled Carcass song "R**k the vote".
- Billy Connolly's spoof version of Tammy Wynette's song D-I-V-O-R-C-E included the line "She sank her teeth in my B-U-M, and called me an F-ing C." Despite this, the BBC still insisted that the last two words be bleeped out before they would play the record on radio.
- Kevin Fowler's I Feel Like Pound Sign. The whole song is about how he's upset, but he's sensoring himself in case any "little ears" are around.
- Bowling for Soup has a breakup song, entitled "A Friendly Goodbye," where the chorus is a string of these because the narrator's soon-to-be-ex hates cursing:
Ain't that a B with an itch/Ain't that a mother trucker/You can go to H-E-double hockey sticks/And F yourself...
- The Far Side has a joke about "the D-word" in a MENSA convention. It's "duh".
- In one arc in Bloom County, the Bloom Picayune decides to do a frank, honest article about AIDS. The first draft, submitted by the obviously-nervous editor, is full of T-words.
Writer: Am I waffling?
Milo Bloom: You're waffling.
- In another, the characters have been informed that they must refrain from using the "14-letter 'S' word." It turns out to be "Snugglebunnies."
- 9 Chickweed Lane: In a recent strip, one character claims to have "beat the s--- out of Colonel Horrocks." The rest of the word starting with S is obscured because a chair blocks that part of the speech bubble.
- Played with in Doonesbury, when Lacey Davenport's political opponent challenged her to mutual drug tests -- "Any time! Any place! I will fill any bottle!" Upon hearing this, Lacey's husband commented dryly, "It would appear the contest has turned into a p---ing match," whereupon Davenport replied, "A what? You know I can't understand you when you use hyphens, dear."
- In a Doonesbury story arc about Frank Sinatra's skills with profanity, the text is censored thusly: "Get me your (obscene gerund) boss, you little (anatomically explicit epithet)!"
- Which is horribly offsensive because, as everyone knows, there's a huge difference between a gerund and a present participle, whether they look alike or not!
- In a Doonesbury story arc about Frank Sinatra's skills with profanity, the text is censored thusly: "Get me your (obscene gerund) boss, you little (anatomically explicit epithet)!"
- A One Big Happy strip has Ruthie tattle on Joe about name-calling, except that the letters used as euphemisms aren't the usual suspects so the parents aren't sure what the uncensored words are supposed to be. Joe still gets sent to his room.
- An inversion by Jeremy Hardy during his first appearance on I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue in 1996. Hardy fumbles a line, swears and then apologises 'for using the fuck-w'. (This has been left in the CD of the live recording, but obviously was edited out of the broadcast.)
- From HMS Pinafore:
I never say a big, big D!
- What, never?
- No, never!
- What, never?!
- Well - hardly ever!
- He hardly ever says big D!.... okay I'll stop now.
- Zombie Prom: "She said the C word! The really bad one! Rhymes with 'map'!"
- In Pygmalion, housekeeper Mrs Pearce reprimands Professor Higgins for setting a bad example to Eliza:
Mrs Pearce : but there is a certain word I must ask you not to use. The girl has just used it herself because the bath was too hot. It begins with the same letter as bath. She knows no better: she learnt it at her mother's knee. But she must not hear it from your lips.
- In the 2006 London Royal Variety Performance Avenue Q portion, Mrs. Thistletwat comes on after It Sucks to be Me is played and yells this:
Keep the noise down there! You are being TOO LOUD and TOO RUDE! The S-word and the F-word? You are in front of royalty and we are not amused!
- Sam and Max -- The Penal Zone:
Sam: Spider-webs and spooky houses go together like well-dressed dogs and naked bunnies.
Max: How many times have I told you not to use the "b-word", Sam?
- In The World Ends With You, a musician called the Prince has a super popular blog called "F Everything" which gets referenced several times. No, it doesn't mean what you think it does, because the Prince is high on life. It stands for Fabulous. Which is weird, because you find this out an in-game week after it is implied that "F Everything" means exactly what you think it means.
- In Time Crisis 4 (arcade), there is a sequence where you continually (more or less) shoot at a boss while he is wrestling with an ally. As usual, you are being debriefed on the situation by another ally who is speaking to you via intercom. (This is basically narration of the game script, which is also displayed at the bottom of the screen.) For whatever reason, she decides to name the wrestling moves used by the boss. After a few ordinary examples, the script comes up "F---!" at the bottom of the screen - and she actually yells out, "Eff!"
- In The Demented Cartoon Movie, a certain phrase that causes Stuff Blowing Up whenever it is said is referred to as "the Zeeky words."
- One of Uncyclopedia's category templates links to a whole alphabet of these.
- Subverted in Treasure Chest a Filmcow short. "You really F-ed up this time... and F stands for Fuck!"
- That Wacky Redhead never refers to "the V-word" explicitly, as part of an in-joke about how that topic tends to dominate American-penned Alternate History timelines set in this period.
- The Futurama episode "War is the H-Word":
If you say the A-word, you'll blow this whole planet straight to the H-word!
- From the first episode of The Venture Brothers:
Hank:: "Ah, double dammit!"
Dean': "Hank! You said the double-D word!"
- In The Simpsons episode "Bart Star" (after Homer announces that Bart will be the new quarterback, replacing the far more talented Nelson):
Bart: Give me a "B"?
Nelson: I won't give you a "B", but I'll tear ya a new "A"!
Randy: Yeah, whatever you c***.
Sharon: * GASP* You said the c-word!!
- The episode "You Got F'd in the A" has the trope right in the title. It's used in the dialogue as well.
- Family Guy
Brian: (refering to a mole on Stewie) I think it could be...the c-word.
Stewie: What does that have to do with anything?
Brian: No, I mean cancer.
Stewie: Oh, oh! Cancer, oh no!
- Far too many examples to count.
- Older Than Feudalism: Authors not wishing to take God's name in vain (from the idea of the Ineffable Name) would omit some letters, but for the opposite reason from most of the other examples here.
- A common household censorship rule imposed by parents who forbid their children from using offensive language, when extended to non-swearword insults however this inevitably leads to confusion over the severity of the word used when tattlers euphemize it. This confusion quickly deconstructs the T-Word Euphemism and leads to Values Dissonance if parents continue to attempt to use the euphemisms and censor the children's language.
- In politics during the late 1980s, tax was often referred to as the T-word.
- In economics, The Economist's informal, quarterly R-word index tracks the number of newspaper articles that use the word "recession". While not foolproof as a predictive tool, its creators insist that it boasts a decent record.
- In certain academic contexts, the T-word was Thesis.
- The word "effing" in the term "effing and jeffing" (British slang for a Cluster F-Bomb) is derived from this.
- Subverted occasionally by using the phrase "The fuck word" as in "his mom is mad at him for using the fuck word in front of guests."