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As four-letter words become an ever more popular form of communication, it's hardly surprising that athletes might use them, or that one might slip out in a TV interview. NBC's Matt Yocum had just asked Dale Earnhardt Jr. how it felt to win a race at the Talladega Superspeedway for the fifth time, and he replied modestly that his famous dad, Dale Earnhardt Sr, had won there ten times. "It don't mean s---," he said.

The sky fell in. Earnhardt was fined $10,000 and docked points, knocking him out of first place in the Nextel Cup series. But what's interesting is Earnhardt's defense of his naughty word.

"It was in jubilation," he said. "When you're happy and joyous about something and it happens, it's different than being angry and cursing in anger. Of course, we don't want to promote that. But if a guy's in Victory Lane, jumping up and down, and lets a 's---' slip out, I don't think that's something we need to go hammering down on."

Is he right? Does it make a difference whether the word is used in anger or exuberance? Does it matter whether it's literal or figurative? Is there a distinction among different types: obscenity, profanity, cursing, and blasphemy?

A word is just a bunch of letters collected into a sound, of course, and can't be inherently bad. Some people, most famously the '60s comedian Lenny Bruce, insisted that no words should be off-limits. "I want to take the covers off. Whatever you do, you should say the words," Bruce said.

That's a little disingenuous, though; Bruce is implying that whenever we use a dirty word, we're using it literally and sincerely, talking about what we "do." When that's the case, a short Anglo-Saxon term obviously isn't more evil than the fancier import, though there may be community consensus ...

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October 2004

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