That stinks!! No.. it SUCKS!
May 4, 2012 7:11 AM   Subscribe

When, where and how did the word 'sucks' become somewhat inoffensive, mainstream-- a word that can be said on prime time television? Was there at tv show? Is it generational? Or is my perception regional and based on my cohort?

I watch Seinfeld now from the mid 90s and Elaine always uses 'stinks' when 'sucks' would seem more appropriate. I do remember in my 90s schooling that saying the word in class would be inappropriate-- worse than saying damn or hell, but not as bad as the s-word of f-word. I've seen many (non TV-14) tv shows and the characters use that word now.
posted by sandmanwv to Society & Culture (43 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
It would be helpful if we knew your cohort...

I'm mid-20s, and can't remember "suck" ever being offensive. However, I don't recall it being used widely when I was growing up -- I'd say it's gained popularity in the past 10 years.
posted by DoubleLune at 7:13 AM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

The first time I remember seeing it on TV was on the show Cheers, maybe in the late 1980s. Frazier (so Diane was on the show at the time) said something along the lines of "Winning isn't everything, but losing sucks."

Around the same time, or maybe a couple years later, on The Simpsons, Bart was talking to Kent Brockman and he said "This sucks. Oh, wait, can I say that on TV?" and Kent said "Yes, son, on THIS network you can." That was when Fox was a somewhat new network with shows like In Living Color and Married With Children so I wouldn't be surprised if they're the ones who popularized it.

It's interesting now to see the same thing happen with the word "Shit." I remember when Anthony Edwards used it on E.R. while he was dealing with a brain tumor. Now it's on Mad Men all the time (which is a basic cable show) and it occasionally pops up on network TV.
posted by bondcliff at 7:17 AM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was aware of "suck" being offsensive-and-generally-to-be-avoided somewhere around 1992. But I was also less than 10 years old and I don't think the same rules of offensiveness apply for kids.
posted by stopgap at 7:17 AM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I remember when the TV version of "Uncle Buck" debuted in 1990, it attracted some minor heat for having one of the kids yell "YOU SUCK!" I recall thinking it was only mildly transgressive at that point, maaaybe a bit more so than "damn" or "hell," but I was in college in California back then.

It makes sense that the characters on "Seinfeld" would still refrain from using it, but I would think that the characters on "Friends" wouldn't have refrained. But I don't have any actual memories to back up whether that was the case.
posted by Etrigan at 7:19 AM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm mid-40s, and can't remember it ever being inappropriate. It has been around a long time on various tv shows. Probably Elaine didn't use it because that was her character?
posted by JJ86 at 7:20 AM on May 4, 2012

Yeah it's more than 10 years old, more like 20. I remember saying it freely as a kid until my parents did a double take and banned it for the implied second half of the phrase, namely 'dick.' But the forces of history were too great and the ban did not stand.

But 'blow your mind' has always been fine, I don't understand. I can't say "This comment sucks!" but you can say "Transformers 4 totally sucked my mind's dick!"
posted by TheRedArmy at 7:23 AM on May 4, 2012

Also, I should add that as the parent of a ten year old we discourage the use of the word "sucks" around the house but it's more a case of giving him The Look than anything punishable. A lot of my son's peers use it with impunity though.
posted by bondcliff at 7:24 AM on May 4, 2012

Blowing as in fuse.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 7:25 AM on May 4, 2012 [5 favorites]

Er, that was about "blowing your mind."
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 7:26 AM on May 4, 2012

This rings a faint bell. I feel like I've listened in on a conversation about this word, and when it became acceptable before, and one of the things mentioned was the sitcom Kate & Allie, when the young son, in response to some explanation about relationships, declared, "Love SUCKS!"

My vague hazy memory tells me it was a big deal that it wasn't a big deal, or some kind of turning point.
posted by instead of three wishes at 7:26 AM on May 4, 2012

When I was in a public high school in the mid-80's, and my mother was a public grade school librarian mid-80's through mid-90's (on both US coasts--we moved), "sucks" was considered offensive enough that the grade schoolers were always disciplined for saying it (sent to the principal, given demerits, notes sent home, whatever they did when grade schoolers got into trouble) and we high schoolers were chided by our teachers and could be sent out of class for inappropriate language where such language included only things like "sucks" or "crap".

In that "community standards" context, major network shows would not want dialogue which used it regularly, for fear of backlash against advertisers.
posted by crush-onastick at 7:26 AM on May 4, 2012

I'm in my early forties and my friends and I said 'that sucks' freely in front of parents/teachers as early as the 5th or 6th grade. I remember one of my friend's mom's taking exception and actually explaining to us what it meant. We just laughed, though, because to us it definitely didn't mean 'that'. So, in my experience, by the early 1980's 'sucks' was fairly inoffensive.
posted by marimeko at 7:28 AM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

When I started at a newspaper, in 1996 "sucks" wasn't allowed because it referenced oral sex. By the time I left in 2000, it was permitted, and considered to have become so commonplace as to have shed the sexual reference. I don't remember exactly what year the style guide changed.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:28 AM on May 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

It was too gradual to pin down, I think, but I'm inclined to agree with bondcliff that the Simpsons helped. I particularly remember the phrase:

"I didn't think it was possible, but this both sucks and blows"

and thinking that you wouldn't have got away with that only a short time before.
posted by Segundus at 7:28 AM on May 4, 2012

FWIW, according to Stephan Pastis, cartoonists still can't say "sucks" on the comics page. Anyone know if the New York Times will print it?

And what Chesty said about "blow your mind."
posted by Perodicticus potto at 7:29 AM on May 4, 2012

In 4th grade I said vehemently "homework SUCKS!" to my (cool) teacher at the time. This would have been 93-94. We weren't actually with the rest of the class. Her response was a small bit of shock: "where did you hear that word?!" and then quickly resignation: "just don't use it in front of other grownups." I remember thinking to myself that I had had no idea it was a dirty word, just that it was really good to indicate displeasure, so I followed up with a mullish "well homework DOES suck. But okay." The implication here is that adults were aware that the word was used rampantly among gradeschoolers and there was some confusion as to if it was worth punishment or not. Thinking on it, I blame the Simpsons and Roseanne.
posted by Mizu at 7:30 AM on May 4, 2012

I remember in the 1970s and 1980s you could get away with "This sucks eggs" but not "this sucks." I have no idea why.

But as others have pointed out, even back then some kids could say "sucks" in front of their parents but others couldn't. I still remember when my friend's little brother said "This sucks!" around my dad and my dad couldn't believe it. This was maybe 1980.
posted by bondcliff at 7:31 AM on May 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

I remember an incident in the early 90s where my (teenage) cousin said something "sucked" and her father (a fairly easygoing guy) was appalled and offended and she and I were kind of confused because we perceived it as relatively inoffensive. It was very weird.

But actually, that uncle has kind of a weird vocabulary in general; I also remember him using the word "Negro" at some point in the 21st century, and genuinely not realizing that it was likely to be perceived as offensive.

But regardless, I feel like the early 90s were the turning point for "sucks", with absolutely no evidence to back me up.
posted by mskyle at 7:41 AM on May 4, 2012

From a curse word study: "In the specific case of 'suck,' you can see that older people use the word much less frequently than younger people, so the idea that a generation gap between older and younger people exists with respect to profane words seems quite plausible."
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 7:43 AM on May 4, 2012

I remember "sucks" gaining in general popularity with the Simpsons, early '90s.

My mom didn't allow us to say "sucks," but she also didn't allow us to say things like "shut up," so for me it was in the category of words and phrases that were rude but not swearwords or inherently offensive.
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:44 AM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I never thought "sucks" was offensive - until my daughter came home saying she got in trouble in gym class at school for saying it... As in a general "That sucks!" commenting on an event - not to the teacher (I would understand that) not to a student or opposing team "You suck!" (I would really be upset with this) - just the ball went out of bounds "That sucks!"...

My response to her was just "That sucks honey..."

I guess in a world where the "real" swear words are loosing their kick, something needs to fill the vacuum...
posted by NoDef at 7:46 AM on May 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

Im in my 30s, and I dont remember it being offensive. But maybe it's because I grew up near Boston.
posted by KogeLiz at 7:47 AM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Once the MTV show "Beavis and Butt-Head" became popular in the mid-'90s (when I was a teenager), I started seeing MTV and Rolling Stone magazine constantly use headlines and teasers with this format: "Stay tuned for a [thingamajig] that doesn't suck!" As in: "I'll bet you think most thingamajigs are lame, but I assure you, this new thingamajig is really cool! So make sure to sit through the next 10 minutes of commercials [or, buy this magazine and turn to page 37] to see what it is!"

It creates a sense that the speaker is just as jaded as you are -- they're not just some boring salesperson trying to sell you something -- but they happened to find the one thing that doesn't suck! Wow! Don't you want to find out what that thing is?!

My theory: there are a lot of slang words like "cool," "awesome," and "radical" -- positive descriptors that are supposed to appeal to youth. But for whatever reason, those all started to seem passe. (When was the last time you heard anyone call anything "radical" or "gnarly"?) So the staff at places like MTV and Rolling Stone decided that a better, edgier synonym would be a double negative: "This doesn't suck!"

I haven't researched this, so I don't know if my theory based on Beavis and Butt-Head is correct or what the chronology really was (as I said, I was very young at the time). It's possible that "suck" started to become acceptable earlier on, and this is part of what allowed a show as edgy/offensive as B&B-H to get aired. But anyway, my theory is that youth-oriented outlets like MTV and Rolling Stone started routinely using "suck" in an attempt to stand out from generic advertising lingo and appeal to the kinds of people who watched B&B-H. From there, the word inexorably became more and more accepted into the mainstream.
posted by John Cohen at 7:50 AM on May 4, 2012

Just another data point here. When I was young I had no concept of it being a "bad word". I took it just to mean something wasn't good. So when I was 10 or 11 (mid-90s) my PE teacher had us write a bit about the various sports we had been playing in class. I wrote that I didn't like basketball "because I suck at it." She got offended and had me redo the assignment as well as write one on why I shouldn't say that word. But in my mind I couldn't figure out what was wrong about saying "sucks".

And that's when I realized the whole concept of "bad words" was bullshit.
posted by fishmasta at 8:10 AM on May 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

We certainly said this routinely as kids in the '80s; it was understood to be slightly salty talk that you wouldn't use when talking to a teacher, but not literally a curse word. I would have been surprised to see it used on TV at the time.

Even then, the sexual connotation had mostly been lost. Evidence for this: if you wanted to say something really sucked, you wouldn't say "that sucks dick" -- that would be something different. Rather, the intensified form was "that sucks shit!" Whether this usage is still current I don't know. In any event, I recommend it to people for whom "that sucks!" has become too tame.
posted by escabeche at 8:19 AM on May 4, 2012

I'm in my 40s and I don't ever remember it being as offensive as damn, but "you suck!" would have been the kid equivalent of an adult "f-- you!" Kind of saying "wow, that sucks" has been much more common, and I feel like that was true sometime while I was in high school or college (so, in the 1980s), even though I can't put my finger on a time.

I wonder if Seinfeld self-sensored for humor value? Am pretty sure that Friends used the word (although I didn't watch those until much later). It's still edgier than, say, "bummer!" but more in a sense of having more emphasis/intensity than in the sense of being more overtly offensive. Then again, I swear pretty comfortably (studies show it actually makes you feel better!), but I probably wouldn't have used "sucks" around my grandmother...
posted by acm at 8:37 AM on May 4, 2012

I think it's like a lot of terms that get used now, it's not that people now care so much less about using profanity, they just don't know the meaning or background of the words.

I'm 47 and when I was a kid "sucks" was definitely short for "sucks cock" or similar. The first time I heard someone say "sucks eggs" or "sucks" anything else I took it for what it was; trying to be funny by referencing the phrase but not saying it. In time I think a lot of people just didn't know what the "sucks" was referencing.

How about scumbag?
posted by bongo_x at 8:40 AM on May 4, 2012

This is the first I remembered it in general media was The Goonies in 1985 when they are all in the restaurant and Mama Fratelli says "Kids suck". I do remember it being much dirtier when I was a kid to say something sucks than it does now.
posted by minorcadence at 8:50 AM on May 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

it's not that people now care so much less about using profanity, they just don't know the meaning or background of the words.

It's seen as an Americanism (that word is loaded with implied snobbery, but I can't think of another) here - I first remember it in The Simpsons when Bart described something as both sucking AND blowing. 'Blows' isn't common here, but we got 'sucks' through US TV, so it was never really in the offensive category. Kind of like how we use 'idiot' and it isn't seen as offensive, I suppose, where 'retard' is known to have its origins in old attitudes to development.
posted by mippy at 8:54 AM on May 4, 2012

When I was teaching 'tweens a couple years ago, "suck" was among the banned words and phrases in class (along with "shut up", "stupid", "like", "[banned word of the day]"), partly because of its old connotation, mostly because I was enforcing the idea that there's a difference between formal and informal usage and it's good to be thoughtful about when to use each.

They understood why "shut up" was on the list, but they thought it completely arbitrary that "sucks" was included. I didn't explain the details.

As others have noted, the shift to acceptance seems to have occurred around the time Bart Simpson became a superstar, although "sucks" was a fairly minor bad word when I was a kid in the 1970s. Couldn't say it at home, but it rolled off the tongue pretty easily on the playground.

Context matters: When my nieces were little, 5, 6, 7 or so, I started using "Jiffy Lube", which is the name of a chain of automobile oil replacement shops, as a mild swear word. "Stop being such a Jiffy Lube"; "Oh now you're just being a Jiffy Lube." The girls had no idea what a Jiffy Lube was, but they picked up the new meaning from context. And quickly.

Within a week, the youngest referred to her father as a "Jiffy Lube" and right after that, "Jiffy Lube" was nevermore to be said aloud in that household.

The girls were surprised a few months later when Dad announced he was taking the car to Jiffy Lube for an oil change. "Oh, Dad. You're such a clown."
posted by notyou at 8:58 AM on May 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

Yes, my mother loathes all swearing - I've heard her do it precisely twice, and never the really bad words - and finds blasphemy vulgar, but I could say 'mofo' or 'sucks' in front of her and she wouldn't complain because she doesn't know what they 'mean'. (She'd certainly know the longer version of 'mofo'.)
posted by mippy at 9:04 AM on May 4, 2012

Suck eggs!

See also: Dirty Old Egg Sucking Dog
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 9:22 AM on May 4, 2012

As stated above I definitely feel the Simpsons/Fox are somehow a part of this discussion. Around 1990 with the initial wave of Bart Simpson mania I remember as the catch phrase "I'm Bart Simpson who the hell are you?" became a cultural phenomenon and there was lots of publicity as schools banned t-shirts with the phrase, etc.

I put "sucks" and "hell" in the same category of terms that walk the line of what is considered an obscenity or not, based on how it's used. I'm a youngun' 40-something and there are other words that trigger a similar kneejerk reaction of my appropriate filter:
  • Screwed or screw as in "I'm screwed!" or "Screw it! We'll do it live!"
  • Douche or douchebag. I now hear this on sports radio all the time although it sometimes gets abbreviated to "d-bag" signaling that there is still some societal disapproval of this.

posted by jeremias at 9:42 AM on May 4, 2012

I'm going to guess that "sucks" became socially acceptable sometime in the early-to-mid 90s.

When I was a kid in the early 80s, "sucks" was up there with "hell," "damn," and "butt" as Words We Did Not Use in front of our parents. That definitely changed in the 90s, although I don't know if that's because it became more socially acceptable, or because I was a teenager by then and thus allowed to use more "grown up" words by that point.

I remember the first time we watched The Simpsons with our parents and my brother and I looked at each other in horror whenever Bart said a "bad word," sure our parents were going to turn off the TV at any second.

My mother found the language in The Goonies so offensive that she refused to let us finish watching it the time we rented it from the video store.
posted by erst at 10:42 AM on May 4, 2012

> It was too gradual to pin down, I think, but I'm inclined to agree with bondcliff that the Simpsons helped. I particularly remember the phrase:

"I didn't think it was possible, but this both sucks and blows"

and thinking that you wouldn't have got away with that only a short time before.

Same here. I'm sixty, and when I was growing up it was definitely a no-no; I remember the changeover vividly. (It still feels like cursing to me when I say it, which is often, because I curse freely.)
posted by languagehat at 11:40 AM on May 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Born in 83, I was puzzled that teachers thought 'sucks' was worse than 'I'm screwed" or "dangit." My sister, born in 76, agreed with me but I think suggested I still not use it. I didn't understand its connection to the sex act until 96 maybe... I think my earliest memory of the word was "Disco Sucks" t-shirts... I figured anything someone could put on a t-shirt before I was born was fair game.

Also I got in trouble in third grade the first day I learned what the f-word was and used it in every sentence for the rest of the day. I thought it so silly a word and aurally so similar to flick that there's no way it could actually be verboten, and assumed the class mate who told me the word was joking. So my sense of what's a bad word is probably unreliable.
posted by midmarch snowman at 12:00 PM on May 4, 2012

It would be helpful if we knew your cohort...


I am in my late twenties, so based on your "1990s schooling" comment, I assume that we're about the same age. I don't remember "suck" ever being considered anything more than mildly offensive. It was common playground language long before we started experimenting with stronger language, though I do seem to recall my mother getting a bit annoyed about my brothers and I using when we were very young.
posted by asnider at 12:24 PM on May 4, 2012

In Lord of the Flies from 1954, there is the phrase "Sucks to your assmar [asthma]!" but I can't remember whether the other characters responded to this as though it were akin to cussing or not. Anyone know?
posted by illenion at 8:12 PM on May 4, 2012

It's interesting now to see the same thing happen with the word "Shit." I remember when Anthony Edwards used it on E.R. while he was dealing with a brain tumor. Now it's on Mad Men all the time (which is a basic cable show) and it occasionally pops up on network TV.

According to Wikipedia, it was used on ER in reference to Greene's death (I don't remember any publicity leading up to it). It also says it was used earlier on Chicago Hope by Mark Harmon, which I do remember. The exact years aren't listed though.

As for it being more widely used, I still remember being surprised in the early '90s or so when SNL used "bitch." I was still a kid at the time, but I wasn't used to hearing it on TV. Now it's everywhere.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 5:56 PM on May 5, 2012

My parents are of the generation before Baby Boomers and I am a Millennial (yes, I was a Surprise). My mom flipped out when, as a 16 year old, I said 'sucks' in her hearing. I had no idea what she was freaking out about, as I'd never heard 'sucks' being connected with 'penis/dick/bj' or what have you. There was clearly a big generation gap there. So I vote for generational, with a big change in the US in the '90s.
posted by librarylis at 8:48 PM on May 5, 2012

> Im in my 30s, and I dont remember it being offensive. But maybe it's because I grew up near Boston

I remember it being somewhat naughty and implying oral sex in 1987-ish, at my high school near Boston. Some people from one of the dorms hung up a sign saying "HAINES SUCKS" (Haines being another of the dorms) in the cafeteria and I was surprised because of the language, not the banner.
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:10 AM on May 6, 2012

Sorry been away. I was born in 1982 and went to school in small town WV, and remember going to middle school and high school and hearing teachers saying 'sucks' was jarring and cool at the same time. We were never allowed to say it without reprimand in middle school (mid 90s).

Looks like it was a regional/local 'bad word' but not universally 'ok till the 1990s.
posted by sandmanwv at 11:44 AM on May 7, 2012

For the record, the fellatio connotation of sucks is believed by linguists and lexicographers to be a folk etymology. In other words, it didn't start as referencing a sex act. See: The Putative Vulgary of X Sucks in American English by Ron Butters.
posted by Mo Nickels at 11:51 AM on May 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

« Older What hardware do I need for recording and live...   |   Help me Normalize Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.