When was the last time you caught yourself using words that hurt someone else?
Were you aware at the time of why you used them?
Or were you just saying something you thought was funny?
For that matter, why do we ever use hurtful words to describe someone?
Maybe we take some pleasure in finding a particularly apt insult for someone who has wronged us.
And we enjoy feeling superior, even a little bit, to someone who has made us feel smaller, less important, or less intelligent.
So, we say something to “put them in their place.”
- Because it makes us feel more powerful
- Because it addresses an injustice
- Because we see the other person as a bully or a monster
- Because we’re hurting, and we want the other person to hurt, too
But instead of making us feel better, those offensive words and expressions, whenever they come to mind, only serve to keep us angry or on the defensive, prolonging the pain and keeping us stuck in the past.
Sometimes, though, we use offensive words without even realizing it.
You can probably think of a list of hurtful words and phrases that have become the go-to expressions of people you’ve met.
And you want to tell them, “It is not okay to say that!”
But then you wonder what you might be saying — without intending to harm anyone — that others find offensive or controversial.
31 Hurtful Words to Completely Avoid
We’ve compiled a list of 31 offensive or controversial words or expressions that are best avoided — even if you’re “only kidding.”
Dismissing someone or something as “gay” is an insult to anyone with a homosexual orientation, because you’re essentially using the word “gay’ to mean “bad” or to refer to something you don’t like.
It’s no less insulting or mean-spirited than if you were to use a slur to directly attack someone who identifies as homosexual. And no one who points that out is overreacting or being “oversensitive.”
2. “You ____ like a girl.”
The reason why this phrase deserves to die is its implied message that women are weaker than men.
And while men generally build bulky muscle more readily than women, the testosterone responsible for that doesn’t make them stronger where it really counts.
The words “mentally retarded” were once commonly used to refer to people with a below-average IQ, either because of a congenital condition like Down Syndrome or because of a brain injury.
The connotation is never positive, and there are plenty who use it deliberately as a cheap and easy way to tear someone else down.
4. “N*gger / N*gga”
It is never okay for a non-African-American person to use this word. Ever.
I don’t care if you feel like you’ve earned the right to use that word as a playful tease. This word has a poisonous history, and it has nothing to do with humor or friendship. Avoid it.
5. “You sound like one of those bleeding-heart liberals.”
This polarizing expression is still used as a way to dismiss those who argue for any cause that someone who identifies as “socially liberal” might support – as if compassion invalidated someone’s beliefs.
It’s a bigoted response to anything that doesn’t line up with someone’s narrow idea of what it means to be an American Christian.
6. “It was just a joke.”
This expression is meant to brush off someone else’s response to an offensive remark.
It’s similar to “I was only kidding,” and is meant to deflect attention from the one who made the offensive statement and point to the one complaining as “someone who can’t take a joke.”
Follow-up phrases include “I’m sorry you were offended by that,” or “I’m sorry, but…” – neither of which qualify as a genuine apology.
7. “I feel so bipolar today.”
Bipolar disorder isn’t a joke. It’s a real, diagnosable mental health disorder, and those who live with it aren’t just bipolar on certain days.
If you feel manic or you feel depressed on a particular day, it’s okay to acknowledge that. Just don’t confuse it with being bipolar.
8. “I’m a little OCD.”
Here’s another real psychiatric disorder that shouldn’t be made light of. You can be anal about details and not OCD. You can like for things to be perfectly in order and not be OCD.
What distinguishes OCD from ordinary attention to detail are the three words that make up the acronym: obsessive, compulsive, and disorder.
You do things that other people consider anal, paranoid, or ridiculous because you cannot NOT do them.
9. “You’re such a drama queen.”
The assumption behind this statement is that the other person is overreacting to something — or that the other person “just loves drama” or wants attention.
It’s likely that there’s something going on with that person that hasn’t yet been addressed. Their apparent need for drama is their way of crying out for attention to something that has been ignored for too long.
10. “This makes me want to kill myself.”
You don’t know whether anyone who hears these words has ever been suicidal or has suffered as a result of a suicide, so it’s best not to use language like this.
It could remind them of that pain and possibly lead them back to the same torturing thought-emotion loop. If you’ve experienced that yourself, you probably don’t wish it on anyone else.
11. “Is it that time of the month?”
It says a lot — and nothing good —about a guy who would immediately jump to this insulting conclusion.
It suggests that only a woman who is being adversely affected by her female hormones during a particularly “hormonal” time of the month would dare be otherwise than docile and agreeable.
12. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
A more common variant is “She doesn’t know what she’s talking about,” since these words are often spoken by a male to discredit a female who isn’t in the room and therefore cannot (immediately) defend herself.
It’s the easy recourse of a coward who feels perfectly comfortable arrogantly dismissing the words of someone who isn’t there to challenge him.
Those born with dwarfism or with any condition that limits their physical stature do not, as a rule, choose to be called “midgets.”
The words “dwarf” and “little person” are more acceptable, as long as they aren’t used with a condescending or dismissive tone. But “midget” is inaccurate, insulting, and never okay.
14. “Nazi” (like “Grammar Nazi” or “Feminazi”)
Regardless of how rigid someone might be with regard to grammar rules or political ideologies, it’s not okay to dismiss them as a “Nazi,” as though their rigidity or attention to detail made them soulless or evil.
15. “Don’t be so antisocial.”
True antisocial behavior is more typical of sociopaths and psychopaths – not introverts in general – and it’s nothing to make light of.
Introverted does not mean antisocial. Introverts know this, and so do those who know them.
Yet even we introverts will sometimes refer to ourselves as “antisocial” when describing our behavior at social gatherings or our level of social energy at a particular moment.
16. “I don’t care.”
You’ve probably seen someone stop another person’s talking by putting a hand up to their face, as if to say, “Talk to the hand.” It’s a rude and dismissive way of saying, “I don’t care about what you’re saying.”
Unless you want to risk having your hand grabbed (and possibly broken) by someone who’s had enough of that attitude, find a kinder way to let the other person know you can’t give them your full attention just then.
17. “Have you been living under a rock?”
This question basically means, “How are you so ignorant?” It attacks the other person for not knowing as much about a particular thing as we do.
And it assumes their relative ignorance justifies an insult on their character or intelligence.
Instead of doing that, we could just give the other person the benefit of the doubt and kindly offer them a brief summary of the story behind the point we’re trying to make.
18. “That’s dumb.”
Dismissing someone else’s idea or thoughts with these words is hurtful and offensive. It shouldn’t be hard to realize this since no one wants to be told their ideas are “dumb.”
19. “You’re a fool.”
This word had an even stronger negative connotation than “dumb.”
Even smart people can have dumb ideas, but once you dismiss someone as a fool, you’re essentially saying they have nothing of value to say – about anything.
20. “What’s it like to be a failure?”
If someone never fails, it probably means they’re not doing enough. Or they’re playing it safe.
No one is defined by their failures, however impressive they might be. Neither does it make sense to call someone a success based on successes that don’t ultimately define them.
21. “You’re in my way.”
Designating someone as an obstacle or a hindrance to your getting something you want is dehumanizing and offensive.
It implies that you see that person as nothing more than an object blocking the path to your goal — which you see as more valuable than that person.
22. “Grow a pair.”
It’s similar to “Grow a spine” but more insulting — particularly to men. It implies that the man doesn’t have the courage to do something he ought to do and that therefore he’s less of a man.
Men or women might use this expression to goad another man into doing something they want him to do, whether it’s in his best interests or not.
23. “I hate that about you.”
Decidedly more personal than “You know what I hate?” this immediately puts the other person on the defensive.
The word “hate” is so strong, it immediately creates a negatively-charged atmosphere, which is toxic to everyone in it.
24. “I’m disappointed in you.”
Some of the people who use these expressions seem to think they’re doing others a favor by letting them know how they’re falling short.
But it’s not a favor to remind someone of how they continue to disappoint your expectations of them, however reasonable you think those are.
Ultimately, if your expectations don’t match theirs, they’ll only act as a barrier.
25. “It’s all in your head.”
Some people are particularly sensitive to the messages their body is sending them.
They know something is wrong, but they don’t know what. And according to every test the doctor runs, there’s “nothing clinically wrong.”
Most doctors are too busy addressing emergencies to devote much attention to non-emergency mystery illnesses.
But the expression, “It’s all in your head,” shouldn’t be used when there’s still a possibility (however remote) that the complaint is due to a real health problem.
26. “You’re boring.”
Essentially, you’re telling the other person you don’t find their company or conversation stimulating.
And rather than suggest ways to have fun together, you decide to make sure they know how bored you are — and how it’s their fault.
If what’s fun for you isn’t fun for the other person (and vice-versa), it’s okay to be honest about this and either separate or do things separately.
27. “You’re useless.”
Using this insult essentially means you see the other person’s value as synonymous with their usefulness to you.
When someone dismisses another human being as “useless,” the intention is to make them feel worthless — as if their death would do the world a bigger favor than their continued existence.
28. “You’re ugly when you’re angry.”
This expression is used most often by males who think that a woman’s appearance is worth more to her than respect for her intelligence and autonomy.
It’s a total jerk move, and while it can be infuriating (because of the condescending attitude behind it), it also reveals the poverty of wit on the side of the person using it.
29. “Why do you have to be such a b*tch?”
This is another popular phrase among men looking for an easy way to deflect attention from their defects of character and try to blame the woman whose behavior is provoking him.
Using this line only exposes the man’s powerlessness in the face of a woman who won’t allow him to control, manipulate, or silence her.
30. “Oh, are you triggered?”
Too many have used this expression to invalidate the feelings of others by implying that the “triggered” one is overreacting to a prank or offensive remark.
Using the word “triggered,” though, is insensitive to those who struggle with a real mental illness or with deep, emotional trauma.
31. “I feel so fat right now.”
If you’re feeling bloated, gassy, or just overly full, you can just say that. Most people know how that feels.
Related: What Is An INFJ Door Slam?
But using the word “fat” is insulting — especially to anyone in the room who is carrying even a little more weight than you are. Fat-shaming is never appropriate – even when you think you’re only insulting yourself.
Don’t pretend your feeling of fullness after that chimichanga gives you the right to call yourself “fat” as an expression of solidarity, either. It doesn’t work.
Are there hurtful words you'd add to the list?
Now that you know 31 words and expressions that everyone should avoid, I bet you can think of others you could add to the list.
You already know words can hurt, even when someone is “just teasing” or when the alcohol is wreaking havoc on people’s filters.
And maybe you’ve felt called out, shamed, or devalued by someone else’s thoughtless remarks.
Once you’ve been on the receiving end, you have a better understanding of how powerful words can be – both to build people up and to tear them down.,
Let’s use that power for good.
And may your thoughtfulness and compassion influence everything you do today.