Things Suck

You can't deny it: The word "suck" has gone mainstream.

Its growth has been especially obvious in online media, but also in personal interactions, in business and with friends. The slang has been used for decades in conversation, but its usage in formal and written contexts seems to have exploded in recent years, especially in news publications. I'm sure the conversational nature of social and online media, coupled with a desire among people to appear young and hip, have fueled this trend. To be sure, the word is pithy, assertive and irreplaceable.

So I started writing a short essay about its place in modern culture, but I soon discovered that Seth Stevenson had already written a fine analysis in Slate. No need to reinvent the wheel.

Still, I was curious about the momentum of the word. So I turned to Google News to obtain a historical view. According to Google, roughly 296,000 news articles mentioned the words "suck" or "sucks" between 1900 and 2008.  Of those articles, roughly 204,000, or 69%, were published in the years 2000 to 2008.

Indeed, the apparent explosion in usage is probably influenced by two mechanical factors: 1) More electronic versions of publications emerged in recent years, which Google can easily index; and 2) personal online diaries (or blogs) emerged in the last decade, and many are now part of the Google News index.

But even if the explosion in usage of the word "suck" among news organizations was misrepresented by inconsistent methodologies or technologies, usage seems to have peaked in 2007, for which Google News reported 32,600 instances. In 2008, there were 30,300 instances.

The future? I think suck is an ugly word, and too much usage could get annoying. But, no doubt, it's the optimal word in many situations. It has real purpose. Therefore, my forecast is that usage will hold steady, and it will eventually lose any slang stigma.

And that's where we stand on the word "suck." What do you think?



17 comments about "Things Suck".
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  1. Joshua Chasin from VideoAmp, May 22, 2009 at 2:24 p.m.

    Hey Max.

    When I was a kid my brother and I were playing basketball in the backyard with my dad. My mom was watching out the window. This was about 1969. I was 10, my brother younger. One of us yelled at my dad, "you suck!" He and my moom were speechless with shock. We just thought it was a term about one's sports incompetence. A synonym for "you stink." Apparently we were mistaken...

  2. Marianne Allison from Waggener Edstrom, May 22, 2009 at 2:35 p.m.

    Another reinforcement of the "suck" phenomenon is Kelly Clarkson's hit song, "My Life would Suck without You."

  3. Lou Hoffman from Hoffman Agency, May 22, 2009 at 2:40 p.m.

    Good stuff.

    Had a similar post on the "freakin" versus "freaking" debate at

  4. Chas. Salmore from Marketingworks, Inc., May 22, 2009 at 2:41 p.m.


    I loved your "SUCKS" article. It reflects the lowering of our cultural bar - not only in the world of advertising, marketing and promotions - but sadly within our entire society.

    "SUCKS" is just the jumping off point. Just consider the sad level of education which is being provided to future generations. They cannot spell, they cannot communicate effectively and they are entering the work force ill equipted to engage. In the future, "SUCK" may become standard speech, at the rate things are going.

    Hope all is well. If you are in LA soon, let's catch up.


  5. Steven Threndyle from media tent, May 22, 2009 at 2:43 p.m.

    I TOTALLY agree with Joshua. My father, an elementary school principal and a superb grammarian, was utterly appalled by the word, since - back in the day - it had an undeniably extreme sexual connotation. Indeed, the longer 'c-word' that 'suck' is derived from is still pretty far out there on the fringe and not really used in polite company. So, the word then HAS morphed and changed meaning. However, my father, if he was still alive, would doubtless cringe (as I do, to some degree). Actually, the guy who likely mainstreamed the word to some degree was Al Goldstein, who had some tawdry NYC based rag called "Suck" for a short period of time.

  6. Monica Bower from TERiX Computer Service, May 22, 2009 at 2:48 p.m.

    Suck is a curse word you can get away with at work and in print, unlike its rougher cousin sh** or ex-con older brother the f-bomb. And even the bluest of blogs seems to carefully avoid m-f, known in elementary schools far and wide for decades as the undisputed King of Swears. It turns up in movies and the occasional My Chemical Romance song regularly enough though.

    Suck's parentage remains in some dispute. On the one hand most users associate it with a certain sex act, but this would render it too obscene for the polite settings where it turns up these days quite a bit. On the other hand it probably did descend from the completely inoffensive 'suck eggs' - but that in itself was a cheeky of phrase by which you would expect something other than eggs to be the object of the sucking, and then, ha ha, suck EGGS.

    (Why eggs, I always wondered...why not something else?)

    And while 'suck' remains popular as ever, 'sucker' has slowly declined into near obsolescence with the years as memories of Aunt Esther have faded.

  7. David Knapp from Pinnacle Advertising, May 22, 2009 at 2:51 p.m.

    If we redefine the meaning of words how can we effectively communicate? People that use slang/profanity in public are really showing their lack of intelligence and creativity. It's depressing to think that we are normalizing vulgarity.

    C'mon people, let's build each other up!

  8. Ken Koepper from TRSA, May 22, 2009 at 2:54 p.m.

    When I first heard "suck" used as slang, it referred to fellatio. But that meaning is long gone. I don't think most people are referring to a sex act when they use it. Nor do most people under 50 perceive it that way. "Suck" today means something more on the order of "drain life from." But I wouldn't want to be responsible for convincing Webster the dictionary ought to be rewritten as such.

  9. Brian Olson from Video Professor, Inc, May 22, 2009 at 2:56 p.m.

    Like any other word, it depends on usage. An example being: OU SUCKS! This would be appropriate use.

    HOOK'EM HORNS Ya'll!

  10. Nicole Jordan from Rubicon Project, May 22, 2009 at 3:04 p.m.

    My favorite surprise encounter to the word "suck" happened last Friday while perusing But, in this instance, I happened to like it.

    The Chosen Ones: Media CEOs Eat Grasshoppers -- A Love Story

    ...Jonathan Kay "Ambassador of Buzz" for Grasshopper elaborates, "If we were reading about someone important in a newspaper, we would send it to that person, as well as the person who wrote the article (which explains how they got sent to the L.A. Times' Jon Healy).

    The company sent a total of 88 packages to the L.A. area (suck it San Francisco) to such notables as P.Diddy and Arianna Huffington.

  11. Paul Scivetti from Synergen, Inc, May 22, 2009 at 3:12 p.m.

    Good article max - it clearly did not suck. :)

    Back up another 10 years and you'll find a whopping 88% of all references to suck or suck occurring between 1900 and 2008 happening from 1990 - 2008. Wow.

    This is a sad reflection on the overall coarsening of discussion in our society. The old addage of 'if you can't be creative or witty, be shocking and vulgar' is more true today than ever.

    Worse, the tolerance for this sort of thing is spreading. When we moved to MN from NYC in the early 90's, 'bad language' was rare and really caught people's attention (and ire). Now, it is no big deal.

    There is something we call can do about this: lead by example. Keeping our own mouths in check, personally and professionally, makes a statement and sets a higher standard. Sometimes an expletive is appropriate...but not as the mainstay of our vocabulary.

  12. Christopher Robinson, May 22, 2009 at 5:31 p.m.

    The intention and meaning of that word seem to have drastically changed: a true example of the organic nature of language. I am not offended by the current usage, but that doesn't mean there are lingering sensitivities.

    Anyone could, with bent intention, use any perfectly civilized word in the dictionary to connote an emphatic curse -- without ever resorting to the curse word list.

    Perhaps the ultimate focus should be on raising our children with the self-discipline to handle the stress of life, instead of focusing on semantics?

  13. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, May 22, 2009 at 10:24 p.m.

    It won't be long before "that blows" joins the acceptable usage of "that sucks" -- but then we already live in a world where parents of pre-school age children cannot shield them from even worse bumper stickers (and t-shirts at the all-American county fair).

  14. Ted Schachter from Ted Consulting Group, May 23, 2009 at 10:30 p.m.

    I think you are running out of things to write about. Your article was a real time "suck".

  15. Chris Myer from Myer Hotels, May 25, 2009 at 5:41 p.m.

    We should strive to use words that set the highest standard, not lower them. It's too bad you couldn't think of anything else to right about except the use of a negative word.

  16. Joel Rubinson from Rubinson Partners, Inc., May 26, 2009 at 10:02 a.m.

    a compliment to a harmonica player and a vacuum cleaner!

  17. STEVE CLIMONS from Crosssover Creative, May 26, 2009 at 3:27 p.m.

    It's too bad you couldn't have referred the word to something
    that actually does currently or gave examples of why it is
    popular in the so-called mainstream. And BTW, what is your
    definition of mainstream? It would be good to know who really
    would use the word more than others.

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