10 Words That Sound Dirty But Aren’t


Ever utter a word only to have people around you give you an odd reaction? There are some words that sound dirty but aren’t.

In 1973, my favorite comedian, the late Jack Benny, appeared on The Dick Cavett Show. Part of Benny’s schtick, for those of you who don’t remember him, involved bad violin playing. The topic of the violin came up and the talk moved toward a particularly well-known make of violin, the Stradivarius. When Cavett asked Benny why no one could make a violin as good as the Stradivarius, Benny told him there were already violins better out there.

Benny mentioned one name in particular, the Bergonza.

“But it sounds much nicer when I give concerts to say, ‘Jack Benny is here with his Stradivarius’ than ‘he’s here with his Bergonza.’” Benny explained to laughs from the audience. “You know, that could be anything!

You can watch the actual clip here, which includes a nice zinger directed at Cavett and his show. If you watch all the way to the end, you’ll hear a great answer to the question of whether he has life insurance:

And that brings us to the topic of this week’s grammar post. Some words that are perfectly innocent don’t necessarily sound it.

Here are 10 such words.

1. Angina

Many people recognize angina as chest pains. But because of a different word describing part of the female anatomy that happens to rhyme with this word, others might stare at you if you use this one.

2. Cockles

Someone special may warm the cockles of your heart, but if you say it out loud, you’ll get snickers. Used that way, it refers to the small chambers of your heart, but has an emotional rather than health-related context. Cockles can also mean a variety of small saltwater clams.

3. Dongle

It sounds like something dirty, but it’s actually an innocent piece of computer hardware. It’s usually a short cable that connects a computer to another device or serves as an adapter between a computer and a cable.

4. Gesticulate

If this word reminds of you of the word gesture, then you’ve earned a cookie. To gesticulate means to use gestures to emphasize speech.

5. Masticate

You know that “activity” everyone jokes about teenage boys doing at every opportunity? This isn’t it. But it’s just close enough to make some people think you may have mispronounced that other word. To “masticate” means to chew.

6. Matriculate

You may get stares if you use this word for the same reason you’d get stares for “masticate.” To matriculate means to be enrolled in a college or university.

7. Rectory

This word is just close enough to rectum to get smirks. But it refers to the residence of a priest or certain other clergymen.

8. Seamen

This word can have a specific or general meaning with regard to the sea. Specifically, it can be a noncommissioned rank in the United States Navy or Coast Guard between apprentice and petty officer. Generally, it can be a person who serves as a sailor or who is skilled in seamanship. But it’s pronunciation sounds like semen, so it can easily get laughs.

9. Titular

This word, which might make you think of something to do with a lady’s bosom, refers to the title of something. Auric Goldfinger is the titular character of the classic James Bond film, Goldfinger.

10. Uranus

Our seventh planet has the unfortunate luck of a name that sounds like “your anus.” The planet’s name, despite attempts to pronounce it with a heavy stress on the first syllable to lessen the effect, has been — I just have to — the butt of jokes for nearly 200 years. And when there’s talk of renaming it, some of the suggestions don’t get much better. Click that link and check out the comments!

Your Turn

Have you ever used a completely innocent word only to get stares from people around you who thought you meant something else? Which words were the culprits?


  1. I recall someone suggesting that “innuendo” was the Italian word for suppository.
    I know that some intellectuals are annoyed at such little wordplays, finding them juvenile, but I find it an amusing exercise. Perhaps it is juvenile, but those parts of my mind containing maturity and intellect are not prone to laughter, so I will allow my inner adolescent to play.

    Some obvious examples are titillate, penal, aster, succubus, fallacy, titmouse, cunning and testy.

    And, if you are a Parisian shepherd near the sea, then phoque ewe!

  2. Except for seaman and of course, Uranus (which I do pronounce YER-ah-nēs [there is no Schwa e on the iPad] to avoid that sort of ridiculousness – as a lover of astronomy, it is vital to do that), that list has never gotten me so much as a chuckle. I use those words often and the only response I’ve gotten is “huh„? from those ignorant of those particular words.
    But using big words has its price…“pusillanimous„, one of my personal favourites, often is repeated as “#####-what„? Groan. Go look it up!
    I wonder at the inane responses to better words…they can’t ALL be innuendoes, you know. But people seem to want every word to mean something sexual. As if there were not enough of what are referred to as “dirty„ words, a reference I don’t use. There is only one group of words I absolutely have nothing to do with: slurs, whether they are racial, regarding peoples’ sexuality or anything of that nature. I used to come down extremely hard on employees who used slurs around others and find them to be unacceptable in any fashion.
    I hate to think words like that are still in use. But it seems that they will never go away.

  3. patricksplace psalm23 I should add, with vehemence, that I don’t consider either “thespian” or “lesbian” to be “dirty words.” I just took another look at the title of the post and am mortified that anyone misunderstand my reply.  😐

  4. You left out every high-school theater department’s claim to fame: “thespians.” When said correctly, it’s not really that close, but throw a “zb” in the middle instead of “sp” and…yeah. I’m not sure if it’s as big of a deal these days, but in my high school days, the jocks all thought it was hysterical to wander near the auditorium calling people “[adjective] Thespians” on a regular basis.  …sigh

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 29 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.