NSFW spelled out with scrabble letters
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NSFW is an odd, versatile internet acronym that’s found its way into internet articles and social media posts. But what does NSFW mean, where’d it come from, and how do you use it? Don’t worry—this article is SFW.

Not Safe for Work

The acronym NSFW stands for “not safe for work.” When used correctly, NSFW is a warning that indicates a link to a webpage, video, photo, or audio clip contains inappropriate content. Although the word is usually associated with pornography, it’s often used as a warning label for violent, foul, offensive, or even politically charged content.

Despite its literal meaning (not safe for work), the NSFW acronym is used to save you from any kind of public embarrassment (or, you know, from traumatizing your kids). You may see it in the title of a YouTube video, in the header of an email, or before an outgoing link on a website or news article.

In some cases, NSFW is used to indicate that a webpage may make you uncomfortable—that’s how broad of a word we’re dealing with. In these situations, NSFW is sometimes accompanied by a “trigger word” or “TW” label. A video that contains detailed images of war, for example, may be labeled “NSFW TW: War,” or something to that effect.

NSFW Etymology

Avoiding inappropriate content used to be a relatively easy task. Movies carried an R rating, dirty magazines were marked as such, and The Maury Show opened with a warning that you should kick any children out of the room ASAP.

But in the age of the internet, anyone can create content. And as you’d expect, people rarely feel the need to mark their photos, videos, and webpages as inappropriate. (To be fair, people usually post their “inappropriate” content in communities where said content is actually considered appropriate.)

A little boy covers his sister's eyes at the computer.
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From this angle, NSFW looks like a modern incarnation of “This show contains scenes that may offend some viewers.” And while that may be how it’s used now, the word actually came about as a response to a very specific problem.

As reported by VICE, the word NSFW extends from the culture of the Snopes.com’s forum. Back in 1998, a woman came on the forum to complain that users should label inappropriate posts as “NFBSK” — “not for British school kids.” Maybe she should’ve bought a copy of the Net Nanny software.

Anyway, this complaint turned into a Snopes in-joke, which was so gosh dang funny that Snopes decided to create a NFBSK forum. (Don’t bother looking for it; it’s basically a yearlong South Park episode.)

NFBSK became popularized as a joke, but it addressed a serious problem that other words failed to describe. The internet is dirty, but it’s everywhere. Over time, NFBSK slowly made its way into myriad forums and chatrooms. It simplified into “NSFW,” and hey, now it’s in the Webster’s dictionary!

When Do You Say NSFW?

Unlike some other internet jargon, using the word NSFW is very easy. You can use it as a label, or you can use it as a literal acronym in a sentence. That’s all there is to it.

As a label, NSFW is only useful if it comes before the inappropriate content you’re sending. It belongs in the header of an email, Reddit post, or website. And although websites like YouTube like to autoplay videos, adding “NSFW” to the title of inappropriate videos is still a good idea.

A man looks disgusted. Clearly, he's opened some unlabeled NSFW content.
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And yes, you should do this for text messages, too. Just add “NSFW” to messages that contain links to inappropriate content. If you’re attaching photos or videos to a message, ask the recipient if they can receive NSFW content before you hit that send button. (If you think this will make them uncomfortable, you probably shouldn’t be sending them inappropriate content anyway.)

As a literal acronym, you simply use NSFW where it fits grammatically as “not safe for work.” If someone sends you a link, for example, you could ask, “Is this NSFW?”

We mentioned the phrase SFW (safe for work) earlier in this article. Like, NSFW, the word SFW can be used as a label or as a literal acronym. You can label messages, emails, or links as SFW, and you can ask your friends questions like, “Is this SFW?”


Now that you know how to recognize and use the word NSFW, why not expand your internet vocabulary with some other freaky words? Like NSFW, acronyms like TLDR and FOMO
are regularly used in news articles and on your favorite social media outlets. They’re worth knowing, and don’t worry, they’re SFW.

Andrew Heinzman Andrew Heinzman
Andrew Heinzman writes for How-To Geek and Review Geek. Like a jack-of-all-trades, he handles the writing and image editing for a mess of tech news articles, daily deals, product reviews, and complicated explainers.
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