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How would you explain at what point using "sau-" for emphasis (z.B.: "Das ist saustark!") becomes somewhat offensive or vulgar with some word combinations?

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Personally: never. That's why this is a comment, and not an answer. ;-) – Jürgen A. Erhard Jan 6 '12 at 23:56
up vote 9 down vote accepted

The aggravating prefix "sau-" is considered as colloquial the most. You would not use it in other than a family or friends setting.

According to Duden it is classified as rather strong ("derb") when used with a negative connotation.

Therefore in most situations I recommend not to use it

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OK @takkat dann bitte das politisch korrekte Synonym für "Sauwetter" – bernd_k Jan 6 '12 at 13:29
@bernd_k: "Miserables Wetter"? – Jonas Jan 6 '12 at 14:11
@jonas akzeptabel im Gegensatz zu "Unwetter" was wohl nur von Nachrichtensprechern gebraucht wird, die nicht draußen und durchnässt sind – bernd_k Jan 6 '12 at 14:43
With appropriate family and friends, you wouldn't use it there too. – user unknown Jan 6 '12 at 19:14
@Takkat wenn du bis auf die Haut durchnässt noch von Schmuddelwetter sprichst, dann hast du eine ungewöhnlich gute Contenance. – bernd_k Jan 6 '12 at 21:48

It is not so much inappropriate, but it sounds pretty cheap.

"Saustark" and "saugut" are the most common forms to use "Sau-". In some commercial contexts you can hear "saugünstig".

The forms where it isn't appropriate are "saudoof", "saudumm" and other combinations... where it is used to say "dumb like a pig".

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I can't think of any word combinations, where "sau-" would be considered vulgar. In some situations you might not use it because of its very informal register.

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