The term taboo language refers to words and phrases that are generally considered inappropriate in certain contexts.
Social anthropologist Edmund Leach identified three major categories of taboo words and phrases in English:
1. "Dirty" words that are concerned with sex and excretion, such as "bugger," "shit."
2. Words that have to do with the Christian religion, such as "Christ" and "Jesus."
3. Words which are used in "animal abuse" (calling a person by the name of an animal), such as "bitch," "cow."
(Bróna Murphy, Corpus and Sociolinguistics: Investigating Age and Gender in Female Talk, 2010)
The use of taboo language is apparently as old as language itself. "You taught me language," Caliban says in the first act of Shakespeare's The Tempest, "and my profit on't / Is, I know how to curse."
"The word taboo was first introduced into European languages by Captain Cook in his description of his third voyage around the world, when he visited Polynesia. Here, he witnessed the ways in which the word taboo was used for certain avoidance customs ranging across widely different things… "
(The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Ritual and Religion, 2011)
Examples and Observations
"People constantly censor the language they use (we differentiate this from the institutionalized imposition of censorship)…
"In contemporary western society, taboo and euphemism are closely entwined with the concepts of politeness and face (basically, a person's self-image). Generally, social interaction is oriented toward behaviour that is courteous and respectful, or at least inoffensive. Participants have to consider whether what they are saying will maintain, enhance, or damage their own face, as well as to be considerate of, and care for, the face needs of others."
(Keith Allan and Kate Burridge, Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring of Language. Cambridge University Press, 2006)
Tips on Using Four-Letter Words in Writing
"Someone in my position has had to devise some rough rules governing the use of four-letter words. My own set of rules I now put in writing for the first time. In what follows, they and them stand for what were once obscenities.
(Kingsley Amis, The King's English: A Guide to Modern Usage. HarperCollins, 1997)
- Use them sparingly and, as classicists used to say, for special effect only.
- Even in low farce, never use any of them in its original or basic meaning unless perhaps to indicate that a character is some kind of pompous buffoon or other undesirable. Even straightforward excretory ones are tricky.
- They may be used in dialogue, though remember rule 1. An attempt at humor will often justify their appearance…
- If in doubt, strike it out, taking 'it' here as one of them."
Linguists on Taboo Language in Cultural Contexts
"Discussion of verbal insults invariably raises the question of obscenity, profanity, 'cuss words,' and other forms of taboo language. Taboo words are those that are to be avoided entirely, or at least avoided in 'mixed company' or 'polite company.' Typical examples involve common swear words such as Damn! or Shit! The latter is heard more and more in 'polite company,' and both men and women use both words openly. Many, however, feel that the latter word is absolutely inappropriate in 'polite' or formal contexts. In place of these words, certain euphemisms--that is polite substitutes for taboo words--can be used…
"What counts as taboo language is something defined by culture, and not by anything inherent in the language."
(Adrian Akmajian, Richard Demers, Ann Farmer, and Robert Harnish, Linguistics: An Introduction to Language and Communication. MIT Press, 2001)
"Linguists have taken a neutral and descriptive stance on taboo words. The role of linguistic studies has been to document which words are avoided in what situations…
"Words themselves are not 'taboo,"dirty,' or 'profane.' Many of the words currently considered inappropriate in public settings were the neutral, normal term for an object or action in earlier forms of English. The word 'shit' was not always deemed inappropriate or impolite. In a similar way, many languages of the world still treat bodily functions in a less euphemistic manner."
(Peter J. Silzer, "Taboo." Encyclopedia of Linguistics, ed. by Philipp Strazny. Taylor & Francis, 2005)
The Lighter Side of Taboo Language
Shifting Standards in South Park
- Ms. Choksondik: All right children,… I'm supposed to clarify the school's position on the word "shit."
- Stan: Wow! We can say "shit" in school now?
- Kyle: This is ridiculous. Just because they say it on TV, it's all right?
- Ms. Choksondik: Yes, but only in the figurative noun form or the adjective form.
- Cartman: Huh?
- Ms. Choksondik: You can only use it in the nonliteral sense. For instance, "That's a shitty picture of me" is now fine. However, the literal noun form of writes on the board "This is a picture of shit" is still naughty.
- Cartman: I don't get it.
- Stan: Me neither.
- Ms. Choksondik: The adjective form is now also acceptable. For example, "The weather outside is shitty." However, the literal adjective is not appropriate. For example, "My bad diarrhea made the inside of the toilet all shitty, and I had to clean it with a rag, which then also became shitty." That's right out!
- Timmy: Sssh… shit!
- Ms. Choksondik: Very good, Timmy.
- Butters: Ms. Choksondik, can we say the expletive, like "Oh shit!" or "Shit on a shingle"?
- Ms. Choksondik: Yes, that's now fine.
- Cartman: Wow! This is gonna be great! A whole new word!
("It Hits the Fan." South Park, 2001
Taboo Language in Monty Python's Flying Circus
Voice Over: The BBC would like to apologize for the poor quality of the writing in that sketch. It is not BBC policy to get easy laughs with words like bum, knickers, botty or wee-wees. (Off-camera laughter) Sh!
(Cut to a man standing by a screen with a clicker.)
BBC Man: These are the words that are not to be used again on this program.
(He clicks the clicker. The following slides appear on screen:
(A woman comes into the shot.)
BBC Man: (pointing) Out!
(Cut back to the chemist's shop.)
Chemist: Right, who's got a boil on his semprini, then?
(A policeman appears and bundles him off.)
(Eric Idle, Michael Palin, and John Cleese in "The Chemist Sketch." Monty Python's Flying Circus, Oct. 20, 1970)