Taboo or not Taboo, What’s in a Word?

Words. Sounds. Language. How and why do some words become taboo, and why should mere words ever be taboo?

There is something wrong with me, at least according to some people. I have an odd affliction that threatens to make me a pariah in polite company. I am not offended by bad language, not even a little. Bad language does not hurt my ears or cause my heart to flutter. Insult me and I will be upset, but I am indifferent as to whether the words of abuse are profanities, swearwords, blasphemies, or not. I am no fan of abusive behaviour, but it is equally possible to abuse people without using bad language, and to use bad language without abusing anybody. As a consequence, the use of profanity does not, of itself, greatly concern me, no matter what context it is used in. In turn, I do not feel greatly compelled to censor myself from using profanity. Of course, I do censor, but only because life would be even more tedious if I was subjected to the protestations of the easily offended. Unfortunately for me, I know plenty of intelligent people who seem to get unreasonably unhappy, angry or upset when a taboo word is used their presence. What is this power these swearwords have, like the magic spells of a sorcerer, to shock and bemuse?

I have been reading Don Quixote for what seems like an age. The storytelling is robust, with lots of falling off of horses and bashing of people around the head and ribs. However, I was surprised when I read the following lines in Part II, Chapter XIII of my English translation, which begin with Sancho Panza talking about his daughter:

‘She’s fifteen, give or take a couple of years,’ Sancho replied, ‘but she’s as tall as a lance, and as fresh as an April morning, and as strong as a market porter.’
‘With those assets,’ replied the Squire of the Forest, ‘she could be not just a countess but a very nymph of the greenwood. Oh the little whore, what muscles the little bastard must have on her!’

Part II of Don Quixote was published in 1615. The use of the words “whore” and “bastard” do not trouble me in general, and I am sure people were saying plenty worse back then. However, even I was a little taken aback. These lines are introduced without any forewarning, in the midst of an amiable conversation between the two characters. In the story, Sancho reacts by being peeved at the way his daughter is described by the Squire of the Forest. The Squire nevertheless wins Sancho over:

‘How little you know,’ replied the Squire of the Forest, ‘about the language of compliments… when one of the horsemen of the bullring deals the bull a good lance-thrust, or when anyone does something with great skill, people say: “He’s a clever bastard, look how well the bugger did that!” and what might seem like insults are, in this setting, high praise? And you should disown, my dear sir, any sons and daughters who don’t do deeds that earn praise like that for their parents.’

By the argument of the Squire of the Forest, foul language can be used to convey esteem and awe. This argument, fictional or not, is about four hundred years old. To my mind it still has a ring of truth to it. Whereas implying Sancho’s daughter was an illegitimate child who turned to prostitution may not seem like the wisest way to express praise, it does seem correct to argue that swearwords are reserved for the expression of intense emotions, and these emotions may be positive as well as negative. You do hear people use swearwords to express favour as well as well as disdain. If swearing is sometimes a positive form of communication, the objection to swearwords cannot be based on their being solely deprecating. We must look for the objections elsewhere.

In my experience, most people complain about swearing because of the supposed meaning of the words. That is a striking argument, because, in practice, the meanings of swearwords are often irrelevant to their use. The meaning and purpose of words is very frequently determined by context. For example, if I hammer my thumb instead of the intended nail, the words I am likely to utter are probably not meant to be a succinct observation about my disappointingly poor aim. They are rather a signal I hurt myself, that I am in pain, and somewhat unhappy. The actual meanings of the words I cry could hardly matter less. However, that is perhaps part of the problem. The source of discomfort for some people is that my outburst must borrow from the profane in order to express my own emotions at that moment. Yet, at that moment, borrowing from the profane is exactly the right thing to do if my communication is to succeed. The profane allows me to succinctly convey the right level of gravity. At that point, there is no aspiration to intellectual conversation; the very reason for the utterance is primitive.

The funny thing about swearwords is that there will tend to be perfectly acceptable synonyms which we may use in polite society. Masturbation. Faeces. Testicles. Vagina. They are not swear words. They mean the same thing as some very common swearwords. Meaning alone, therefore, is not the reason why swearwords are considered bad or impolite. If you look at the words I have just listed, and consider their profane substitutes, the most obvious difference is that the swearwords at easier to pronounce with gusto and relish. They sound vulgar. Is it my imagination, or do swear words have a tendency to different vowels? They seem to contain a lot more o’s and u’s, instead of a’s and e’s. Is it just that words with deep sounds are considered more coarse than synonyms that have to be pronounced in higher pitch? The phrase “four letter word” also gives us a clue to the nature of swearwords. They tend to be short, and to the point. They often consist of just one syllable, and rarely more than two. They can be said quickly, brusquely. The same meanings, but expressed slowly, are permitted in polite language. Why is that? There is an old joke that goes something like the following:

A farmer’s wife is sat at the kitchen table, sharing a cup of tea with her neighbour, who has come round for a chat. The farmer walks in, smelling awful, and announces he has just finished tilling the fields with manure and wants to go upstairs and have a bath. When he leaves the room, the neighbour says ‘can’t you get him to say fertilizer instead? Manure sounds so coarse’. The farmer’s wife responds: ‘I wish! It took me ten years to get him to use the word manure!

Sounds, divorced of meaning, are perfectly harmless. The sound of a swearword cannot be the cause of pain in some listeners. Even the most sensitive people are going to struggle to object to swearwords if they are said in a language they do not happen to understand. I could ride up and down the Tokyo subway all day long, but I would have no way of ever being offended by the choice of words of my fellow commuters, because I do not understand Japanese. Whatever they may say, I only hear unintelligible sounds. Those sounds have no good or bad meaning without the knowledge of the language. Sounds have something to do with why people dislike swearing, but for people to be offended they must also learn that the words are taboo. For the same reason, I have no right to be offended if foreigners are sometimes unaware of the niceties of the English language. I can remember verbatim the words of the following. Beijing is a city where you usually pay to use the public restrooms. These words were found on a neatly printed sign inside the free public toilet of a Beijing park:

This toilet is free of cleaning,
So please hold off from pissing and shitting.

None of us are born knowing which words are good and which are bad. That is why dramatists can invent new swearwords without anyone complaining. The words they invent sound coarse and may be similar to swear words. We could even work out what the analogous swearwords, and hence meanings, would be in the real world. Dramatists do this out of the necessity to satisfy the censor. It is strange that such obvious workarounds are an acceptable way to depict aspects of behaviour we are meant to recognize from real life. Truly realistic depictions are not considered seemly, but recognizable contrivances are tolerated. They are seemingly tolerated because, despite the clear associations, these invented words fall outside of any currently established prescriptions. To illustrate, here are a few examples drawn from television from around the world:

  • “Scrot” – a derogatory term of reference from the classic British prison comedy Porridge
  • “Rack off” – forceful instruction to leave from Australian soap Neighbours
  • Frack” and “Frak” – respectively from the original and new versions of the US science fiction show Battlestar Galactica

The funny thing is, these bowdlerized versions of real swearwords work in drama because we already know the meaning. We may not know what a “scrot” is (although the word is highly suggestive) or how to “rack”, but we do not need to know the true ‘meaning’ of these words. The meaning in use is determined by the dramatic context. “Scrot” will refer to some person, and not in a particularly complimentary way, but not in an especially deprecating way either. “Rack off” means “go away” except conveys more emotion. The ability to infer meaning from context makes it all the more peculiar that make-believe swearwords are acceptable to an audience, when actual swearwords would not. However, we cannot follow this rationale too far. The similarity between the make-believe word “frack” in Battlestar Galactica and the real word “fuck” caused the makers to substitute the alternative nonsense word “felgercarb” in episodes shown in earlier timeslots!

The people most likely to be chastised for swearing are the people least likely to understand the true meanings of swearwords: children. Perhaps that is the reason why a rational analysis of the profane is impossible. The essence of swearing is that it is taboo, and hence not allowed to be subjected to rational analysis. Children are trained to believe certain words are prohibited. As adults, they may continue to conform to their training. In time, they will condition their own children’s behaviour. However, the reasons for why a word becomes taboo may be forgotten over time. When communities separate and their language traditions evolve separately, what is considered a swear word for one community may be considered inoffensive or mild in the other. In the US “fanny” is relatively harmless, being synonymous with buttocks, but in the UK it is impolite and means vagina. Similarly, nobody in America would have objected to the movie title “Free Willy” or to Will Smith’s album called “Big Willie Stylee”, though any British schoolchild would have had a naughty chuckle about the inadvertent use of the slang word for penis. The strength of prescription over words depends on the strength of reinforcement in subsequent generations. If those generations take an alternate view, then the rules about what words are forbidden will also change. Take a look at this very readable history of British swearwords and you get the sense of how meanings and attitudes change over time. Also take a look at this sketch from Armstrong and Miller, which highlights in a humorous way just how language, including swearing, must change with the times:

Dictionaries contain words based on how people use them, not on how they should they use them. People often think it is the other way round, but dictionaries ultimately base their definitions on observation of how language is really used. That is why there is a recognized vernacular for textspeak, reflecting how mobile phone use is changing our language. Dictionaries may seek to highlight that a word is rude or vulgar, but that should not deny people a legitimate right to use a word that is rude or vulgar. It is only proper all words be acknowledged as having their respective meanings, even if some would prefer those words were never used. I could keep on writing, but the attitude of society is better expressed by observing how people really behave than by what I or anyone else writes. Take a look at this clip from the television word game Countdown. In the show, it is part of the art of host Richard Whiteley to effortless fill for a few seconds whenever words need to be looked up in the dictionary. Notice how he retains just the right level of gravity to keep the show amiably moving along, without encouraging or discouraging the mirth of the audience. Not bad going for a host who must be very aware the show will be broadcast in the late afternoon, when children have returned home from school.

At present, the current obsession of society is to protect children, a somewhat strange idea given that children will inevitably grow up and have to learn what taboo words mean anyway. Many taboo words represent bodily actions and parts of the anatomy that even children must be familiar with anyhow. The failure to teach a child, at the appropriate juncture in their development, about the underpinnings of taboos may ultimately be a hindrance to their development. As adults they will encounter taboo words, and ignorance may deepen their embarrassment or limit their options for how to respond.

Profanity is a matter of fashion as well as meaning and sounds. Blasphemy used to be considered a very serious sin, and people would invent mixed oaths to avoid taking the Lord’s name in vain. Examples of mixed oaths include golly or dickens or Jiminy Cricket. On the Watergate tapes, the most common phrase to be replaced by the infamous “expletive deleted” was “God damn”. To modern ears that curse sounds pretty tame, but blaspheming would have done nothing to boost Nixon’s popularity with his god-fearing core voters. In general, blasphemy is taken far less seriously today. At the same time, the Bible can be interpreted to have its share of rude words. The King James version has this at Kings 2, Chapter 18:

hath he not sent me to the men which sit on the wall, that they may eat their own dung, and drink their own piss with you?

In contrast to blasphemy, words that have a strong sexual or especially a racial context seem to have far stronger prohibitions than ever before. This has also resulted in some particularly strange conflicts about how and when it is acceptable and unacceptable to use certain words with connotations of race and sexual orientation. The term “queer”, which at base just means to be different to the norm, became an increasingly derogatory way of referring to homosexuals. It came to be considered a form of abuse that was increasingly frowned upon in polite society. Eventually, though, the word has been taken back and inverted by the gay community. The word “queer” is now used as a signature of gay empowerment. A similar thing has happened to the word “nigger”, derived from the word “negro”. The debate about when this word can be used is particularly thorny, with some inconsistent standards applied in different communities. A good example of the debate was prompted by Spike Lee’s uproar about the use of the word “nigger” by fellow movie director Quentin Tarantino. In turn, black actor Samuel Jackson intervened to defend white director Tarantino’s use of the word and to criticize Lee for trying to reserve it solely for use by black artists. Trying to differentiate usage between the different spellings of “nigger” and “nigga”, or setting different standards for when a black person uses the word as opposed to a white person, has only added to the confusion over what society considers taboo. In the ultimate inversion, the positive use of the word “nigger” by a segment of the black community was turned on its head yet again in a controversial (but very funny) comedy routine by American comedian Chris Rock. Rock, a black comedian, translated the badge of pride associated with the word “nigger” and linked it to stereotypes of behaviour he wanted to disassociate from the wider black community. Take a look:

There is no doubt that some swear to shock and to get attention. This brief history of British public swearing, however, contains equally as many counter-examples as examples of the theory that people do it to draw attention to themselves. Comics like Viz, which has a ‘Profanisaurus’ and television shows like South Park very obviously aim to amuse by flirting with the forbidden, and swearing is a big part of that. However, I have no time for the argument that using swearwords will somehow lead to diminishing powers of expression over time. I am not offended by swearwords and I use them sometimes, but I cannot see how that would prevent me from learning or using other words. Words are words. You learn how to use them by using them. One word cannot sap power from another. If I use the word “rhinoceros” that does not cause me to forget the word “rhubarb”. A fair few people have responded to my requests for tolerance towards bad language with a counter-argument about the loss of expressive ability. Each time I have wondered whether my interlocutor really believes they have a superior vocabulary as a consequence of abstaining from swearing. If so, they certainly failed to demonstrate any superior ability to articulate their argument whilst they were making it. I imagine the belief that profanity leads to diminished linguistic skill is really a closeted way of propounding outmoded snobbish values about class and social rank. I am sure there are some snobs who hate foul language, but there are plenty of very well-educated and cultured people who not only tolerate it but embrace it too.

As intimated, I have lenient attitude to swearing, because I usually struggle to see what harm is really being done. It is not that I am endlessly liberal in my opinions. There is certainly a segment of the entertainment industry that feeds upon the base in an unhealthy way. I worry that movie after movie depicts teenagers being remorselessly hacked to death. I do not worry about hearing an endless stream of cuss words in a movie, not that anyone would dare to make a movie with an endless stream of cuss words, because even teenage slasher films avoid bad language. However, my point of view is not shared by all. In practice, casual profanity tends to attract far more opprobrium than the fictionalized and fantastic cruelty which has entered the mainstream of entertainment. Of greater concern is the tendency for the prohibition of one word to lead to the prohibition of another. Consider the use of the word “fuck” in Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The acceptability of its use was keenly debated in the obscenity trail that followed publication. Consider also its use in the poem This Be The Verse by Philip Larkin, which begins:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.

Replacing the word “fuck” with gentle euphemisms simply will not do. These works, and others, would be nothing without the right to use the word “fuck”. The word “fuck” has a meaning and an intensity borne of its actual use by real people; insisting it should never be used is to insist on a fantasy be presented instead of life as we know it to be. The comedian Lenny Bruce summed it up when he said: “Life is a four-letter word.” None of this means that every creative work which uses the word “fuck” will automatically have merit, but nor does it mean they automatically lack merit either. Living in an edited fiction would be the real diminution of our language, as surely as if the words were erased and our language were replaced with some kind of Orwellian Newspeak. Shocking and vulgar things happen in life; it cannot be all high-minded ideals and cool reflection stated in full sentences with words of four syllables or more. Sometimes our modes of expression need to be intense, emotional and immediate, like when I hit my thumb with a hammer, or when somebody suffers from irrational hatred, or somebody else is taken over by sexual desire. Constraining our language will not modify our souls. We need words that reflect those more primitive aspects of our being as well. To tackle the problems of life, we sometimes have to face them head-on, and that includes the problems with the language we use in life. Bruce pointed out the cachet of profanity depends upon prohibition. This is what Bruce, a Jew, had to say about the use of racially offensive words:

Are there any niggers here tonight? Could you turn on the house lights, please, and could the waiters and waitresses just stop serving, just for a second? And turn off this spot. Now what did he say? “Are there any niggers here tonight?” I know there’s one nigger, because I see him back there working. Let’s see, there’s two niggers. And between those two niggers sits a kyke. And there’s another kyke— that’s two kykes and three niggers. And there’s a spic. R ight? Hmm? There’s another spic. Ooh, there’s a wop; there’s a polack; and, oh, a couple of greaseballs. And there’s three lace-curtain Irish micks. And there’s one, hip, thick, hunky, funky, boogie. Boogie boogie. Mm-hmm. I got three kykes here, do I hear five kykes? I got five kykes, do I hear six spics, I got six spics, do I hear seven niggers? I got seven niggers. Sold American. I pass with seven niggers, six spics, five micks, four kykes, three guineas, and one wop. Well, I was just trying to make a point, and that is that it’s the suppression of the word that gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness. Dig: if President Kennedy would just go on television, and say, “I would like to introduce you to all the niggers in my cabinet,” and if he’d just say “nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger” to every nigger he saw, “boogie boogie boogie boogie boogie,” “nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger” ’til nigger didn’t mean anything anymore, then you could never make some six-year-old black kid cry because somebody called him a nigger at school.

If we follow Bruce’s logic to its ultimate conclusion, then prohibition only gives words a power over us. Yes, some people will succumb to prohibition. However, others will profit from breaking the rules, and the stricter the rules, the greater the profit. No matter how well enforced, there will always be reason to break those rules. The enforcement would have to be pretty severe to put people off. In 1965, When critic Kenneth Tynan became the first person to use the word “fuck” on British television, one Member of Parliament called for him to be executed! Now, the worst that can happen is a broadcaster will be censured and made to say sorry. Take the recent example where the BBC broadcast the Live Earth concerts. As the event was billed “Live Earth” the corporation understandably broadcast the event live. Yet British regulator Ofcom took umbrage at the fact this allowed some of the participant’s swearing to also be broadcast live, well before the watershed hours for children. Ofcom made the BBC transmit its findings, and hence its rebuke. How ironic that the broadcaster gets blamed for airing the unedited content of a live show, because the regulator feels the content would have appealed to children. What then of any children in the live audience? Or of the participants responsible for swearing at this charity event? All that censorship serves to do is to keep some people ignorant of what others learn about life, and it is not clear to me that the ignorant are better off.

Mark Twain admired the use of obscene language, a skill which he learned from the steamboatmen of the Mississippi river. In time, he became a proficient expert in the art of cursing. His devotion to the art was so great, he once said:

If I cannot swear in heaven I shall not stay there.

We should not be surprised that intelligent people can take joy from the earthiest forms of self-expression. They are just as valid as any other way to communicate, and may have the virtue of attaining their ends far more directly than the finest-worded plea or most logical of arguments. Twain took great joy from seeing real life at first hand. William Shakespeare also understood the natures, lives and desires of people all around him, and in his audience. He knew very well how to accommodate the baser instincts amidst his iambic pentameter. His artistry is so lost to most modern audiences, that when you see his plays performed today, you will typically see his graphic puns needing to be visually reinforced by the gestures of the actors. I lose track of how many times I have seen the upward pointing of a sword, or the raising of a wine bottle or similar object, in order to highlight a Shakespearean sexual play on words. In Romeo and Juliet, The Bard makes the philosophical observation:

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

A word is just a word. Words name the things we find around us. It is a fluke of linguistic evolution that the word “rose” is associated with a certain kind of flower and not with some basic bodily function. Perhaps, over time, its meaning will change and the association will change. Can the word, once good, become bad? I do not see how. Even if we dislike its associations, a word is just a word and we could substitute any other label at any time without having changed anything of substance. Shakespeare’s philosophical depth and artistry with words was matched by his understanding of the darker recesses of the human soul, including the taboo. Note this passage in Hamlet:

Hamlet: Lady shall I lie in your lap? [He lies at Ophelia’s feet]
Ophelia: No, my lord.
Hamlet: I mean, my head upon your lap?
Ophelia: Ay, my lord.
Hamlet: Do you think I meant country matters?

The same genius that ruminated on the meaning of the word “rose” also gave us a ribald pun on the word “country”. There is truth in humour and wordplay, and I would much rather live in a world where we are all at liberty to use and exchange words as we please, irrespective of taboos. For taboos to have power, we must respect them. For words to have power, we must use them. That is why I will always use any and every word I want, to express my meaning, and leave it somebody else to worry about taboos.

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