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Catching up on past episodes of Lingua Franca, I was amused to hear a pair of experts in linguistics, Dr. Keith Allan and Prof. Kate Burridge, describe taboo subjects and the way in which we use slang and swear words to censor our language. It can’t be easy for academics to speak about such delicate matters without sounding utterly ridiculous, given the necessary real life utterances as examples, but this pair manage it. I’ll even admit to an instinctive titter at the sound of some of the “rude words” – although, of course, this may also have been a simple expression of glee at those wonderful Australian vowel-sounds.
Unfortunately the audio file is no longer available on the ABC website, so here’s a brief summary of some of the things they discussed:
WARNING: Please don’t read this post if you are offend by coarse language.
I’ve tried to avoid being gratuitous, but this post does contain occasional references to coarse language.
How to tell your euphemisms from your orthophemisms
- Euphemism: a mild, inoffensive expression for something which is unpleasant or embarrassing, e.g. poo
- Dysphemism: a harsh, blunt, deliberately offensive expression, e.g. shit
- Orthophemism: a term coined by Allan and Burridge to account for direct or neutral expressions that are neither euphemist nor dysphemistic, e.g. faeces
- X-phemism: a collective term, referring to a set of all the above. E.g. the x-phemism for poo, shit and faeces refers to the same thing, but the individual terms are used in different ways to denote different styles and connotations.
- Euphemistic dysphemism: expressions which are seemingly at odds with the sentiment that lurks behind them, e.g. golly gosh, goodness me, strewth, cor blimey, etc. Apparently, many of these sprang up during the Renaissance when there were laws against using blasphemy on stage.
- Dysphemistic euphemism: using a dysphemism as a term of endearment, e.g. g’day you old bastard, hi bitch, etc.
The power of the forbidden
Did you know that English has more than 1,000 terms for penis, 1,200 for vagina, another 800 for copulation and an extraordinary 2,000 to describe “wanton women”?!
Of course, language is in a constant state of change, and taboo words rise and fall with it. Studies have clearly proven what we all instinctively know, i.e. that while forbidden words are more memorable and evocative than other word stimuli, they lose their punch through frequency of use. Interestingly, too, studies on bilinguals have shown that taboo words are more evocative in a person’s first language than their second, regardless of the degree of fluency.
The evolving shock-value of a term has legal implications too. Allan and Burbidge mention a defendant recently charged with using offensive language, whose case was eventually dismissed. Consideration was given to the extreme prevalence in the community of these particular, albeit savage, swear words and their frequency in the general media. Given all this, the magistrate concluded that while the language used was indeed offensive to good taste and manners, it could not in this day and age be considered intrinsically offensive in the legal sense. The point was made that any form of racist language, on the other hand, would not have been dismissed, in lines with the sensibilities of society today.
Such is the power of taboo words that some of them even contaminate similar words with completely unrelated meanings. For example:
- Coney (to rhyme with honey) was originally the English word for rabbit, until it faded from popular use around the 1800s. It began to be considered obscene as it sounded like a word (still used today) to refer to female genitalia.
- Feck has absolutely no etymological connection to the versatile F word we all know and love, but is still no longer used in its original sense.
- Niggardly is another innocent bystander which has suffered decreased use as a result of connotation leakage.
There’s also a discussion of the power of the use of FCUK as a brand name for a popular clothing line.
Anyway, if you’re interested in all this talk of swear words (and judging by the keywords readers use to find this blog, many of you are), Burbidge and Allan have written a book called Forbidden words: taboo and the censoring of language. There’s a thorough review of the book here and a more general introduction to the linguistics of cussing here, if that’s what you’re after. Finally, Wikipedia do an excellent run-down on profanity, including a short section on the topics most likely to be the subject of bad words in a range of different languages and religions. Knock yourself out.
Personally, I’m interested in why I’ve long had the feeling that it is more acceptable to use frequent and colourful swear words (within a set of specific, unspoken circumstances) in certain circles of Irish society, while this same behaviour has… I mean, would produce mild shock or horror among otherwise equivalent circles of, say, British or Australian society. Does anybody know if there’s a word for this, or an area of study which examines the different frequency and impact of taboo words within regional variations of the same language??