It’s funny that that episode should have gone out today, in light of a turn the conversation took at lunch today. Doug was telling Adam about making his way past some guards in a videogame, and mentioned how he “snuck” past them. That reminded me of various discussions I’ve read about the word snuck, like this one at Language Log, and this one from Sentence First (which I linked to a few months ago). The interesting thing about it, I told Doug and Adam, is that it’s a verb that started out with a regular past tense, sneaked, and recently developed an irregular one, instead of the more usual opposite direction.
“The subject came up on Twitter,” I said, “and one guy said something like…”
Turns out ‘snuck’ is a relatively recent Americanism. When I learned that, I totally fruck out.
“That sounds too much like the F-word,” Adam said.
“You’re right. Maybe that’s why it hasn’t caught on,” I said. In writing the Grammar Girl episode, I wanted to say something about this phenomenon of taboo words contaminating phonetically similar but semantically and etymologically unrelated words, such as feck, niggardly, or Uranus, but had to cut the material for length considerations. It’s interesting that taboo can have such an effect, but it doesn’t always take, as attested by the continued use of words such as ship, sheet, puck, fact, fax, flack, flak, and fleck. (Although the phonetic resemblances have certainly served as the basis for taboo-related puns, like “Let’s make like a hockey player, and get the puck out of here!”) As far as I know, no one has a good explanation for the occasional absence of this taboo effect.
In the same vein, if a word’s multiple meanings include a taboo meaning, that meaning can come to drive out the non-taboo meanings. This can happen whether the word in its taboo sense is actually considered vulgar (for example beaver), or socially acceptable (for example, arouse). Linguistics textbooks will sometimes point out the case of cock and ass, whose jobs had to be taken over by rooster and donkey. But on the other hand, hello, dam, damage and damp haven’t suffered.
The ironic thing is that even people who have no problem with using actual cuss words will often avoid taboo-contaminated words. Are there words you won’t use because they sound too close to an obscenity, a profanity, or even an acceptable word for a taboo topic?