Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Forbidden Words

Posted by Neal on October 2, 2006

In books on historical linguistics, a lot of attention is paid to kinds of phonetic change, processes of analogy and grammaticalization, and language contact. One topic that gets significantly less attention is taboo-induced change. For example, in the second edition of Hock’s Principles of Historical Linguistics (1991), taboo is discussed on nine out of 679 pages of text, whereas phonetic and phonological issues take up six chapters; analogy, three chapters; linguistic contact, three chapters; and the comparative method, two chapters. The five remaining chapters cover various other topics; most of the discussion of taboo occurs in the chapter on semantic change. But what Hock does write leaves the reader (OK, me) wanting more:

[T]aboo can lead to a constant turnover in vocabulary, such as in the English expression for ‘toilet’…. In some societies, the effect may be much more far reaching. For instance, it has been argued that the difficulties in tracing Tahitian vocabulary to its Proto-Polynesian sources are in large measure a consequence of massive taboo: Upon the death of a member of the royal family, every word which was a constituent part of that person’s name, or even any word sounding like it became taboo and had to be replaced by new words. (p. 294-295)

Remembering passages like that one, and having written about taboo language here, here, here, and here, and having read too many Language Log postings on taboo language to try to provide links to (but which are now indexed here), I was eager to read a piece of blog swag called Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring of Language by Keith Allan and Kate Burridge. I envisioned it as a powerful, book-length revelation of the pervasiveness of taboo in shaping language. Now that I’ve finished it, I can say that this book’s strength is in its breadth of types of taboo discussed, its coining of some possibly useful terms, and its overview of taboo language in the final chapter. However, problems in organization and style; omissions and shallow analyses; and general user-unfriendliness limit this book’s value as a just-for-fun linguistic read and as a reference.

Starting with the positives, I was pleased at the variety of taboo covered in this book. As you’d expect, there’s a chapter on “Sex and bodily effluvia,” and one on “Disease, death and killing.” There’s also one on “Taboo, naming and addressing,” which covers the kind of taboo mentioned above. Other chapters cover less obvious realms of taboo language: jargon and slang; political correctness; bad grammar (as decried by people like Lynne Truss, James Kilpatrick, and many others); and food and smell. Some of the terms coined in this book that could be useful and convenient for academic discussion of taboo language include:

  • orthophemism: a neutral term with neither positive connotations (cf. euphemism) nor negative ones (cf. dysphemism)
  • Middle Class Politeness Criterion: the standard by which speakers of a language are able to judge a term to be eu-/dys-/orthophemistic, even though it may be all three depending on the circumstances of its use

  • dysphemistic euphemism: the affectionate use of dysphemisms such as you old bastard

To the list I’ll also add the Allan-Burridge Law of Semantic Change. This refers to the process by which a word’s taboo meaning displaces other meanings, as for example with intercourse. The phenomenon has been recognized for a long time, but this the first time I’ve seen a label bestowed on it. Beyond these definitions, A&B make some good points about taboo language. One that I came away with was: If it seems like taboos are disappearing, they’re not. Or rather, they are, but as some taboos fade, others take their place. Thus, while sexually related words such as fuck may be becoming less taboo, ethnically related ones such as nigger are now strongly tabooed.

The final chapter is on “Taboo, censoring and the human brain,” and it comes closest to what I imagined the whole book would be. It discusses the Allan-Burridge Law, and cites neurological and other studies showing that taboo vocabulary is stored in a different location in the brain than other language. (Hence the ability of some otherwise aphasic people to cuss, and why it is taboo words instead of ordinary words that people with Tourette’s syndrome have an urge to blurt out.) In this chapter they make the strongest case (only hinted at earlier) that any attempt to banish dirty words has to fail: The very act of society’s forbidding it guarantees it a spot in the separate location in the brain for taboo language.

Unfortunately, these bright spots are countered by poor organization and awkward conclusions within the chapters, and occasional sloppy reasoning or omissions of relevant facts. Chapter 1, for example (“Taboos and their origins”), is boring for long stretches, in large part because a meandering presentation of various topics regarding taboos. A sequence of the sections runs: Fatal taboos; Uncleanliness taboos; Violating taboo and getting away with it; Exploiting taboo; Less serious taboos; There is no such thing as an absolute taboo. Eight more sections follow, showing enough clustering of similar topics in adjacent sections to make me think there was a cogent order, which led to frustration when I still repeatedly found myself asking, “Now where are they going with this?” As for the awkward conclusions, here’s part of the conclusion to chapter 1:

We have seen that infractions of taboos can lead to illness or death, as well as to the lesser penalties of ostracism or mere disapproval. (p. 26)

Several other chapters have this kind of less-than-inspiring “We showed… we discussed…” conclusion, often recycling passages from the beginnings of the chapter verbatim, as this one does from page 1:

Infractions of taboos can lead to illness or death, as well as to the lesser penalties of corporal punishment, incarceration, social ostracism or mere disapproval. (p.1)

Subsequent chapters are more interesting than chapter 1, but still poorly organized. At times, A&B start to focus more on the taboo topic itself than the language used to discuss it, and give insufficient transitional phrases to show the linguistic connection. Sometimes, they stray even further by giving their opinion on censorship (it’s bad), PC language (it’s good, darn it!), women’s place in society (as the bearers of new life, you’d think they’d have a position of honor!). Furthermore, even when sticking to the topic of language, A&B often fall into a style of presenting one term after another that people use to refer to whatever taboo topic they’re covering, with little accompanying analysis or organization — much like pieces by Richard Lederer, or articles in Verbatim magazine on the vocabulary of some in-group. While I often enjoy reading this kind of thing, I was expecting more from a book written by linguists. If nothing else, these lists could have been presented in a graphic, instead of sprinkled through a long paragraph where they’re hard to refer to at a glance. Worse, some of the terms in the lists are presented as if the reader is already familiar with them, and are not defined. The following examples from the chapter on sex will illustrate:

[T]he flamboyance of flaming queens among male homosexuals renders them more noticeably different from their straight peers than butch dykes in comparison with their straight sisters…. [S]ome queens (effeminate male homosexuals) adopt camp mannerisms (e.g. are limp-wristed) and use the voice…. (p. 153)

The only term defined here is queen; the reader has to know what the others mean already to make sense of the passage. And maybe you do, but how about rent boy or rough trade, appearing without definition later in the section? Even terms that are defined sometimes leave the reader with questions. A&B write, “A gay person who gives themselves tickets is known as Miss Thang….” (p. 157). Well, first of all, what does it mean to give oneself a ticket? Second, why is such a person called Miss Thang, and how does this support the point you’re making? Third, what point are you making, anyway? The paragraph containing this sentence has no obvious link to its neighbors, other than that they’re all about the language of gay people in the US. (And fourth, how about that gender-neutral themselves? Even for a singular-they user like me, that sounds bad.) At the end of this kind of little-analyzed information dump, a conclusion that says, “In such ways do taboos drive the renewal of language” (p. 174) feels unearned.

One case of sloppy reasoning occurs with the presentation of the term dysphemistic euphemism mentioned above. It is defined along with the term euphemistic dysphemism. Now if a dysphemistic euphemism is a dysphemism used euphemistically, then I would expect that a euphemistic dysphemism is a euphemism used dysphemistically. So let’s see, it would be something like when a bully tells his friends, “Hey, guys, we’d better be nice to Johnny. He has ‘special needs’!” Right? No. A&B define it as words such as shoot or darn, versions of dysphemistic words that have been phonetically altered to be socially acceptable. Aside from the confusion A&B create by having two parallel terms with non-parallel definitions, the definition they tie to euphemistic dysphemism (instead of the sensible one, which is now left without a home) already has a name in common currency among linguists: tabooistic distortion. The fact that they seem unaware of any such term does not generate confidence in an entire book on taboo language.

I had a similar reaction to this passage:

[I]t is quite possible to deny the applicability of one term while asserting what amounts to a preference for the appropriate connotations of its cross-varietal synonym, as in He’s not a lodger, he’s a paying guest or They’re not boobs, they’re bosoms, or … He’s not a liar, he’s just careless with the truth. (p. 49)

There’s a word for this, coined by Larry Horn and widely used in semantics and pragmatics literature: metalinguistic negation. Maybe A&B didn’t want to introduce this technical term for something that they only talk about in one paragraph, but it seems like it should at least merited a mention in a note, so it could be indexed for the benefit of semanticists or pragmaticists who might wonder what A&B have to say about the topic. Omissions like these, which I caught, made me wonder how many other ones there were that I didn’t have the background to catch.

Beyond these style and content issues, there is the user-unfriendliness I mentioned earlier. To begin with, Forbidden Words has endnotes instead of footnotes, which means a lot of flipping back and forth. Second, many of these endnotes are nothing more than a name-and-date citation, which then has to be looked up in the bibliography. It would be easier on the reader if these citations just appeared in the text in parentheses, as A&B do with citations after block quotations. As for the index, the various dys-/eu-/orthophemisms discussed in the book are inconsistently included. Those that are included are not italicized, making it difficult to pick them out from other topics at a glance. Thus, even the good information that this book contains may be missed by people using it as a reference.

Overall rating out of five stars: **

3 Responses to “Forbidden Words

  1. Michael said

    I used Allan’s Natural Language Semantics for some semantics study and found it a decent text – though the organization was not intuitive to my slow mind.

    A few passages in his section on taboo caught my attention.

    When he writes “As you see from the Shakespeare quotation above, the connotations of names and terms of address have serious social consequences” (149) I wonder how solidly a characterisation, even one of Shakespeare’s, can prove a social claim.

    Later, of the terms “Gee! Jeepers!” and “Jesus!” he claims that because the denotation is identical “From a purely rational viewpoint, if one of them is blasphemous, then all of them are” (157). Such a claim is employing many premises — the first one I note is the type of rationality he expects us to assume.

    He uses such terms as “Jeeze” and “Cripes” to illustrate remodelling, and distinguishes them from terms like “shoot” “shivers” “darn” and “dang” which he uses as examples of phonetic similarity creating “euphemistic dysphemisms” (164). But he includes “carative” (for curative) as an example of remodelling. It’s here that his categories get patchy.

    I would expect phonetic similarity to be one of the methods of remodelling, but he sees it as a different euphemistic technique.

  2. […] And to make the existing record clear, I also received free copies of The Unfolding of Language and Forbidden Words, as noted in the reviews I wrote. I also got Grammar Girl’s first book this way, though I […]

  3. […] 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 […]

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