The Oxford Handbook of Taboo Words and Language 9780198808190, 0198808194

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The Oxford Handbook of Taboo Words and Language
 9780198808190, 0198808194

Table of contents :
The Oxford Handbook of Taboo Words and Language
Notes on contributors
1. Taboo words and language: An overview
2. Taboo language and impoliteness
3. Taboos in speaking of sex and sexuality
4. Speaking of disease and death
5. The psychology of expressing and interpreting linguistic taboos
6. Taboo language awareness in early childhood
7. Swearing and the brain
8. sticky: Taboo topics in deaf communities
9. Taboo terms and their grammar
10. Taboo as a driver of language change
11. Problems translating tabooed words from source to target language
12. Linguistic taboos in a second or foreign language
13. Philosophical investigations of the taboo of insult
14. Religious and ideologically motivated taboos
15. Speech or conduct? Law, censorship, and taboo language
16. Taboo language in books, films, and the media
17. Taboos and bad language in the mouths of politicians and in advertising
18. Taboo language used as banter
19. Taboo language as source of comedy
20. An anthropological approach to taboo words and language

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T h e Ox f o r d H a n d b o o k o f






THE OXFORD HANDBOOK OF HISTORICAL PHONOLOGY Edited by Patrick Honeybone and Joseph Salmons



THE OXFORD HANDBOOK OF DEVELOPMENTAL LINGUISTICS Edited by Jeffrey Lidz, William Snyder, and Joe Pater

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For a complete list of Oxford Handbooks in Linguistics please see pp 449–451

The Oxford Handbook of




3 Great Clarendon Street, Oxford, OX2 6dp, United Kingdom Oxford University Press is a department of the University of Oxford. It furthers the University’s objective of excellence in research, scholarship, and education by publishing worldwide. Oxford is a registered trade mark of Oxford University Press in the UK and in certain other countries © editorial matter and organization Keith Allan 2019 © the chapters their several authors 2019 The moral rights of the authors‌have been asserted First Edition published in 2019 Impression: 1 All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of Oxford University Press, or as expressly permitted by law, by licence or under terms agreed with the appropriate reprographics rights organization. Enquiries concerning reproduction outside the scope of the above should be sent to the Rights Department, Oxford University Press, at the address above You must not circulate this work in any other form and you must impose this same condition on any acquirer Published in the United States of America by Oxford University Press 198 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10016, United States of America British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data Data available Library of Congress Control Number: 2018949665 ISBN 978–​0–​19–​880819–​0 Printed and bound by CPI Group (UK) Ltd, Croydon, CR0 4YY Links to third party websites are provided by Oxford in good faith and for information only. Oxford disclaims any responsibility for the materials contained in any third party website referenced in this work.

To Linda Scholes With love and gratitude


Notes on contributors 1. Taboo words and language: An overview Keith Allan

ix 1

2. Taboo language and impoliteness Jonathan Culpeper


3. Taboos in speaking of sex and sexuality Eliecer Crespo-Fernández


4. Speaking of disease and death Réka Benczes and Kate Burridge


5. The psychology of expressing and interpreting linguistic taboos Timothy B. Jay


6. Taboo language awareness in early childhood Timothy B. Jay


7. Swearing and the brain Shlomit Ritz Finkelstein


8. sticky: Taboo topics in deaf communities Jami N. Fisher, Gene Mirus, and Donna Jo Napoli


9. Taboo terms and their grammar Jack Hoeksema


10. Taboo as a driver of language change Kate Burridge and Réka Benczes


11. Problems translating tabooed words from source to target language Pedro J. Chamizo Domínguez


viii   Contents

12. Linguistic taboos in a second or foreign language Jean-​Marc Dewaele


13. Philosophical investigations of the taboo of insult Luvell Anderson


14. Religious and ideologically motivated taboos Keith Allan


15. Speech or conduct? Law, censorship, and taboo language Christopher Hutton


16. Taboo language in books, films, and the media Gabriele Azzaro


17. Taboos and bad language in the mouths of politicians and in advertising Toby Ralph and Barnaby Ralph


18. Taboo language used as banter Elijah Wald


19. Taboo language as source of comedy Barry J. Blake


20. An anthropological approach to taboo words and language Stanley H. Brandes


References Index

391 439

Notes on contributors

Keith Allan MLitt, PhD (Edinburgh), FAHA, Emeritus Professor of Linguistics at Monash University and Honorary AProf at the University of Queensland. Research interests:  aspects of meaning in language; the history and philosophy of linguistics. Books include:  Linguistic Meaning (1986, 2014); Euphemism and Dysphemism (with Kate Burridge, 1991); Natural Language Semantics (2001); Forbidden Words (with Kate Burridge, 2006); Concise Encyclopaedia of Semantics (2009); Western Classical Tradition in Linguistics (2010); Cambridge Handbook of Pragmatics (with Kasia Jaszczolt, 2012); Oxford Handbook of the History of Linguistics (2013); Routledge Handbook of Linguistics (2016). Many contributions to scholarly books and journals. Email:  keith.allan@ Homepage: http://​​keith-​allan. Luvell Anderson (PhD, Rutgers University) is currently Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Memphis. Before coming to Memphis, he was Alain Locke Postdoctoral Fellow at Pennsylvania State University. His research lies principally in Philosophy of Language, Philosophy of Race, and Aesthetics. He has published articles on the semantics of racial slurs and on racist humour and is co-​editor of the Routledge Companion to the Philosophy of Race (Routledge Press). Professor Anderson is currently working on a book manuscript that examines the relationship the role of race and power in our discursive practice and the implications for cross-​cultural understanding. He soon moves to Syracuse University. Email: [email protected]. Gabriele Azzaro has taught Italian language, literature, and linguistics in the UK, English language and linguistics in various Italian universities, English linguistics and Technology for English Language Learning in the national teacher training programme at Bologna University. He is Professor of English and English language Teaching Methodology. He has published on English syntax, L1 acquisition of English, digital analysis of spoken English, on taboo language in films and TV series, and is at present part of a research group on emotions in English language teaching. Email: gabriele.azzaro@ Réka Benczes is Associate Professor at the Institute of Behavioural Studies and Communication Theory, Corvinus University of Budapest (Hungary), and an Affiliate of the School of Languages, Literatures, Cultures and Linguistics, Monash University (Australia). She is the author of Creative Compounding in English (John Benjamins 2006); Kognitív nyelvészet ([Cognitive linguistics] with Zoltán Kövecses, Akadémiai Kiadó 2010); and dozens of articles on compounding, lexical creativity, and metaphorical

x   Notes on Contributors conceptualization. Her most recent monograph is Rhyme over Reason:  Phonological Motivation in English (Cambridge University Press 2018). Email: [email protected]. Barry J. Blake retired from the position of Foundation Professor of Linguistics at La Trobe University in 2003. His publications include Case (CUP 1994, 2001); Playing with Words:  Humour in the English Language (Equinox 2007); All about Language (OUP 2008); and Secret Language (OUP 2010). His current research is on Australian Aboriginal languages and Present-​Day English. Email: [email protected]. Stanley H. Brandes holds a doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley, where he has taught for over forty years. He has conducted extensive fieldwork in the Iberian Peninsula, Mexico, and the United States. His current research areas include animal–​ human relations, the history of anthropology in Europe, visual anthropology, ritual and religion, and food and drink. Brandes is the author of six books and numerous articles, book chapters, and reviews and communications. His interest in taboo language emerges most prominently in Metaphors of Masculinity (1980); Staying Sober in Mexico City (2002); and Skulls to the Living, Bread to the Dead (2006). Email: brandes@berkeley. edu. Kate Burridge FAHA, is Professor of Linguistics at Monash University. Her main areas of research are language change, the Pennsylvania German of Anabaptist communities in North America, notions of linguistic taboo, and the structure and history of English. Recent books include Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring of Language (with Keith Allan, 2006); Introducing English Grammar (with Kersti Börjars, 2010); Gift of the Gob: Morsels of English Language History (2010); Wrestling with Words and Meanings (with Réka Benczes, 2014); For the Love of Language (with Tonya Stebbins, 2015); and Understanding Language Change (with Alex Bergs, 2016). Email: [email protected]. Pedro J. Chamizo Domínguez is a Full Professor of Logic and Philosophy of Science at the University of Malaga (Spain), where he currently teaches Philosophy of Language and Translation of Philosophical Texts. His most recent publications deal with metaphor, taboo language, and the theory of translation, particularly false friends—​to which he devoted a book: Pragmatics and Semantics of False Friends (Routledge 2010). He is currently working on (1) the relation between ambiguity/​vagueness and euphemism, and (2) the way a philosopher’s thought can be understood from the translations of his/​ her works. Email: [email protected]. Eliecer Crespo-​Fernández is Associate Professor at the Department of Modern Languages, University of Castile-​La Mancha, Spain. His research interests focus on the semantic and pragmatic dimensions of euphemism and dysphemism. Books include: El eufemismo y el disfemismo (2007); El lenguaje de los epitafios (2014); Sex in Language. Euphemistic and Dysphemistic Metaphors in Internet Forums (2015); Describing English (2016); and co-​ authored Anglicismos sexuales en español. El inglés como recurso eufemístico y disfemístico en la comunicación virtual (2018). He has research articles in

Notes on Contributors    xi Text&Talk, Spanish in Context, and Review of Cognitive Linguistics. Currently editing a volume on taboo in discourse. Email: [email protected]. Jonathan Culpeper is Professor of English Language and Linguistics at Lancaster University, UK. His research spans pragmatics (especially sociopragmatics), stylistics (especially of plays), and the history of English (especially early modern English). His recent major publications include Impoliteness: Using Language to Cause Offence (CUP 2011); Pragmatics and the English Language (with Michael Haugh, Palgrave 2014); and The Palgrave Handbook on (Im)politeness (with Michael Haugh and Dániel Kádár, Palgrave 2017). He was until recently co-​editor-​in-​chief of the Journal of Pragmatics. Email: [email protected]. Jean-​Marc Dewaele is Professor of Applied Linguistics and Multilingualism at Birkbeck, University of London. He is interested in individual differences in the experience and communication of emotion. He is President of the International Association of Multilingualism, Former President of the European Second Language Association, and General Editor of the International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism. He won the Equality and Diversity Research Award from the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (2013) and the Robert Gardner Award for Excellence in Second Language and Bilingualism Research (2016) from the International Association of Language and Social Psychology. Email: [email protected]. Shlomit Ritz Finkelstein earned her first PhD in theoretical physics from the Georgia Institute of Technology in 1987, and in 2009 she earned her second PhD from Emory University, for which she conducted a multidisciplinary study of Tourette syndrome. She is currently an Adjunct Professor at the Emory’s psychology department researching the cognitive and neurolinguistic aspects of swearing. Email: [email protected]. Jami N. Fisher is the American Sign Language Program Coordinator and Lecturer in Foreign Languages in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. She is a native ASL user and CODA, born and raised in Philadelphia. Her current academic interests include integrating collaborative, Deaf community-​based programming into ASL and Deaf Studies coursework as well as documenting and analysing the Philadelphia variants of American Sign Language. Email: [email protected]. Jack Hoeksema received a PhD from the University of Groningen (1984), and taught at the Ohio State University, University of Washington, University of Pennsylvania, and Swarthmore College. Currently he holds the chair of Dutch Language at the University of Groningen. Much of his work is on negation and negative polarity items, a topic which overlaps in part with that of taboo language. His other research interests include adverbs of degree, emphatic constructions, and measure expressions. Email: [email protected]. Christopher Hutton is Chair Professor in the School of English at the University of Hong Kong. He studied Modern Languages and Linguistics at the University of Oxford (BA 1980, DPhil 1988), holds an MA in Linguistics from Columbia University (1985), and an LLB from Manchester Metropolitan University (2008). His recent research concerns

xii   Notes on Contributors the politics of language and interpretation in the context of the law. Publications include Linguistics and the Third Reich (Routledge 1999); Race and the Third Reich (Polity Press 2005); and Word Meaning and Legal Interpretation (2014). Email: [email protected]. Timothy B. Jay is a Psychology Professor Emeritus at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. He has been conducting research on the science of swearing since the 1970s. Professor Jay is the author of Cursing in America (1992); What to Do When Your Students Talk Dirty (1996); Why We Curse (2000); The Psychology of Language (2003); and We Did What?! Offensive and Inappropriate Behavior in American History (2016). Email: T.Jay@ Gene Mirus is an Associate Professor at Gallaudet University in the Department of ASL and Deaf Studies in Washington, DC. He has interests in linguistic anthropology where he focuses on the ways that languages are practised in deaf communities. Email: gene. [email protected]. Donna Jo Napoli is Professor of Linguistics at Swarthmore College. She worked on the syntax of Italian for around twenty years. Her recent publications are largely on taboo in spoken and sign languages, modality effects on sign language grammar, and the phonetics and phonology of sign languages. She is also part of a team that advocates for deaf children’s right to language through publications in medical and legal journals. She is also a fiction writer. Email: [email protected]. Homepage: https://​www.​donna-​jo-​napoli. Barnaby Ralph is an Associate Professor in the Department of British and American Literature, Seikei University, Japan. He publishes and presents internationally on a wide range of topics in linguistics and literature. His recent research is divided between seventeenth-​and eighteenth-​century culture and philosophy, and postmodern conceptions of authenticity. Email: [email protected]. Toby Ralph is a marketer, consultant, board director, and speaker. He has run advertising agencies and approximately $1 billion of campaigns, including around fifty elections globally, advised Prime Ministers, Presidents, and the UN, been Wikileaked, published by Penguin, appeared on multiple TV shows and is an Adjunct Research Senior Fellow at the University of Queensland. Email: [email protected]. Elijah Wald is a musician and writer whose dozen books include Talking ’Bout Your Mama: The Dozens, Snaps, and the Deep Roots of Rap; Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues; How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ’n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music; The Mayor of MacDougal Street; Narcocorrido; and Dylan Goes Electric! He has a PhD in ethnomusicology and sociolinguistics and his awards include a Grammy in 2002. Further information: Email: [email protected].

Chapter 1

Tab o o word s and l ang uag e An overview Keith Allan

1.1  Taboo applies to behaviour Taboo refers to a proscription of behaviour for a specifiable community of one or more persons at a specifiable time in specifiable contexts. Allan and Burridge 2006: 11

The Oxford Handbook of Taboo Words and Language is a book about taboo words and language, but as I hope to make clear in the course of this chapter, what is in fact tabooed is the use of those words and language in certain contexts; in short, the taboo applies to instances of language behaviour. As originally recognized in the Pacific islands when first visited by Europeans, taboos prohibited certain people, particularly women—​ either permanently or temporarily—​from certain actions, from contact with certain things and certain other people. A tabooed person was ostracized. The term taboo came to be used of similar customs elsewhere in the world, especially where taboos arose from respect for, and fear of, metaphysical powers; it was extended to political and social affairs and generalized to the interdiction of the use or practice of anything, especially an expression or topic considered offensive and therefore shunned or prohibited by social custom. Where something physical or metaphysical is said to be tabooed, what is in fact tabooed is its interaction with an individual, with a specified group of persons or even with the whole community. In principle any kind of behaviour can be tabooed. For behaviour to be proscribed it must be perceived as in some way harmful to an individual or

2   Keith Allan their community; but the degree of harm can fall anywhere on a scale from a breach of etiquette to out-​and-​out fatality. In this book we are principally concerned with language behaviour. There are people who would like to erase from the English language obscene terms like cunt and slurs like idiot or nigger; less passionate people recognize after a few moments reflection that this is a wish impossible to grant. Such words are as much a part of English as all the other words in the Oxford English Dictionary (see Allan 2015, 2016b, 2018 for discussion). However, there is evidence that ‘swear words’ occupy a different brain location from other vocabulary; part of the evidence is that people said never to have uttered taboo language earlier in their lifetime sometimes—​when senile dementia has set in—​lose the ability to speak normally but do readily recall and utter taboo words (cf. Comings and Comings 1985; Van Lancker and Cummings 1999; Jay 2000; Chapter 7 of this volume). It is possible to taboo language behaviour in certain specified contexts; in fact it is often done. Some tabooed behaviours are prohibited by law; all are deprecated and lead to social if not legal sanction. To engage in tabooed behaviour is to cause offence to others and so it is dysphemistic. The use of tabooed words to insult someone is dysphemistic. The use of swear words has a number of motivations, one of them is the autocathartic ‘letting off steam’, for example with expletives such as Fuck! or Shit!.1 A standard way of trying to avoid giving offence is to substitute a euphemistic locution for such dysphemisms, for example Fiddle-​di-​dee! and Sugar!, which might be called euphemistic dysphemisms—​though just plain euphemism seems acceptable. In many circumstances it is dysphemistic to refer to faecal matter as shit; a standard euphemism for it is poo. Or, to call a spade a spade, the orthophemism is faecal matter or faeces. Although the context of use affects such judgments, dysphemism is typically impolite because it is offensive; orthophemism (‘straight-​talking’) is polite and so is euphemism (‘sweet-​talking’). Typically, euphemism is more figurative and colloquial, orthophemism more literal and more formal. Sometimes euphemisms are flamboyant verbiage, as when a traffic bottleneck is described as a localized capacity deficiency. Where such jargon causes offence, these are dysphemistic euphemisms. There can be sound reasons for mandating specific parts of our lives out of bounds. Rules against incest are eminently sensible from an evolutionary point of view. Communities remain healthier if human waste is kept at a distance. Many food prejudices have a rational origin. Avoidance-​speech styles help prevent conflict in relationships that are potentially volatile. To an outsider many prohibitions are perplexing and seem silly. But they are among the common values that link the people of a community together. What one group values another scorns. So, shared taboos are a sign of social cohesion.


This actually works, see Stephens, Atkins, and Kingston (2009).

Taboo words and language    3

1.2  Origin of the term taboo Taboos are proscriptions of behaviour arising out of social constraints on the individ­ ual’s behaviour where it is perceived to be a potential cause of discomfort, harm, or injury. The English word taboo derives from the Tongan tabu which came to notice towards the end of the eighteenth century. According to Radcliffe-​Brown: In the languages of Polynesia the word means simply ‘to forbid’, ‘forbidden’, and can be applied to any sort of prohibition. A rule of etiquette, an order issued by a chief, an injunction to children not to meddle with the possessions of their elders, may all be expressed by the use of the word tabu. Radcliffe-​Brown 1939: 5f

On his first voyage of 1768–​7 1, Captain James Cook was sent to Tahiti to observe the transit of the planet Venus across the Sun. In his logbook he wrote of the Tahitians that the women never upon any account eat with the men, but always by themselves. [. . .] They were often Asked the reason, but they never gave no other Answer, but that they did it because it was right. [. . . I]t hath sometimes hapned that when a woman was alone in our company she would eat with us, but always took care that her own people should not know what she had donn, so that whatever may be the reasons for this custom, it certainly affects their outward manners more than their Principle. Cook 1893: 91

Assuming that the constraint against Tahitian women eating with men was a taboo on such behaviour (cf. Steiner 1967), it looks comparable to the constraint against using your fingers instead of cutlery when dining in a British restaurant. It is an example of a taboo on bad manners, one subject to the social sanction of severe disapproval—​rather than putting the violator’s life in danger, as some taboos do. Alternatively, we can look at this taboo as the function of a kind of caste system in which women are a lower caste than men in a way not dissimilar from the caste difference based on race that operated in the south of the United States of America until the later 1960s such that it was acceptable for an African American to prepare food for whites, but not to share it at table with them. This is the same caste system that permitted white men to take blacks for mistresses but not marry them; a system found in Colonial Africa and under the British Raj in India. Captain Cook does not name the proscription against Tahitian women eating with men as either taboo or by the equivalent Tahitian term raa. It is in the log of his third voyage, 1776–​9, that he first uses the term tabu in an entry for 15 June 1777 (Cook 1967: 129): ‘When dinner came on table not one of my guests would sit down or eat a bit

4   Keith Allan of any thing that was there. Every one was Tabu, a word of very comprehensive meaning but in general signifies forbidden.’ And on 20 June 1777: In this walk we met with about half a dozen Women in one place at supper, two of the Company were fed by the others, on our asking the reason, they said Tabu Mattee. On further enquiry, found that one of them had, two months before, washed the dead corps of a Chief, on which account she was not to handle Victuals for five Months, the other had done the same thing to another of inferior rank, and was under the same restriction but not for so long a time. Cook 1967: 135

In the entry for 17 July 1777, Cook wrote: Taboo in general signifies forbidden. [. . .] Taboo as I  have before observed is a word of extensive signification; Human Sacrifices are called Tangata Taboo, and when any thing is forbid to be eaten, or made use of they say such a thing is Taboo; they say that if the King should happen to go into a house belonging to a subject, that house would be Taboo and never more be inhabited by the owner; so that when ever he travels there are houses for his reception. Cook 1967: 176

Also in the journal entry for July 1777, the Surgeon on the Resolution, William Anderson, wrote: [Taboo] is the common expression when any thing is not to be touch’d, unless the transgressor will risque some very severe punishment as appears from the great apprehension they have of approaching any thing prohibited by it. In some cases it appears to resemble the Levitical law of purification, for we have seen several women who were not allow’d the use of their hands in eating but were fed by other people. On enquiring the reason of it at one time they said that one of the women had wash’d the dead body of the chief already mentioned who died at Tonga, and another who had assisted was in the same predicament, though then a month after the circumstance had happen’d. It also serves as a temporary law or edict of their chiefs, for sometimes certainly articles of food are laid under restriction, and there are other circumstances regulated in the same manner as trading &c when it is thought necessary to stop it. Cook 1967: 948

Cook and Anderson use taboo/​tabu to describe the behaviour of Polynesians towards things that were not to be done, entered, seen, or touched. Such taboos are, in some form, almost universal. For instance, there are food taboos in most societies:  many Hindus are vegetarian; pork is proscribed in Judaism and Islam; Jews fast at Passover and Muslims during Ramadan; meat is unacceptable on Fridays among some Roman

Taboo words and language    5 Catholics. Today almost all human groups proscribe the eating of human flesh. Some used to allow the flesh of a defeated enemy to be eaten; a few, such as the Aztecs, used to eat human flesh as a religious ritual. Today, cannibalism is only excused as a survival mechanism such as when, after an air crash in the Andes in 1972, surviving members of the Uruguayan rugby team ate the dead in order to stay alive.

1.3  Fatal taboos From the early nineteenth century many people came to believe that so-​called ‘primitive peoples’ fear a ‘demonic’ power within a tabooed object comparable with the dangerous power of a Polynesian chief or the Emperor of Japan or Satan himself. The effect on a person who comes into contact with a tabooed person or thing is severely detrimental (cf. Freud 1950: 21–​4); such contact is at least inappropriate and often unlawful. This was the standard interpretation of the term taboo among anthropologists (though see Chapter 20 of this volume). Margaret Mead 1937, for instance, restricts the term taboo to ‘prohibition against participation in any situation of such inherent danger that the very act of participation will recoil upon the violator of the taboo.’ It is as if the tabooed object were like a radioactive fuel rod which will have dire effects on anyone who comes into direct contact with it unless they know how to protect themselves. ‘Cases are on record in which persons who had unwittingly broken a taboo actually died of terror on discovering their fatal error’ writes Frazer (1875: 17). To violate a taboo can lead to the auto-​da-​fé of the perpetrator. In old Hawai‘i a commoner who had sex with his sister was put to death. A woman who commits adultery can be stoned to death under Sharia law in Mauritania, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. In the USA, as at 1 February 2017, 1446 people had been executed for murder since 1976, four in the first month of 2017. According to the Bible, God told Moses ‘You shall not permit a sorceress to live’ (Exodus 22:18); implementing scripture, hundreds of heretics and witches were burned in Europe when Christianity had more political power than it does today. Although most taboo violations do not result in capital punishment, there are plenty of other sanctions on behaviour prohibited under the law—​whether this is law as conceived and promulgated in a modern nation state, or traditional lore in eighteenth-​century Polynesia, or under the Spanish Inquisition (1478–​1834). That which is illegal is ipso facto taboo—​it is prohibited behaviour. But, as we have already seen there is more that falls under the heading of taboo. Violation of linguistic taboos is only fatal when there is serious disparagement of a revered personage such as a monarch or tyrant, a god, or an ideology. Apostate Christians (heretics) were executed in medieval Europe, apostate Muslims may be put to death in some Islamic states today, namely Afghanistan, Iran, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen—​though most of these do not in practice impose a death penalty.

6   Keith Allan

1.4  Uncleanliness taboos There are taboos in which notions of uncleanliness are the motivating factor. Many communities taboo physical contact with a menstruating woman, believing that it pollutes males in particular; so some Orthodox New York Jews will avoid public transport lest they sit where a menstruating woman has sat. Many places of worship in this world taboo menstruating women because they would defile holy sites (on the menstruation taboo in many cultures see Allan and Burridge 2006: 162–​70; Agyekum 2002; Ernster 1975; Hays 1987; Joffe 1948).2 The Balinese used to prefer one-​storey buildings so that unclean feet (and worse) would not pass above their heads; they still avoid walking under washing lines where garments that have been in contact with unclean parts of the body might pass over their heads. Many communities taboo contact with a corpse such that no-​one who has touched the cadaver is permitted to handle food. Linguistic taboos on death and disease and those on the body parts and effluvia associated with sex, micturition, and defecation are uncleanliness taboos. It is such taboos which motivate the plethora of taboo language expressions in English invoking sex organs and practices, and the body parts and effluvia of urination and defecation. Only certain terms can function as swearwords. For instance, learned words for sexual organs and effluvia generally do not (cf. You faeces! Urine off!) because they typically function as orthophemisms; but nor do certain mild obscenities and nursery terms—​at least among adults (cf. You willie! Wee-​wee on you!).

1.5  Turning the tables on taboo There is an assumption that both accidental breach and deliberate defiance of a taboo will be followed by some kind of penalty to the offender, such as lack of success in hunting, fishing, or other business, and the sickness or the death of the offender or one of their relatives. In many communities, a person who meets with an accident or fails to achieve some goal will infer, as will others, that s/​he has in some manner committed a breach of taboo. Generally speaking we do have the power to avoid tabooed behaviour. When a breach can be ascribed to bad luck, there remains a suspicion that the perpetrator is somehow responsible for having previously sinned; note the negative presupposition of ‘Why is this person’s luck bad?’ One concludes that any violation of taboo, however innocently 2 

In 2017 Swedish artist Liv Strömquist’s almost life-​sized sketches of women with bloodstained underpants at Slussen metro station in Stockholm have generated huge controversy, both positive and negative. See https://​​cities/​2017/​nov/​02/​ enjoy-​menstruation-​subway-​stockholm-​art-​row-​liv-​stromquist.

Taboo words and language    7 committed, risks condemnation. People who commit crimes under severe stress or aggravation can seek to ameliorate censure by pleading extreme provocation, diminished responsibility, or temporary insanity; but they do not escape reproach. Those who violate a taboo can often purify themselves or be purified by confessing their sin and submitting to a ritual. The Oxford English Dictionary quotes from Cook’s Voyage to the Pacific ii. xi. (1785) I. 410: ‘When the taboo is incurred, by paying obeisance to a great personage, it is thus easily washed off.’ Cook also notes that tabooed objects may cease to be tabooed: I now went and examined several Baskets which had been brought in, a thing I was not allowed to do before because every thing was then Tabu, but the ceremony being over they became simply what they really were, viz. empty baskets. 9 July 1777, Cook 1967: 153

Hobley describes a Kikuyu ritual for legitimizing and purifying an incestuous relationship: It sometimes happens, however, that a young man unwittingly marries a cousin; for instance, if a part of the family moves away to another locality a man might become acquainted with a girl and marry her before he discovered the relationship. In such a case the thahu [or ngahu, the result of the violation of the taboo] is removable, the elders take a sheep and place it on the woman’s shoulders, and it is then killed, the intestines are taken out and the elders solemnly sever them with a sharp splinter of wood [. . .] and they announce that they are cutting the clan “kutinyarurira,” by which they mean that they are severing the bond of blood relationship that exists between the pair. A medicine man then comes and purifies the couple. Hobley 1910: 438

Some Nguni societies of southern Africa practise hlonipha under which it is forbidden for a woman to use her father-​in-​law’s name or even to utter words containing the syllables of his name (above all in his presence); inadvertent violation of the taboo may be mitigated by spitting on the ground (see Herbert 1990: 460, 468). Christians confess their sins to a priest and are given absolution on behalf of God. According to Hughes (1987: 379) in the 1820s a convict seeking escape from the particularly vicious penal settlement at Macquarie Harbour in Tasmania stabbed a fellow convict in order to be hanged. Asked by the chaplain why he didn’t just commit suicide: ‘Oh,’ he replied, ‘the case is quite different. If I kill myself I shall immediately descend to the bottomless pit, but if I kill another I would sent to Hobart Town and tried for my life; if found guilty, the parson would attend me, and then I would be sure of going to Heaven.’ This is comparable with the foolish but comforting belief of a radical Islamist suicide bomber that s/​he is assured of direct entry to Paradise if s/​he kills an infidel. Within many minorities and oppressed groups a term of abuse used by outsiders is often reclaimed to wear as a badge of honour to mark identification with and camaraderie within the in-​group. To this end many African Americans have adopted the term

8   Keith Allan nigger (often respelled nigga, but it remains homophonous) to use to or about their fellows (Allan 2015, 2016b, 2018; Allan and Burridge 1991, 2006; Asim 2007; Croom 2013; Folb 1980; Kennedy 2000, 2003; McWhorter 2002, 2010; Rahman 2012, inter alios). The speaker identifies as a person who has attracted or might attract the slur nigger: in other words s/​he trades on the hurtful, contemptuous connotation and subverts it.3 Many examples can be found, for example in films by Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino. (1)–​(3) are from ‘Pulp Fiction’ (1994).4 (1) Jules: I wouldn’t go so far as to call the brother fat. He’s got a weight problem. What’s the nigger gonna do, he’s Samoan. (Tarantino 1999: 18) (2)  English Dave [a young black man from Baldwin Park]: Vincent Vega, our man in Amsterdam. Jules Winnfield, our man in Inglewood. Git your asses on in here. (Vincent and Jules, wearing hideous shorts and T-​shirts, step inside.) Goddam, nigger, what’s up with them clothes? Jules: You don’t even want to know. (Tarantino 1999: 35–​6) (3) Vincent: Alright, it was a miracle. Can we go now? (Opens the door and leaves.) Jules (to the dazed Marvin): Let’s go nigger. [1:49:55] Come on. Shit. (They hustle out the door.) In (1) Jules, who is black, is addressing a white guy (Vincent) while speaking of a shared acquaintance, Antwan, whom he had earlier described as ‘Half­black, half-​Samoan’. Here Jules counts him as one of an in-​group of black ‘brothers’. Secondly, Jules thinks well enough of Antwan to be kindly euphemistic about his size. So when he says ‘What’s the nigger gonna do, he’s Samoan’ he is using nigger as a colloquial descriptive that is in no way a slur. In (2) Jules himself is addressed as ‘nigger’ by a fellow African American (the epithet ‘English’ is unexplained); incidentally, Inglewood is a dominantly black neighbourhood. In (3), which is not in the published script, Jules addressing Marvin as ‘nigger’ is in the spirit of camaraderie, though this may be bolstered by the fact that Marvin is lower in the pecking order than Jules and also at that moment stupefied by the murder of three people he had befriended to spy on.5 Quotes (1)–​(3) illustrate what has many times been demonstrated: that nigger is not necessarily used as a slur. The same can usually be said of other potential slurring terms (see Allan 2016b). Lest it be thought that ‘Pulp Fiction’ has no such slurs, there are racist 3 Where nigger is a slur and nigger expresses camaraderie, it is classic polysemy; one cannot say 1 2

Ordell is a nigger1 and so is Beaumont [a nigger2] because it violates the Q-​principle of both Horn (1984), Levinson (2000); however, it is perfectly possible for one African American to say to another That honkey called me a nigger1, nigger2. 4  The actors are: Samuel L. Jackson (Jules), Paul Calderón (English Dave), John Travolta (Vincent), Phil LaMarr (Marvin), Bruce Willis (Butch), Ving Rhames (Marsellus), Duane Whitaker (Maynard) in (4). One objection to Quentin Tarantino using nigger is that he is white and as such has no right or sanction to have the word nigger uttered by anyone; a number of African Americans explicitly refute this, see Allan (2015: 6). 5  See Allan (2015) for an explanation of this point.

Taboo words and language    9 slurs against Asian and Jewish shopkeepers at Tarantino (1999: 10) and nigger is also used in that vein in (4), which is not in the published script. White hillbilly Maynard’s shop was invaded by two men fighting: Butch (white) has pinned Marsellus (black) to the floor of the pawnshop and is pointing Marsellus’s own .45 handgun in his face. (4)  Maynard [pointing his shotgun ]: Toss the weapon. (After a brief delay Butch throws the gun to his left.) Take your foot off the nigger [1:33:2]. Put your hands behind your head. Approach the counter, right now. (Maynard slugs Butch with the butt of his shotgun.) This occurs after Butch has deliberately driven a car into Marsellus and the latter has been shooting at him. Butch has sought shelter in the pawnshop and was followed in by Marsellus. A vicious fight ensued in which Butch floors Marsellus. Needless to say, Maynard is enraged by this violent invasion of his premises, so we cannot expect him to be courteous to either of them. He refers to the groggy Marsellus as ‘nigger’ and he slugs Butch with his shotgun. Under these circumstances the racial slur is not out of place from a dramatic point of view; whatever term was used to refer to Marsellus was going to be insulting and there are not a lot of options that would pass the censor. (5)

(5) is a wife reporting a series of slurs from her husband. [W]‌hen he called me a slut, cunt, worthless bitch, I slapped him at some point, then he followed me to the porch, where I’d gone to cry, to tell me how I spread my legs for anyone who walks by[. . .] This is not the first time he’s called me a slut/​whore/​cunt/​bitch/​etc. (http://​​discussion/​12002898/​ husband-​called-​me-​a-​c-​t-​b-​ch-​sl-​t, September 2013)

In (5) slut, cunt, bitch, and whore are slurs, as is the accusation that she spreads her legs for anyone. There’s a song by P¡nk called ‘Slut like you’ in which a guy says he’s looking for a quick fuck and she responds ‘me too’ because ‘I’m a slut like you’ (https://​www.​watch?v=HjU0xAZbZkA). This is playing with an apparent dysphemism, converting it into something closer to an orthophemism. There is a similar example of this in (6), which moves from dysphemism towards orthophemism in reclaiming the lemma slut on a similar basis to that for racist reclamations (see also Neal 2012). (6) So we are proud to reclaim the word ‘slut’ as a term of approval, even endearment. To us, a slut is a person of any gender who celebrates sexuality according to the radical proposition that sex is nice and pleasure is good for you. Sluts may choose to have solo sex or to get cozy with the Fifth Fleet. They may be heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual, radical activists or peaceful suburbanites. (Easton and Hardy 2009: 4) As with other terms I have been discussing, whether or not slut is a slur, and therefore a tabooed dysphemism, depends on the context of use.

10   Keith Allan Cunt is used orthophemistically (as well as dysphemistically) in academic essays such as this one. It may be used as an expression of bantering camaraderie—​as can silly, ass, idiot, bastard, and fucker, cf. (7) or showing camaraderie and empathy in (8)—​which is in the Leith dialect of Edinburgh (Scotland). (7) DAVEEE; crazy hockey cunt. Love him (Bugeja 2008) wookey is a gem love that cunt (Bugeja 2008) [laughs] you’re a gross cunt [laughs] (Wellington Corpus of Spoken New Zealand English J 2) (8) —​Granty . . . ye didnae hear? . . . Coke looked straight at Lenny. —​ Naw. Wha . . . —​Deid. Potted heid. —​Yir jokin! Eh? Gies a fuckin brek ya cunt . . . —​Gen up. Last night, likes. —​Whit the fuck happened . . . —​Ticker. Boom. Coke snapped his fingers.—​Dodgy hert, apparently. Nae cunt kent aboot it. Perr Granty wis workin wi Pete Gilleghan, oan the side likesay. It wis aboot five, n Granty wis helpin Pete tidy up, ready to shoot the craw n that likes, whin he jist hauds his chist n cowps ower. Gilly gits an ambulance, n they take the perr cunt tae the hospital, but he dies a couple of ooirs later. Perr Granty. Good cunt n aw. You play cairds wi the guy, eh? —​Eh . . . aye . . . one ay the nicest cunts ye could hope tae meet. That’s gutted us, that hus. (Welsh 2001: 99f.) A newspaper report of Phil Grant’s fatal heart attack, even if equally sympathetic, would necessarily use very different language—​as a matter of social appropriateness. Taboo is conditioned by context.

1.6  Exploiting taboo Taboos are open to beneficial exploitation. A person’s body is, unless they are a slave, sacrosanct. By tradition, a Māori chief ’s body is taboo. Once it was possible for a chief to claim land by saying that the land is his backbone—​which makes invading it taboo. And he could claim possession by saying things like Those two canoes are my two thighs! (Steiner 1967: 42f). The taboos on a chief could be utilized by their minions: ‘they gave the names of important chiefs to their pet animals and thus prevented others from killing them’ wrote Steiner (1967:  43). Samoans sometimes tabooed their plantation trees by placing certain signs close to them to warn off thieves (cf. Turner 1884: 185–​7 cited in Steiner 1967: 44f.). One sign indicated that it would induce ulcerous sores; an afflicted thief could pay off the plantation owner who would supply a (supposed) remedy. Most dire was the death taboo, made by pouring some oil into a small calabash buried

Taboo words and language    11 near the tree; a mound of white sand marked the taboo, which was said to be very effective in keeping thieves at bay in old Samoa. The genital organs of humans are always subject to some sort of taboo; those of women are usually more strongly tabooed than those of men, partly for social and economic reasons, but ultimately because they are source of new human life. Few women today are aware of the supposed power of the exposed vulva (commonly referred to as ‘vagina’) to defeat evil. The great Greek mythical warrior Bellerophon, who tamed Pegasus and the Amazons and slew the dragon-​like Chimaera, called on the sea-​god Poseidon to inundate the Lycian city of Xanthos; he was defeated by the women of Xanthos raising their skirts, driving back the waves, and frightening Bellerophon’s horse Pegasus. Images of a woman exposing her vulva are found above doors and gateways in Europe, Indonesia, and South America; in many European countries such figures are also located in medieval castles and, surprisingly, many churches (see Allan and Burridge 2006: 8; Blackledge 2003: 9). The display of the tabooed body part is a potent means of defeating evil.6 Linguistic exploitations of taboo are frequent in comedy. The British sitcom ‘Are You Being Served?’ (Jeremy Lloyd and David Croft 1972–​85) is celebrated for innuendo. The fifty-​something-​year-​old battle-​axe, Mrs Slocombe, made frequent reference to her ‘pussy’, as in (9)–​(11). (9)

Well, the central heating broke down. I had to light the oven and hold my pussy in front. (‘Mrs. Slocombe Expects’ 1977)

(10) I’ve got to get home. If my pussy isn’t attended to by 8 o’clock, I shall be strokin’ it for the rest of the evening. (‘The Junior’ 1979) (11)

Well, you know how clumsy those removal men are. I’m not havin’ ’em handlin’ my pussy. (‘The Apartment’ 1979)

See these and many more in ‘Mrs Slocombe’s Pussy’ https://​​ watch?v=vRJlItzalJY. Shakespeare was the master of bawdy wit much more subtle than is found in ‘Are You Being Served?’. Witness (12) from Much Ado About Nothing V.ii.9ff; Margaret is a gentlewoman-​in-​waiting, Benedick is a gentleman. (12)  Margaret Benedick Margaret Benedick Margaret Benedick 6 

To have no man come over me! why, shall I always keep below stairs? Thy wit is as quick as the greyhound’s mouth,—​it catches. And yours as blunt as the fencer’s foils, which hit, but hurt not. A most manly wit, Margaret; it will not hurt a woman: and so, I pray thee, call Beatrice: I give thee the bucklers. Give us the swords; we have bucklers of our own. If you use them, Margaret, you must put in pikes with a vice; and they are dangerous weapons for maids.

On the other hand, singer Britney Spears had to pay out a large sum of money to her former bodyguard Fernando Flores in 2010 after she allegedly repeatedly ‘exposed her uncovered genitals’ to him.

12   Keith Allan The images here include: (a) a man coming over a woman (suggesting sex play); (b) the woman keeping her private parts hidden (‘below stairs’); (c) womanhood as mouth; (d) a man’s foil which scores a hit but does not hurt (suggesting encounter with a tumescent penis); (e) a buckler is a small shield with a boss to ward off thrusts from daggers, swords, and pikes; a woman’s buckler is the boss of her mons veneris (‘mound of Venus’, note the metaphor in this term, described in a dictionary of 1693 as ‘the upper part of a Womans Secrets, something higher than the rest’); (f) a woman’s vagina between her open legs forms a vice (vise) in which to put the pike; (g) if swords and pikes are penises they are indeed dangerous to maidenhead. The interchange in (12) is superficially innocent banter; but the figures evoke impassioned sexuality. It behoves me to distinguish banter from insult (see Allan 2016a; Chapter 18 of this volume). With insult the agent has the perlocutionary intention when making the utterance to assail the target with offensively dishonouring or contemptuous speech or action and/​or to treat the target with scornful abuse or offensive disrespect. The utterance has the perlocutionary effect (perhaps realizing the agent’s perlocutionary intention) of demeaning someone and/​or of affronting or outraging them by manifest arrogance, scorn, contempt, or insolence. Banter, on the other hand, is a form of competitive verbal play and upmanship in circumstances where it is mutually understood that there is no serious attempt to wound or belittle the interlocutor: the agent needles a sparring partner with critical observations on their physical appearance, mental ability, character, behaviour, beliefs, and/​or familial and social relations. Thus insult is blatantly dysphemistic whereas banter is not, though because the locution is often superficially dysphemistic it might be branded as dysphemistic euphemism.

1.7 Swearing Swearing is the strongly emotive use of taboo terms. There are four functions for swearing which often overlap: expletive, insult, solidarity/​camaraderie, and vividness (cf. Allan and Burridge 2009). (i) the expletive function: ‘Oh sugar. We’ve burnt it’ (ice-​aus s1a-​058(a):284) (ii) abuse and insult: ‘Don’t phone me yet as I am having both my ears transplanted to my nuts so I can listen to you talk through your arse.’ (ace s05 873) This also falls under (iv) below. Both (i) and (ii) are exemplified in ‘What the fuck are youse doing here. My fuckin’ son had to get me out of bed. I can’t believe youse are here. What the fuck are youse doing here?’ (Police v Butler [2003] NSWLC 2 before Heilpern J, 14 June 2002) (iii) expression of social solidarity: S1: pray to baby Jesus open up your heart let god’s love come pouring in let god’s love shine down on you like it has me and Miss Suzanne over here. /​S2: oh fuck off (ice-​nz  s1a)

Taboo words and language    13 (iv) stylistic choice—​the marking of attitude to what is said: ‘How in the HELL do they think they can change it by sitting on their arses doing nothing?’ (wsc p). ‘Welfare, my arsehole’. (ace f10 1953) One aspect of the stylistic function is to use bad language to spice up what is being said: to make it more vivid and memorable than if orthophemism had been used. An example is former Prime Minister Paul Keating’s alleged description of Australia as ‘the arse end of the world’.7 Another, not unrelated aspect, is to display an attitude of emotional intensity towards what is being said or referred to in the utterance. A possible combination of (iii) and (iv) is: ‘Yeah we’re hooking up with them in Adelaide we’ll swab the decks finger each other in the arses y’know all that sorta shit’ (austgram abcnat7:[c7]). Concatenated with nouns, adjectives, participles, and verbs, swearwords like bloody and fucking emphasize the emotive often urgent attachment to the speaker’s speech act as in (13)–​(19). In the initial brackets is a typical interpretation of the emotive force that might be provided by these expletives. (13) (14) (15) (16) (17) (18) (19)

[warning] It’s a bloody/​fucking crocodile! [nothing to make a fuss about] It’s only a bloody/​fucking picture! [lamentation] You’ve bloody/​fucking broken it! [exasperation at question asked] But I’m going on bloody/​fucking holiday! [condemnation] You’re driving too bloody/​fucking fast! [complaint, exasperation] This train is bloody/​fucking late/​slow. [surprise] It’s turned bloody/​fucking red!

Skilled use of swearing demonstrates a great command of rhetoric, albeit one that cannot be employed in formal discourse. Children of both sexes use swearwords from as young as one year old (see Chapter 6 of this volume) and the practice continues into old age—​even when other critical linguistic abilities have been lost. People with certain kinds of dementia and/​or aphasia can curse profusely, producing what sound like exclamatory interjections as an emotional reaction. However, when called upon to repeat the performance, they are unable to do so because they have lost the capacity to construct ordinary language. The fact that dirty words, abusive words, and slurs pour forth in these particular mental disorders is only possible because they are stored separately (or at least accessed differently) from other language.8


Alleged by Prime Minister Bob Hawke in 1990. Jay (2000) offers a comprehensive account of the mental disorders associated with coprolalia, copropraxia, and other coprophenomena. See also Chapters 6 and 7 of this volume. 8 

14   Keith Allan

1.8  Less dangerous taboos Infractions of taboos can be dangerous to the individual and to his or her society; they can lead to illness or death. But there are also milder kinds of taboo whose violation results in the lesser penalties of corporal punishment, incarceration, social ostracism, or mere disapproval. Humans are social creatures and every human being is a member of at least a gender, a family, a generation; usually they are also members of friendship, recreational, and occupational groups. An individual’s behaviour is subject to sanction within these groups and by the larger community. Some groups—​e.g. family and sports team supporters—​have unwritten conventions governing behavioural standards; others have written regulations or laws. Groups with written regulations also have unwritten conventions governing appropriate behaviour. In all cases sanctions on behaviour arise from beliefs supposedly held in common by a consensus of members of the community or from an authoritative body within the group. Taboos normally arise out of social constraints on the individual’s behaviour. They arise in cases where the individual’s acts can cause discomfort, harm or injury to him-​or herself and to others. The constraint on behaviour is imposed by someone or some physical or metaphysical force that the individual believes has some authority or power over them—​the law, the gods, the society in which one lives, even proprioceptions (as in the self-​imposed proscription Chocolates are taboo for me, they give me migraine).

1.9  There is no such thing as an absolute taboo Nothing is taboo for all people under all circumstances for all time. There is an endless list of behaviours ‘tabooed’ yet nonetheless practised at some time in (pre)history by people for whom they are presumably not taboo. This raises a philosophical question: if Sue recognizes the existence of a taboo against mariticide and then deliberately flouts it by murdering her husband, is mariticide not a taboo for Sue? Any answer to this is controversial; my position is that at the time the so-​called taboo is flouted it does not function as a taboo for the perpetrator. This does not affect the status of mariticide as a taboo in the community of which Sue is a member, nor the status of mariticide as a taboo for Sue at other times in her life. Although a taboo can be accidentally breached without the violator putting aside the taboo, when the violation is deliberate, the taboo is not merely ineffectual but inoperative. Quite commonly one community recognizes a taboo (e.g. late eighteenth-​century Tahitian women not eating with men) whereas another (Captain Cook’s men) does not. In seventeenth-​century Europe women from all social classes, among them King Charles I’s wife Henrietta Maria, commonly exposed one or both breasts in public as a display of youth and beauty. No European queen nor Prime Minister would do that

Taboo words and language    15 today. Australian news services speak, write, and show pictures of a person recently dead, a practice which is taboo in many Australian Aboriginal communities. You may be squeamish about saying fuck when on a public stage, but lots of people are not. No place of worship today would be allowed to create a display of the vulva like that of the twelfth-​century Église de Ste Radegonde (Poitiers, France). You may believe it taboo for an adult to have sex with a minor, but hundreds of thousands of people have not shared that taboo or else they have put it aside. Incest is tabooed in most communities, but Pharaoh Ramses II (fl. 1279–​1213 bce) married several of his daughters. Voltaire (1694–​1778) had an affair with his widowed niece Mme Marie Louise Denis (née Mignot, 1712–​90), to whom he wrote passionately: My child, I shall adore you until I’m in my grave . . . . I would like to be the only one to have had the happiness of fucking you, and I now wish I had slept with no-​one but you, and had never come but with you. I have a hard on as I write to you and I kiss a thousand times your beautiful breasts and beautiful arse. Besterman 1957, Letter 4856 from Strasbourg 3 September 1753. My translation.

In most jurisdictions it is taboo to marry a sibling, but some of the Pharaohs did it; so did the Hawai‘ian royal family. Killing people is taboo in most societies; though from time to time and in various places, human sacrifice has been practised, usually to propitiate gods or natural forces that it is thought would otherwise harm the community. Killing enemies gets rewarded everywhere and judicial execution of traitors and murderers is still common. Some Islamists believe that blowing themselves up along with a few infidels leads to Paradise. The Christian God said to Moses ‘He that smiteth a man, so that he die, shall be surely put to death’ (Exodus 21:12). Yet in the Bible we find human sacrifice approved in the murder of an Israelite and a Midianitish woman ‘so [that] the plague was stayed from the children of Israel’ (Numbers 25:8). God persecuted the Midianites; he told Moses to ‘vex . . . and smite them’ (Numbers 25:17) ‘And [the Israelites] warred against the Midianites as the Lord commanded Moses; and they slew all the males’, burned their cities, and looted their cattle and chattels (Numbers 31:7–​11). Then Moses sent the Israelites back to complete the Lord’s work by killing all male children and women of child-​bearing age, keeping other females ‘for yourselves’ (Numbers 31:17–​18). God’s work or not, this is military behaviour that would be tabooed today and might lead to a war crimes trial. In Anglo communities (and those of many other cultures too) it is today tabooed for an adult to touch the sexual organs of another person without at least implicit permission to do so because in the least it is disrespectful, and at worst it is illegal assault. Many celebrities have been convicted of rape (Mike Tyson, Roman Polański), sexual harassment (Congressman Mark Foley, Rolf Harris), or child molestation (Gary Glitter, Michael Jackson). During 2016 it emerged that then presidential candidate Donald J. Trump (later 45th POTUS) had boasted on tape in 2005: I did try and fuck her. She was married. [A few seconds later, of a different woman] I’ve gotta use some tic tacs, just in case I  start kissing her. [. . .] You know I’m

16   Keith Allan automatically attracted to beautiful—​I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. [. . .] And when you’re a star they let you do it. [. . .] You can do anything. [. . .] Grab them by the pussy. [. . .] You can do anything.9

This very public violation of taboo was treated as a breach of etiquette that was never denied by Trump, who frequently self-​contradicts and blatantly lies. Trump has been both pro-​choice (1999) and pro-​life (2015). He has said (13 February 2016): ‘I do listen to people. I hire experts. I hire top, top people. And I do listen.’ But on 16 March 2016 he said: ‘I’m speaking with myself, number 1, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things. [. . .] My primary consultant is myself.’ On 24 September 2015 he boasted: ‘I don’t mind being criticized. I’ll never, ever complain.’ Yet on 18 May 2017 he did, childishly, complain: ‘Look at the way I have been treated lately. Especially by the media. No politician in history, and I say this with great surety, has been treated worse or more unfairly.’ And then there is his claim that at his 20 January 2017 inauguration: ‘The audience was the biggest ever.’ However, aerial photos clearly show it was barely half the size of the audience at Obama’s inauguration in 2009.10 It is accepted, that is not tabooed, that politicians regularly lie and frequently contradict themselves, but Donald J. Trump is in a class of his own. We are forced to conclude that every taboo must be specified for a particular community of people for a specified context at a given place and time. There is no such thing as an absolute taboo that holds for all worlds, times, and contexts.

1.10  Censorship and censoring Censorship is the suppression or prohibition of speech or writing that is condemned as subversive of the common good. The censoring of language is the proscription of language expressions that are taboo for the censor at a given time in contexts which are specified or specifiable because those proscribed language expressions are condemned for being subversive of the good of some specified, specifiable, or contextually identifiable community. The problem lies in the interpretation of the phrase ‘subversive of the common good’. For instance, the censorship of incitement to (as well as actual) violence against any citizen supposedly guards against their physical harm. The censorship of profanity and blasphemy supposedly guards against their moral harm. In Tudor Britain, taking the Lord’s name in vain was frowned upon and eventually banned—​which is mild retribution compared with what the Bible sanctions in Leviticus 24:16: ‘he blasphemeth the name of the Lord, shall be put to death’. Elizabeth I is reputed to have favoured God’s 9  https://​​politics/​trump-​recorded-​having-​extremely-​lewd-​conversation-​ about-​women-​in-​2005/​2016/​10/​07/​3b9ce776-​8cb4-​11e6-​bf8a-​3d26847eeed4_​story.html. 10  See incontrovertible evidence at https://​​realEricTyson/​status/​861122546875478016.

Taboo words and language    17 wounds as an oath (Montagu 1968: 139). During her reign there arose euphemisms like ’sblood ⇒ ’s’lood ⇒ ’slud,11 ’sbody, ’sfoot, ’slid [eyelid], ’slight, ’snails, ’sprecious [body], and zounds foreclipped of God and occasionally additionally remodelled, for example God’s wounds ⇒ ’swounds ⇒ zounds pronounced /​zuːnz/​ ⇒ zaunds pronounced /​zaunz/​. Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones (Fielding 1749) omits letters to euphemize, fore example ‘Z—​ds and bl—​d, sister’ (XVI.4) and contains ’Sbodlikins (X.5) and Odsbud! (XVI.7) as variants of God’s body, along with Odsooks! (XII.7) and Odzookers! (XVIII.9) from God’s hooks (nailing Christ to the cross) and Odrabbet it! (XVI.2) or Od rabbit it (XVII.3, XVIII.9) from God rot it! (‘confound it’) which lives on in drat it. I’ fackins (X.9) is a variant of i’ faith and Icod! (XVIII.8) derives from either in God’s name or By God. How does remodelling work? (20) says something about misspellings, which one might look upon as accidental remodellings. (20) Aoccdrnig to a rsecherear at an Elingsh uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is that frist and lsat ltteer is at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae we do not raed ervey lteter by itslef but the wrod as a wlohe. No fluent speaker of English has any trouble reading (20)—​which explains the power of the designer label FCUK (French Connection UK). Taking context into account and working on a system of analysis-​by-​synthesis we match misspelled words with their normal forms. Similarly with euphemisms like Sugar! and Shivers! substituted for Shit!, fudge and frig for fuck, Gee!, Goodness!, or Lordy! for God!, and Jeepers! for Jesus! Criticism of monarchs, heads of state and other persons of rank is often severely censored, particularly in times of national instability. On the face of it, language censorship—​like the restriction on gun ownership—​is a reasonable constraint against abuses of social interaction amongst human beings. However, history shows that censorship empowers people who are by inclination illiberal and unlikely to be artistically creative or broadly schooled. The judgment of a censor is open to error, fashion, whim, and corruption. Moreover, censorship fails to prevent people intent on flouting it; censorship is like whistling in the wind—​not that such infelicity has ever stopped the imposition of censorship. There is another argument against censorship: as Publius Cornelius Tacitus (56–​120 ce) pointed out (The Annals Book XIV: 50, Tacitus 1908: 444), banned writings are eagerly sought and read; once the proscription is dropped, interest in them wanes. Censorship nearly always has such confounding effects. The prohibition on the manufacture and sale of alcohol in the United States 1920–​33 was notoriously ineffective and counterproductive in that it led to the establishment of organized crime syndicates. The experience has had 11  All three forms occur in Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair of 1614, cf. Jonson (1981). The sequence A ⇒ B symbolizes ‘A is the source of B, or B derives from A’; and C ⇐ D ‘D is the source for C, or C derives from D’.

18   Keith Allan little effect on today’s law-​makers, who insist on banning recreational drugs with similar results. Attempts by Senator Jesse Helms and others to ban a 1988 retrospective of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s work led to its universal notoriety and a ten-​fold increase in prices.12

1.11  Language change and development The avoidance of linguistic taboos can cause language change and give rise to linguistic creativity as revealed by remodelling, especially as a source for euphemisms and as a function of verbal play. There are predominantly two ways in which novel terms and expressions are created leading to language change:  formally through remodelling and semantically through figurative language. Consider some of the words for nakedness. There is the orthophemistic term nude, from Latin nudus, often used of photographic or painted representations of naked women and, much more rarely, of a naked man—​hence the marked term male nude. Whether a nude is artistic or pornographic depends on viewer belief. A colloquial Australian euphemism for being in the nude is in the nuddie. Other euphemisms include as nature intended, in one’s birthday suit, in the altogether, and in the buff (⇐ buff[alo] leather, buff skin transferred to humans). Being naked is captured by the dysphemism bare-​arsed and the more euphemistic butt/​buck naked in which buck ⇐ butt. The orthophemistic term stark naked and the connected colloquial euphemism starkers also arose by replacing a final /​t/​with a /​k/​: stark ⇐ start ‘tail, arse’. Nudists like to go about in the open air without clothes on and, being as nature intended when in natural surroundings, they are euphemistically called naturists. Such expressions display folk culture in a remarkable inventiveness of metaphor and figurative language sourced in the perceived characteristics of whatever is being talked about. For instance, terms for tabooed objects and events provide ready-​made material for the dysphemistic language of curses, insults, epithets, and expletives. X-​phemisms, that is orthophemisms and/​or euphemisms and/​or dysphemisms, are motivated by a speaker/​writer’s want to be seen to take a certain stance by upgrading, downgrading, obfuscating, and deceiving; and they extensively manifest indulgence in verbal play. Although the discussion here focuses on English, the categories illustrated occur across the world’s languages, and many of them are significant for the study of language change. X-​phemism motivates language change by promoting new expressions, or new meanings for old expressions, and causing some existing vocabulary to be abandoned. Consider avoidance expressions for profane use of the expletive God!: Cor! Cor lumme! Golly! Gosh! Gorblimey! Gordonbennet! Gordon’ighlanders! Goodness (knows)! (Good) gracious! For goodness’ sake! Such remodellings of the word god are deliberate ploys to 12  Robert Mapplethorpe’s photos of gays, fisting, sado-​masochism, a man pissing into another’s mouth, himself dressed as Satan with a bull-​whip in his arse for a tail, and the fact that he was to die of AIDS led to a notoriety that increased his saleability. See Hughes (1993: 163).

Taboo words and language    19 avoid explicit profanity (i.e. careless irreverence for the deity or other religious icon). This avoidance displays a certain stance: an altruistic desire not to offend and/​or the face-​saving aspiration not to seem to be offensive. Chaucer’s Canon’s Yeoman uses ‘Marie’ for Mary, mother of God (Chaucer 1396: l. 1062); Marie was later remodelled to Marry as in Marry forbid! and Marry come up!. Rather similar in meaning to the expostulary Marry! were Fie! and Fackins! remodelled from Faith! all of them having much the same force as today’s profane God!. These are more archaic than Holy Mary! and Holy mother! whence, probably, Holy cow! and the double dysphemisms Holy shit! Holy fuck!. Less profane than Holy Mary! are Holy Moses! Holy mackerel! What in Hades?! is perhaps polite variation on What in hell?! Curiously, although What the deuce?! is analogous to What the dickens?! and What the devil?!, ‘deuce’ here derives from the Norman French oath Deus! ‘God’. What the dickens?! avoids calling up by name the malevolent spirit of Old Nick, Old Harry, Old Bendy, Old Bogey, Old Poker, Old Roger, Old Split-​Foot, the Old Gentleman, Old Billy. Confounding someone or something was euphemized in Od rabbit it from God rot it!—​which lives on in Drat it! or simply Drat!. There was always the explicit Damnation! remodelled to Tarnation! as Damn! is remodelled to Darn! and Dang! There are similar processes for other taboo terms, for example cunt is reformed into cooch, coochie, hoochie-​coochie, and oochamagoochi. Cunny ‘cunt’, retained in modern cunnilingus, derives from Latin cunnus, probably originally a euphemism. There may also have been some input from French con, itself derived from Latin cunnus and used for the bawdy part from (at least) the fourteenth century (cf. Boch and von Wartburg 1975; Picoche 1979), and perhaps from Spanish coño, too. Coney /​kʌni, kouni/​was the word for ‘rabbit’ until the late nineteenth century, when it dropped out of use because of the taboo homonym. In Latin, rabbit is cuniculus, and its burrow cuniculum; end-​clip either and you are left with cuni[e]‌(spelled variously as coney, cony, conny, conye, conie, connie, conni, cuny, cunny, cunnie13). One of the many euphemisms for cunt was cunny-​ burrow, hence the picturesque term for a penis as the cunny-​burrow ferret (Farmer and Henley 1890–​1904). There is a long-​time link between rabbits, bunnies, and cunts. On the same topic, well, bottle, and pond all mix configuration with function and/​or effluvia in their imagery. The vulva is seen as a mouth, with lips and tongue (clitoris)—​hence, nether-​lips. Like the mouth it salivates and drinks, and can flash an upright grin. Such metaphors, like others for tabooed body parts, liken it to a non-​taboo part. Terms like bite, snatch, vice/​vise, snapper, clam, and oyster extend the metaphor by suggesting a mouth ready to snap up a penis; the myth of vagina dentata—​the vagina with teeth that may mutilate a man—​is found in Africa, America, Europe, and India. Vice/​vise ‘tool for gripping’ is doubtless immorally inspired, too. Note that snapper, clam, and oyster are also fishy—​a fishy odour being commonly attributed to this organ when washing was less prevalent than it is today; we therefore find terms like fish(tail) and ling for ‘vagina’ (and hook for ‘penis’); mermaid was a euphemism for ‘whore’. The plant Chenopodium 13

  In Robert Greene’s 1591 book A Notable Discovery of Coosnage, cited in Baugh and Cable (1978: 208).

20   Keith Allan vulvaria, also known as stinking goosefoot, is ‘readily told by its repulsive smell of decaying fish’ (Fitter 1971). The noun and verb fishfinger denote ‘digital stimulation of a woman’ (for which my favourite term is firkytoodling (Farmer and Henley 1890–​1904)); and fishing or angling ‘digital stimulation of the vagina; copulation’, and fishbreath arises from ‘oral sex’. Grose and others (1811) list the wonderful metaphor the miraculous pitcher, that holds water with the mouth downwards: it seems unlikely that this lengthy example of verbal play was widely used, and its flippancy is reminiscent of euphemisms like kick the bucket14 for ‘die’ with their real or pretended disdain for a taboo. Copulation is picturesquely described in figures such as ‘making the beast with two backs’ (Shakespeare Othello I.i.114), banging, belly slapping, bonking, coupling, covering, doggy-​dancing, folk-​dancing, horizontal dancing, horizontal jogging, humping, jigjogging, mounting, riding, rolling in the hay, screwing, stitching, tupping, uptails all, etc. as well as many terms of attack and penetration. Most if not all of these can be classed euphemistic dysphemisms: many of them are phonetically similar to the dysphemism they replace and have a similar communicative function to that dysphemism; others are figurative evocations of the denotatum. So we see that there are basically two ways in which X-​phemisms are created: by a changed form for the word or expression and by figurative language that results from the perceived characteristics of the denotatum. Both processes, but particularly the latter, are pragmatically controlled. X-​phemisms are motivated by a speaker’s want to be seen to take a certain stance to a taboo expression, and by playfulness. Many X-​phemisms are figurative; many have been or are causing semantic change; some show remarkable inventiveness of either figure or form; and some are indubitably playful. Euphemism, for instance, can be achieved antithetically by both hyperbole (to be in the hot seat) and understatement (anatomically correct doll), by the use of learned terms or technical jargon instead of common terms (faeces for shit), and conversely by the use of colloquial instead of formal terms (period for menstrual cycle), by both general-​for-​specific substitution (nether regions and down there for genitals) and part-​ for-​whole substitution (tit for breast), by both circumlocution (companion animal for pet) and abbreviation (bra), acronym (snafu /​ˈsnafu/​, alphabetism (s.o.b /​ˈɛsˈˀouˈbi:/​) or even complete omission (the ladies/​gents omits lavatory/​toilet), as well as by one-​for-​one substitution from the existing resources of the language (f***) or by borrowing from another language (po ‘chamber pot’ from French pot  /​po/​). Dysphemism employs most of the same strategies as euphemism, but there are two main differences. One is that part-​for-​whole dysphemisms are far more frequent than general-​for-​specific ones, which is the converse of the situation with euphemisms: for example the use of tits for breasts15 is part-​for-​whole, as are figurative epithets like in He’s 14 

It is probable that bucket denotes ‘beam, yoke’ to which an animal was trussed by its hind-​legs while its throat was cut. This could be one source for the idiom, but the folk belief has a bucket kicked away as a person hangs. 15 Germanic tit is cognate with Romance-​based teat. It is curious that the latter is apparently never used to denote a breast.

Taboo words and language    21 a prick which contrast with euphemistic counterparts showing whole-​for-​part substitutions like chest (speaking of a woman’s breasts) and (legal) person (referring to genitalia). Other differences between the strategies for euphemism and those for dysphemism are predictable: circumlocution is most usually dysphemistic when it manifests an unwanted jargon; the use of borrowed terms and technical jargon is only dysphemistic when intended to obfuscate or offend the audience; and so forth. Euphemism as a work of art falls into three categories: there are the artful euphemisms, like many of those used in street language, which make a striking figure, but which are the everyday vocabulary of a particular jargon; there are the artful euphemisms which mask their original taboo denotations to such an extent that the latter are not generally recognized; and finally there are the artful euphemisms which are meant to be as revealing—​and in their own way as provocative—​as diaphanous lingerie. As bawdy authors like Shakespeare and political satirists like Swift and Orwell well know, titillation of the audience is the best way to draw attention to their message. X-​phemisms of all kinds display folk culture, and arise through similar linguistic stratagems to achieve different effects. An interesting perspective on the human psyche is to be gained from the study of language expressions used as a shield against the disapprobation of our fellows or malign fate, and others used as a weapon against those we dislike or as a release valve against the vicissitudes of life. Many euphemisms and dysphemisms demonstrate the poetic inventiveness of ordinary people: they reveal a folk culture that has been paid too little attention by lexicographers, linguists, literaticians, and pragmaticists.

1.12  The contents of this Handbook The aim of the Oxford Handbook of Taboo Words and Language is to offer comprehensive coverage of tabooed language as perceived by experts in general linguistics, cultural linguistics, sociolinguistics, anthropological linguistics, psycholinguistics, neurolinguistics, historical linguistics, linguistic philosophy, forensic linguistics, politeness research, publishing, advertising, and theology. Although the principal focus is the English language, reference is occasionally made to linguistic taboos in other languages in order to compare sociocultural attitudes. The volume defines and describes taboo while investigating the reasons and beliefs behind linguistic taboos. The existence of taboos and the need to manage taboo lead not only to the censoring of behaviour and the imposition of censorship but also to language change and language development. In Chapter 2, ‘Taboo language and impoliteness’, Jonathan Culpeper examines how taboo language interacts with linguistic politeness and impoliteness. Taboo topics typically threaten positive face—​the positive values people feel the right to claim for themselves. Taboo words operate as general-​purpose emotional aggravators. Taboo words like Paki, nigger, and spastic have relatively direct connections with social identity and are used to target positive face; others such as fuck and shit potentially violate sociality

22   Keith Allan rights—​expectations about what should and should not occur in the prevailing context. Taboo language often intensifies impoliteness; for example Go away! may be impolite, but Fuck off! is much more so. Thus, taboo language occurs in concert with impoliteness with markedly high-​frequency across a range of impoliteness formulae, but especially in insults. In Chapter 3, ‘Taboos in speaking of sex and sexuality’, Eliecer Crespo-​Fernández elaborates on the powerful taboos that shape human behaviour and communication in respect of sex and sexuality. He discusses X-​phemistic naming in the fields of homosexuality, conventional and unconventional sexual practices, masturbation, prostitution, pornography, and body parts. Because metaphor is a potent source for sexual vocabulary, close attention is paid to the role of figurative language. Sexual taboo is a breeding ground for X-​phemistic references that perform communicative functions ranging from attenuation to offence, and from solidarity to dissimilation. Taboo terms may be used tenderly and lyrically, or brutally, lasciviously, and offensively. Context is vitally important to the way in which a potentially taboo word is interpreted (see Allan 2018). In Chapter 4, ‘Speaking of disease and death’, Réka Benczes and Kate Burridge investigate the X-​phemistic language use associated with serious medical conditions such as HIV/​AIDS, cancer, and mental illness, and with death. The challenges of confronting the biological limits of our own bodies have brought forth a vast repository of X-​phemistic language for these topics that relies heavily on metaphor. The chapter questions whether such metaphors control or modify our attitudes towards diseases and death. Harking back to medieval superstitions, today’s taboos on diseases arise from a fear of inducing a malady and from the stigma attached to diseases like HIV/​AIDS, cancer, and dementia. Individuals might be lucky enough to avoid such horrible diseases, but everyone faces death sooner or later. In Chapter  5, ‘The psychology of expressing and interpreting linguistic taboos’, Timothy Jay discusses the psychology of expressing and interpreting linguistic taboos in American English, warning that universal statements cannot be made about the production or interpretation of taboo word expressions because these are always influenced by the particular social, cultural, and physical context in which they occur. Citing large quantities of experimental data, Jay surveys frequencies with which different taboo terms are used, the perceptions of degrees of offensiveness, the significance of personality traits, the presence of emotional factors such as anger, injury, and frustration, and speaker intentions such as to insult, to be humorous, or to express catharsis. The chapter reveals that, far from demonstrating poverty of expressive ability, the use of tabooed epithets is normally a strategic indication of language fluency. In Chapter 6, ‘Taboo language awareness in early childhood’, Timothy Jay takes us through taboo language awareness of English-​speaking children between one and twelve years of age. Not surprisingly, children begin with a very small taboo lexicon of swearwords, insults, and offensive words that becomes more adult-​like by age twelve. Evaluations of taboo words by young children show that they are likely to judge mild terms much worse than older children and adults do. This may be because younger children most probably don’t know so well as adults what the words mean but they do seem

Taboo words and language    23 to recognize their communicative function and social effect. Jay raises the ethical problems of researching children’s use of taboo words and proposes techniques for dealing with them. In Chapter 7, ‘Swearing and the brain’, Shlomit Ritz Finkelstein examines taboo and the brain through the lens of involuntary swearing in neuropsychiatric disorders. The chapter explores and summarizes current knowledge about the neurophysiological substrata of the utterance of expletives—​the relevant brain regions, pathways, neurotransmitters, and interactions with hormones. Clinical data are presented from patients of aphasia, Tourette syndrome, Alzheimer’s disease, and brain injuries. Expletives and other automatic language abilities (like counting numbers, intonation) rely on the right hemisphere, whereas the left hemisphere is normally important for propositional language. Damage to the left inferior frontal gyrus typically stops inhibition of swearing, allowing the involuntary utterance of expletives. Finkelstein discusses swearing as a response to pain and aggression. She ends by proposing directions for research on the biological substrata of swearing. In Chapter 8, ‘sticky: Taboo topics in deaf communities’, Jami N. Fisher, Gene Mirus, and Donna Jo Napoli write about taboo issues not obvious to those outside them. What is taboo in deaf communities (there is no homogenous ‘deaf community’) comprehends all those things which are taboo within the co-​located hearing community, including taboos arising from personal identity characteristics such as gender and race. We should not be surprised that, typically, a deaf woman identifies as a woman rather than as a deaf person, a deaf African American as Black rather than as deaf, and so on and so forth. Fisher et al. draw our attention to additional taboos within deaf communities based on differing degrees of hearing loss and differing capabilities speaking and signing. There is ‘hearing privilege’ which advantages those with normal hearing and leads to deaf people often being at a social or informational handicap within the wider community, creating strained relationships between the hearing and the deaf. As Fisher et al. say ‘Communities of hearing people that are oppressed or marginalized, and of which only a small, privileged group interacts with the majority culture, may well have analogous taboos.’ In Chapter  9, ‘Taboo terms and their grammar’, Jack Hoeksema examines the grammar of taboo terms in English, Dutch, and—​briefly—​German, Estonian, Polish, and modern Hebrew. He shows that taboo terms typically have an emotionally loaded effect that serves to strengthen both positive and negative statements, questions, commands, and even exclamatives (like WTF!?!). There are fascinating cultural differences: for example other than the archaic A plague on both your houses English does not use disease terms in oaths, insults, and other dysphemisms whereas Polish Cholera! is about equivalent to English Damn! and Dutch Betsy lazerde haar schoenen onder het bed ‘Betsy tossed (literally, ‘lepered’, cf. English lazar) her shoes under the bed’. Dutch uses terms for homosexuals (e.g. flikker ‘queer, faggot’) in a manner totally foreign to English, for example Hij deed geen flikker ‘He did fuck all’ (literally, ‘he did no faggot’); Ze flikkerden de boeken weg ‘They tossed (literally ‘buggered’) the books away’. On the other hand, only English allows taboo-​word infixing as in fan-​fucking-​tastic.

24   Keith Allan In Chapter 10, ‘Taboo as a driver of language change’, Kate Burridge and Réka Benczes discuss taboo as a driver of language change and lexical obsolescence. Under the influence of taboo, existing vocabulary is often abandoned as speakers either borrow words from other languages, give new meaning to old expressions via metaphor and metonymy, deliberately remodel existing terms by modifying the pronunciation and/​ or spelling, or they create new expressions. Thus, word taboo disrupts regular change to play havoc with the conventions of historical and comparative linguistics that depend on fairly regular and predictable processes. The fact that taboo terms are often replaced by euphemisms which in turn become taboo shows that the community objection is in fact to the referent of the taboo word (what it means), although it is often the form of the word that is complained about: for example ‘Cunt’ is such a vile word but there is no similar complaint about non-​taboo terms like punt or country. In Chapter 11, ‘Problems translating tabooed words from source to target language’, Pedro Chamizo Domínguez looks at problems translating tabooed words from source to target language. Translating is always difficult because it needs to manage ambiguities and anachronisms in the source language as well as the differences in the semantic scope of lexical items and cultural disparities between the source and target language. When translating taboo expressions, matters of culture and political correctness are especially problematic. Chamizo Domínguez examines multiple translations into several languages of the same source language text to show how tabooed words, insults, invectives, and veiled allusions have been handled. He concludes that—​whether consciously or unconsciously—​translators have often softened or censored the exact scope of the original utterances in their translations. In Chapter 12, ‘Linguistic taboos in a second or foreign language’, Jean-​Marc Dewaele studies the issues that arise when second and foreign language (LX) users utter or encounter taboo words and expressions. LX users often suffer inadequate awareness of the meanings and pragmatic functions of taboo terms, in other words they are unsure about their exact meaning, their emotional force, their offensiveness, and their perlocutionary effects on native (L1) speakers. Because violations of taboo often mark in-​group social identity, L1 speakers can react as though the LX speaker has no right to utter taboo expressions. Furthermore, because taboo is contextually determined, the LX speaker often has a faulty knowledge of appropriate contexts for the use of taboo terms. Such insecurities about the meaning, offensiveness, and appropriateness of taboo words make LX users vulnerable in social interactions, which is why they tend to refrain from using them, or choose less offensive ones than an L1 user would. There is also the fact that, measured by skin conductance responses, speakers normally find LX taboo terms less emotively stimulating than comparable terms in his or her own L1. In Chapter 13, ‘Philosophical investigations of the taboo of insult’, Luvell Anderson examines various kinds of insult to determine what insult is. He concludes it is the undermining of reasonable expectations of respect. Anderson also utilizes Neu’s (2008) telling distinction between being insulted—​the result of a deliberate intentional act—​ and feeling insulted—​which not only results from actually being insulted, but also from acts which unintentionally insult but nonetheless seem to undermine one’s expectation

Taboo words and language    25 of being respected. Anderson then turns his attention to slurs, which are a kind of insult. Subtle insults are especially pernicious given the kind of latitude a devious speaker has in how much signalling is done versus how much is left up to the imaginative capabilities of the interpreter. In Chapter 14, ‘Religious and ideologically motivated taboos’, I (Keith Allan) claim that religious ideologies are distinguished from non-​religious ideologies but they are closely enough related that the proverb cuius regio, eius religio should be rephrased cuius regio, eius idealogia with wider application and truth. I elaborate on the names for and terms of address to gods and their cohorts, which are comparable with those used for other powerful dominators such as sovereigns and dictators and their courts. All ideological taboos arise from perceived traducing of dogma, and/​or insult to revered and/​ or intimidating persons, institutions, and objects. Focusing on the relevant applicable language, I differentiate and discuss the taboos of heresy, blasphemy, and profanity, exemplifying from the histories and treatment of traitors, heretics, witches, martyrs, blasphemers, and profaners from the time of the Maccabees around 200 bce to the Charlie Hebdo massacre in 2015 ce. In Chapter 15, ‘Speech or conduct? Law, censorship, and taboo language’, Christopher Hutton examines linguistic censorship mostly within the common law jurisdictions of UK, USA, Australia, and Hong Kong; he appraises their legal rationale in making the distinction between language use and non-​linguistic conduct. He reviews case law in respect of blasphemy, public order offences, obscenity, key literary trials, broadcasting, popular music, trademark law, and personal names. In the 1960s and 1970s, censorship led to clashes between the power-​elite and progressive activists over what was to be tabooed. Today, the new taboos are hate speech, misogyny, and online trolling. The rise of the internet has allowed almost everyone ready access to tabooed topics, objects, and activities and created difficulties for those who would censor such access. In many domains the law has retreated from linguistic censorship, but there is continued debate over the control of the rights and freedoms of speakers and writers as against those of their audiences. In Chapter  16, ‘Taboo language in books, films, and the media’, Gabriele Azzaro starts with written dysphemisms from Ancient cultures in Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, Greece, and Rome before progressing to modern times. Censorship was imposed but failed to prevent a panoply of sexual and scatological linguistic expressions. An essentially similar history applies to taboo usage in the press, films, and broadcast media. All the classic functions of swearing which have been noted in spontaneous oral taboo language are represented in print, film, and the various electronic media. In the English speaking world today there seems to be less censoring of published (potential) dysphemism. Whether this is true for other communities remains to be established. In Chapter 17, ‘Taboos and bad language in the mouths of politicians and in advertising’, Toby and Barnaby Ralph tell us about linguistic taboos in advertising and the mouths of politicians—​would-​be persuaders of the public. Profanity is able to make the utterer seem objectionable and dominant or amusing and companionable; thus it may have either positive effects by forming bonds or negative effects by being interpreted

26   Keith Allan (and perhaps intended) as ill-​mannered, offensive, and/​or threatening. Many real examples from advertising and politics are considered and evaluated against their use as opposed to their avoidance. As fashions in taboo change over time, such issues as menstruation and homosexuality are less taboo while sexism and racialism have grown more so. Expressions like damn and bloody raise few eyebrows now; shit and bugger are fairly palatable, and the once unspeakables fuck and cunt are used in Parliament and even in adverts. In Chapter 18, ‘Taboo language used as banter’, Elijah Wald examines the use of taboo terms to cement familial and peer relationships by selectively breaking taboos. In what are known as ‘joking relationships’ people demonstrate in-​group solidarity by behaving to each other in mocking or insulting ways that would be unacceptable behaviour towards out-​groupers. Such behaviour is always verbal, sometimes physical, horseplay such as sexual grabbing, and potentially painful tussling. Joking relationships are illustrated from communities in Austronesia, Native America, Africa, and America. Most celebrated among African Americans is ‘capping’ or ‘the dozens’ with insults directed at the target’s family, in particular the mother. As Wald so rightly says: ‘Banter, even in the most friendly situation, is a form of combat. And combat, even in the most dire situation, may be thrilling as well as horrific.’ In Chapter 19, ‘Taboo language as source of comedy’, Barry J. Blake amuses us with a review of taboo violations for comedic purposes. Laughter can be evoked simply by the outrageous act of taboo violation, as with Liza Dolittle’s ‘Not bloody likely!’ in Act III of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. First acted in Britain in April 1914, the so-​called ‘Shavian adjective’ caused huge controversy along with the laughter. Then there are deliberate puns and (in)advertent double entendres such as in ‘The Simpsons: A Tale of Two Springfields’ (2000, 12, 2) when the residents of Old Springfield discover gold in the river after Homer turns off the dam; TV news personality Kent Brockman says Thanks, Mayor Simpson! From now on, we’ll all be taking golden showers. There are word plays like in the childish: What’s long and thin, covered in skin, red in parts, and stuck in tarts? Rhubarb. And I recall being reprimanded by my grandfather as a preteen boy repeatedly singing: A sod-​, a sod-​, a soldier I will be /​Fuck you, Fuck you, for curiosity /​To piss, To piss, two pistols on my knee /​To fight for the old cunt, fight for the old cunt, fight for the old country. This ditty plays on phonetic similarity to several tabooed expressions and also exhibits verbal circumventions of tabooed words. My Czech friends were shocked but amused when they first encountered the place name Kunda Park (an industrial suburb in Queensland, Australia) because kunda is a Czech cognate of English cunt: cf. Czech vlhká kunda ‘wet pussy’, also to je ale kunda of a woman ‘what a bitch’. Finally, in Chapter 20, ‘An anthropological approach to taboo words and language’, Stanley H. Brandes emphasizes cultural relativity: language that is perfectly decorous in one community is often unseemly or scandalous in another. Tabooed behaviour is viewed negatively and, consequently, is open to public rebuke, collective scorn, ostracism, and even physical aggression. From within the frameworks of cultural anthropology and folkloristics Brandes discusses examples of tabooed language from sub-​Saharan Africa, Spain, Latin America, and (within the USA) Native America, and

Taboo words and language    27 African America. Tabooed words and expressions vary enormously from one ethnic, gender, national, and class group to another. Offensive words, inappropriate expressions, violations of proper discourse are ubiquitous. But they are situational, dependent on the particular contexts in which they are uttered. They can be used to unite people under a common cultural umbrella and they can be divisively antagonistic abusive terms of address. The chapter reviews nicknaming, verbal duelling, and various types of joking relationships, among other speech forms, as anthropologically prominent forms of tabooed language.

Chapter 2

Tab o o l a ng uag e and im p oli t e ne s s jonathan culpeper

2.1  ‘Taboo language’ and ‘impoliteness’ Let us get a grip on the labels in the title of this chapter. Regarding ‘taboo language’, ‘language’ typically refers to words and expressions, rather than other areas of language, such as grammar and intonation, which are rarely considered taboo in English taboo-​ speaking cultures. However, we should allow for non-​verbal actions that constitute meaningful signs. Thus, we might consider the word shit or the expression fucking cunt as taboo, but also, in English-​speaking cultures, two fingered or one fingered gestures. The notion of ‘taboo’ is discussed at length elsewhere in this volume. It is ‘a proscription of behaviour for a specifiable community of one or more persons at a specifiable time in specifiable contexts’ (Allan & Burridge 2006: 11; see also Chapter 1 of this volume). Importantly, as Jay (Chapter 5) points out, taboo words are ‘more emotionally arousing and more negatively valenced than non-​taboo words’. The label ‘impoliteness’ brings us into the realms of linguistic pragmatics. Although the notion of impoliteness can be approached from a multitude of different disciplines, it is grounded in linguistic pragmatics, the branch of linguistics that deals with the use of language in context. More specifically, it is at home in the subfield of sociopragmatics, which deals with local conditions of use (Leech 1983). This fits both taboo language and impolite language because such language does not carry invariant taboo or impolite meanings for all contexts but is sensitive to local contexts. The word shit might be considered fine if said amongst friends at a social occasion, but not as a teacher’s assessment of their student’s work. Of course, this is not to deny that taboo or impolite meanings can become strongly associated with particular linguistic expressions. This is why people can identify such expressions even out of context. As Holtgraves (2005: 89) points out, ‘people possess a schematic knowledge regarding language and its social implications, knowledge that exists independent of any occasion of use’. Note the specific

Taboo language and impoliteness    29 wording here: the claim is that it is ‘independent of any occasion of use’ and not that it is independent of context. I will elaborate on how the meanings of these expressions evolve in Section 2.4. Impoliteness, more precisely ‘linguistic impoliteness’, typically refers to language that is used to cause offence or is perceived to cause offence. This chapter is restricted to genuine impoliteness, cases where offence is intended and/​or taken. This excludes cases of, for example, banter, where aspects of impoliteness are present (e.g. words that are conventionalized for impoliteness), but there is no offence intended and/​ or taken. A discussion of taboo language in the context of banter can be found in Chapter 18 of this volume. Culpeper (2011: 23) proposes the following definition of impoliteness: Impoliteness is a negative attitude towards specific behaviours occurring in specific contexts. It is sustained by expectations, desires and /​or beliefs about social organization, including, in particular, how one person’s or a group’s identities are mediated by others in interaction. Situated behaviours are viewed negatively—considered ‘impolite’—when they conflict with how one expects them to be, how one wants them to be and/​or how one thinks they ought to be. Such behaviours always have or are presumed to have emotional consequences for at least one participant, that is, they cause or are presumed to cause offence.

Taboo language is quite neatly encompassed by this definition. People have negative attitudes towards its use in specific contexts, and those attitudes are underpinned by societal thinking. Like impoliteness generally, language is taboo when it conflicts with what people expect in a particular context, or what they desire or think should be the case. In addition, taboo language has negative emotional consequences for at least one participant. Taboo language, then, is a subgroup within impoliteness. Impoliteness covers much more than taboo language. It is possible to achieve impoliteness with language without saying anything taboo. To elaborate the example mentioned above, a teacher could write on a student’s piece of work This is shit or This is excrement. The former contains a negative evaluation reinforced with a taboo word; the latter contains a negative evaluation, but none of its words could be described as taboo.

2.2  Taboo language in work on politeness Looking for taboo language in work on politeness may seem like a nonstarter, given its close association with impoliteness. However, it is not unreasonable to expect there to be some discussion of ‘polite’ ways of handling taboo areas in language (e.g. through techniques such as euphemism). Furthermore, how such matters are handled in politeness

30   Jonathan Culpeper theories may help us understand how they are handled in impoliteness theories, because of the strong influence of the former on the latter. The classic and most cited work on politeness is Brown and Levinson (1987). Anything related to taboo matters is conspicuous by its near absence. There are but some fleeting mentions. The ‘mention of taboo topics, including those that are inappropriate to the context’ (1987:  67) is listed as an example of an act that threatens positive face, because ‘S indicates that he doesn’t value H’s values and doesn’t fear H’s fears’ (1987: 67). Positive face is defined as ‘the want of every member that his wants be desirable to at least some others . . . in particular, it includes the desire to be ratified, understood, approved of, liked, or admired’ (1987: 62). Later in the book, there is a brief note of the fact that taboo language can relate to appropriate ways of addressing or speaking with certain participants, such as the use of ‘mother-​in-​law’ languages in Australia, where a particular vocabulary is used if taboo relatives, such as mothers-​in-​law, are in hearing (1987: 279). Euphemisms, similarly, get short shrift. Most euphemisms (e.g. WC, toilet, lavatory, bathroom, restroom) are taken to be a kind of associative hint, and ‘as these become conventionalized there is constant pressure to create new euphemisms for truly taboo subjects, as by association the old euphemism becomes more and more polluted’ (1987: 216). Taboo language fairs even worse in other works on politeness. In Leech (1983), another classic politeness work, taboo language gets no mention. Watts (2003), a work that helped pioneer a more discursive approach to politeness in opposition to the classic frameworks, likewise has no mention. More recently, we have seen the publication of Kádár and Haugh (2013). The notion of taboo is mentioned twice, but in both cases it is merely a fleeting reference to the particulars of an example or publication. None of the works discussed in this paragraph touch upon euphemisms. There is, however, a recent work that somewhat bucks this trend: Leech (2014). Leech (2014) devotes three pages to taboo language in the context of impoliteness. Moreover, they are there to make an important point about a key difference between politeness and impoliteness. Leech (pers. comm.) was of the opinion that it was not necessary to devise a theory of impoliteness, because his Principle of Politeness could handle either politeness or impoliteness. The Politeness Principle, constituted by the maxims of tact, generosity, approbation, modesty, agreement, and sympathy, is as follows: Minimize (other things being equal) the expression of impolite beliefs [. . .] (Maximize (other things being equal) the expression of polite beliefs) Leech 1983: 81

Impoliteness can easily be accounted for as violations of the principle. Another way of putting this is that you simply reverse the Politeness Principle thus: Maximize (other things being equal) the expression of impolite beliefs [. . .] (Minimize (other things being equal) the expression of polite beliefs)

Taboo language and impoliteness    31 However, Leech had always acknowledged that the one area resistant to a simple reversal of his politeness framework is taboo language. It is not easy to see how it fits his Politeness Principle, how any maxim encompasses its workings. In 2014, Leech elaborates his views about the role of taboo language. Taboo language, he argues, is one of the areas of offensive language use that is a matter of ‘adding aggravating affront to impoliteness’ (2014: 229). He adds: It is noticeable that many swearwords and other taboo items are not specialized to particular illocutionary acts or to the breach of particular maxims of politeness. Rather they are general-​purpose emotional aggravators, which can be equally used, for example, to embellish a directive, an accusation, or a refusal. Leech 2014: 231

This picks up on similar points made in Culpeper (2011), which will be discussed in the up-​coming sections. For now the key point to note is that taboo language is not a simple opposite of some aspect of politeness. For example, euphemisms are not used as general-​ purpose emotional downtoners in a variety of speech acts.

2.3  Taboo language as an impoliteness strategy Although, as noted in the previous section, taboo language is not a simple flipside of something in politeness theory, it does figure in early work developing impoliteness theory, despite the fact that that early work was attempting to reverse politeness theory. The fact that this early work (e.g. Lachenicht 1980; Culpeper 1996; Bousfield 2008) managed to do this was because they produced impoliteness frameworks that were more or less mirror images of Brown and Levinson’s (1987) politeness theory. Given Brown and Levinson’s brief remark on not mentioning taboo topics (1987:  67; see Section 2.2), a kind of reversal of this is possible. Culpeper (1996) proposes a strategy within the superstrategy of positive impoliteness that stipulates: ‘Use taboo words—​swear, or use abusive or profane language’. This strategy is also reprised in Culpeper et al. (2003), Culpeper (2005), and Bousfield (2008) with little further discussion. This is unfortunate because, as I will discuss, it oversimplifies the role of taboo language in the context of impoliteness. I wrote ‘a kind of reversal’ in the previous paragraph because Brown and Levinson’s (1987) remark was not a politeness strategy. Most of impoliteness strategies in Culpeper (1996) are relatively straightforward reversals of politeness strategies. For example, the positive impoliteness strategy ‘Seek disagreement’ (Culpeper 1996: 357) is simply the reversal of ‘Seek agreement’ (Brown and Levinson 1987: 112–​13). Brown and Levinson’s (1987: 67) comment on the ‘mention of taboo topics’ had been part of a list of possible acts that threaten positive face wants (issues of face will be further discussed below). So,

32   Jonathan Culpeper ‘mention taboo topics’ is already an impoliteness strategy. Raising potentially embarrassing topics, such as (in British culture) asking how much a mere acquaintance earns, could be a means of achieving impoliteness. However, such a strategy is relatively rare. The relatively common strategy involving tabooness is:  ‘use taboo words’. In other words, use words that have acquired tabooness through their associations with taboo topics or contexts. One question to address is whether it is actually the case that taboo language is solely a matter of positive impoliteness, that is, using language to attack positive face (the desire to be approved of, etc.). The notion of face is tied up with issues of identity: it is the positive identity you claim for yourself and is instantiated by how others treat you (cf. Goffman 1967: 5). It is difficult to see how the utterance of some taboo expressions, including frequent items such as shit or fuck, could in themselves achieve impoliteness through face attack. ‘In themselves’ here means that there are not other features of impoliteness in the utterance that could cause impoliteness or interact with the taboo expressions to cause impoliteness. Consider example (1), which was supplied in a diary report of a British undergraduate (spelling and punctuation as per original): (1) On the beach in the South of England with my family. My dad has bought me a snorkel set but the sea is freezing and I don’t use it. ‘Come on son, be brave.’ ‘I am’. ‘your not gonna do much snorkelling there’. (After attempting to get in the sea). ‘Dad its freezing . . . I don’t want to!’ ‘Oh don’t be a wimp’. ‘No dad I’m not going in’. (said as I walked up the beach). ‘Well we might as well throw it in the f**king sea then’! The informant also comments: ‘I wasn’t used to my dad swearing so I was quite shocked. [. . .] Maybe he could have refrained from swearing’. The key issue, then is the utterance of the taboo word fucking. Being ‘shocked’ suggests something unexpected, and ‘could have refrained from’ perhaps hints at the existence of social constraints (reasons why he should have refrained). Culpeper (2011) suggests that such cases better fit Spencer-​Oatey’s (e.g. 2008) notion of sociality rights. The essence of sociality rights (and obligations) is that people expect that others should do or not do certain things in certain contexts (cf. Spencer-​Oatey 2005: 98–​100, 2007: 651–​3). The basis of these expectations could be semi-​legal, associated with a particular role, or simply just a social convention that has developed on the basis of what normally happens (Spencer-​Oatey 2008: 15). When people conflict with such rights, there is often a sense of injustice, immorality, or at least a lack of fair consideration. All this would seem partly reminiscent of the definition of taboo language given at the beginning of this chapter: ‘a proscription of behaviour for a specifiable community of one or more persons at a specifiable time in specifiable contexts’ (Allan and

Taboo language and impoliteness    33 Burridge 2006: 11; see also Chapter 1 of this volume). To illustrate, in British culture, jumping the queue is seen as rude behaviour because it conflicts with what people ought to do (i.e. wait their turn in a line). Similarly, the utterance of taboo language like fuck or shit in certain contexts, including parents in front of their children, might be seen as something one should not do. Thus, if one does, it is likely to be construed as impolite. However, much depends on the specific taboo expressions concerned. Whilst whole swathes of taboo language (such as those relating to physical sex or bodily excretion) do not have a direct connection with identity, taboo expressions that relate to social group membership (gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and so on) relate to core identity claims, claims in which people often have much face invested. Consider Table 2.1, which displays the results of a questionnaire on people’s attitudes to swearing and offensive language, involving 1,033 informants based in the UK. This research was commissioned as a joint project by the Advertising Standards Authority, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the Broadcasting Standards Commission, and the Independent Television Commission, and published in Millwood-​Hargrave (2000). Items that have a relatively direct connection with a social group include nigger, Paki, spastic, and Jew; items that do not do so include fuck, arsehole, piss off, shit, pissed off, arse, crap, and bloody. The other items have rather more complex relationships with social groups. Twat, for example, as part of the female body might be said to have a metonymic (or possibly metaphoric) connection with women. However, unlike Paki, for

Table 2.1 Words and offensiveness in Britain in the year 2000 Rank-​ordered 1–​14

Rank-​ordered 15–​28










Pissed off












Jesus Christ



Twat Piss off

Bloody God

Source: Millward-Hargrave 2000.

34   Jonathan Culpeper example, it is not restricted in usage to the social group with which it is connected. The key point for us here is that all taboo language violates sociality rights; some expressions do only this, others also attack face. Finally, given that impoliteness theories often dwell on strategies, it is worth asking whether taboo language really does constitute an impoliteness strategy. Certainly, early work on impoliteness—​as we saw—​considered it so, and we have seen a possible example. However, it is relatively rare that taboo language constitutes an impoliteness strategy in itself. Some evidence for this statement is reported in Culpeper (2011: 136). In a collection of 100 British undergraduate diary reports of impoliteness events, only two behaviours were considered impolite solely on the basis of the fact that they involved taboo language. Furthermore, Culpeper (2011: 133–​7) used a combination of qualitative and quantitative (corpus-​based) analyses to establish a list of conventionalized impolite formulae in English, which included various types of insults, pointed criticisms and complaints, unpalatable questions and/​or presuppositions, condescensions, message enforcers, dismissals, silencers, threats, and negative expresses (e.g. curses). None of these rested solely on the use of taboo language, but all of them could include taboo language. Given that strategies are routinized ways of achieving speaker’s goals, its scarcity suggests that its status as a strategy is somewhat borderline. The importance of taboo language for impoliteness is largely the way it works in concert with other aspects of impoliteness, something which we will discuss in Section 2.5.

2.4  A note on the evolution of taboo and impolite expressions Taboo and impolite expressions come about in similar ways, and so it is instructive to consider them briefly. The tabooness of expressions does not depend upon some particular semantic aspect. A good illustration of this in British culture is the highly offensive term Paki. This has evolved as a clipped form of Pakistani, just as the form Brit has evolved as a clipped version of British/​Briton. Why is the one clip highly offensive, whilst the other, in most contexts, is not? What drives the difference is the regular interaction between the expression and differing interpersonal contextual effects. Paki regularly occurs in the contexts of insults and threats, often constituting hate crimes (see Section 2.6), and thus not only a socially proscribed action but also one that incurs legal sanctions. Regular experience of this interaction leads to the word itself becoming ‘tagged’ with those contexts, and thus taboo, derogatory, and highly offensive. This point can be evidenced by examining the collocates of the two words in question. In the British English component of the Oxford English Corpus, amounting to 502,259,374 words, the strongest collocates one to five places to the right of Paki (according to the statistic Mutual Information, and with a minimum frequency threshold of three) are: Chinky, wog, Paki, scum, derogatory, bastard, Paddy, Turk, bash, and bitch. All of these collocates involve offensive aspects, most frequently slurs on other social groups. In contrast,

Taboo language and impoliteness    35 the collocates of Brit are: round-​up, award, thesp[ian], award-​winning, Lit[erature], performing, blogs, cult, gorgeously, and bloggers. These generally relate to positively valued cultural activities. Impoliteness formulae work in the same way. Through interaction with contexts that involve impoliteness, expressions become semi-​conventionalized or semi-​semanticized for (im)politeness effects to varying degrees. As Terkourafi (2008: 74, footnote 27) notes, ‘[p]‌aralleling what happens with face-​constituting expressions that may be conventionalized to a higher or lower degree, swearwords may semantically encode face-​threat’. The typical associations between certain impolite expressions and certain contexts become part of knowledge about linguistic use. Another way of looking at this is in terms of connotations. Consider what Allan and Burridge (1991, 2006) refer to as ‘dysphemism’: an expression with connotations that are offensive either about the denotatum or to the audience, or both, and it is substituted for a neutral or euphemistic expression for just that reason. Allan and Burridge 1991: 26

They usefully elaborate on what is meant by connotations: The connotations of a word or longer expression are semantic effects (nuances of meaning) that arise from encyclopaedic knowledge about the word’s denotation and also from experience, beliefs and prejudices about the contexts in which the word is typically used. Allan and Burridge 2006: 31; my emphasis

Finally, it is worth noting that the incorporation of tabooness or impoliteness into a word’s meaning does not rely solely on direct experience. Culpeper (2011) notes, impoliteness metadiscourse—​talk about impolite expressions—​gives those expressions a much larger profile in people’s minds than their frequency of usage would suggest. This seems to be equally true of taboo expressions. Haugh and Culpeper (forthcoming) undertook some analyses of nigger, including its uses in the British component of the Oxford English Corpus. They found that the vast majority of occurrences of nigger were metalinguistic uses: people are mentioning the use of nigger rather than using it themselves. Specific uses of nigger are repeatedly mentioned. They report, for example, that of the ten instances of ‘fucking lazy thick nigger’ nine relate to one use by a football manager to refer to the Chelsea defender Marcel Desailly.

2.5  Taboo language as impoliteness intensification Impoliteness is very much about behaviours that are attitudinally extreme or understanding them to be so. Intensifying an impoliteness formula makes it less ambiguous,

36   Jonathan Culpeper less equivocal—​it helps secure an impoliteness uptake. In fact, it can push a non-​ impolite utterance into an impolite one. The conventional impoliteness formula shut up is a case in point. I suspect that most British people would assume that it is impolite. In fact, a scrutiny of a random 100 examples from the Oxford English Corpus revealed that less than 50% have contexts that display impoliteness effects (e.g. the targets countering with impoliteness or getting upset). As the following example from the British National Corpus (KB9) illustrates, it is often used amongst friends in matey, half-​teasing  talk: (2) Speaker A Speaker B Speaker A Speaker B Speaker A Speaker B Annette Speaker B Annette

3699 3700 3701 3702 3703 3704 3705 3706 3707

Well my mum’s round, sort of every other day really. Yeah. I have that problem! Yeah. You can’t keep her Shut up you! away! Yeah. Oh he’s gorgeous!

If the infix the fuck is added to shut up, we find that the majority of cases involve impoliteness, though by no means all. The following is an example from a legal text in the Oxford English Corpus. The utterance is evidence against the father: (3) Shortly thereafter, while the witness and her father were getting into the car to be driven to some friends, she observed her mother from the balcony yelling at her father not to ‘even think about bringing my daughter in that car with a gun in there.’ Upon hearing this, the father’s response was, ‘Shut the fuck up, you stupid bitch.’ Work in communication studies and social psychology on linguistic intensification tends to be concerned with intensifying adverb modifiers, such as so in you’re so lazy. Some taboo expressions also perform this function by virtue of the fact that they fill the intensifier slot, as for example you’re fucking lazy (= extremely lazy). Other intensifying grammatical slots are possible (for more on the grammar of taboo expressions, see Chapter 9 of this volume). Consider you’ve done fuck all (= nothing at all). The key point is that taboo language can do more than act to intensify what is being said. In you’re fucking lazy, for example, fucking intensifies the negative value ascribed to the target, namely, laziness, just as so would do. In addition, as Jay (1992: 11) notes, it intensifies the emotional experience for the target. Importantly, note that taboo intensification of impoliteness need not rely on the addition of a word but can be achieved through word choice. Consider the items in Table 2.1. Many can fairly easily be replaced by non-​taboo

Taboo language and impoliteness    37 items, including rubbish rather than crap, idiot rather than dickhead, go away rather than piss off, and so on. In concluding, a discussion of a particular example, Culpeper et al. (2003: 1561) make some pertinent points. The discussion focuses on the utterance what the fuck you doing, which had been said by a car owner to a traffic warden who was loading his car onto a truck: S2 (a car owner) combines the strategy of ‘challenge:  ask a challenging question’ (negative impoliteness) with the strategy of ‘use taboo words’ (positive impoliteness) to make what the fuck you doing. [. . .] Whilst the taboo word fuck(ing) plays the grammatical role of intensifier (e.g. Quirk et al. 1985: 445, 589–​91), amplifying or boosting the force of the challenge, on an interpersonal level it marks the extremely negative attitude of the speaker towards the hearer. [. . .] The cumulative effect of using mutually reinforcing impoliteness strategies is to boost the impoliteness. It is worth noting that the ‘use taboo words’ strategy (Culpeper 1996) seems to be the one most likely to combine with other strategies [. . .].

The key points here are that taboo language can (1) act like an intensifier, boosting the pragmatic force of what the speaker is trying to do (including cause offence), (2) mark a negative attitude towards the target, and (3) combine readily with a wide range of impoliteness strategies. All this, of course, is consistent with Leech’s suggestion that taboo expressions are ‘general-​purpose emotional aggravators’ (2014: 231). In communication studies, a relevant notion is ‘message intensity’. This is ‘the strength or degree of emphasis with which a source states his attitudinal position towards a topic’ (McEwen and Greenberg 1970: 340). Of particular relevance to our concerns is Young (2004), a study that investigated the factors that influence recipients’ appraisals of hurtful communication. Its findings are worth quoting: How a message was stated was pivotal in determining recipients’ appraisals of it. Comments that were stated harshly, abrasively, or that used extreme language were likely to be viewed more negatively. Research on verbal aggression (Infante, Myers, and Buerkel 1994)  has found comparable results—​interactions characterized by verbal aggression are perceived to be destructive. Like verbally aggressive messages, hurtful comments that are stated intensely may be viewed as particularly detrimental. In short, the cliche ‘It’s not what you say but how you say it’ rings true with regard to recipients’ appraisals about hurtful messages. [. . .] Rather, the manner in which the message is communicated impacts how a message will be appraised. [. . .] this study suggests that it is difficult for recipients to engage in cognitive appraisals to minimize the negativity associated with an intensely stated hurtful comment. Young 2004: 300

Of course, a message can be intensified in various ways. Prosody, for example, can be key. But the empirical evidence is that taboo language is a particularly frequent means of exacerbating the impoliteness of messages (see Section 2.6).

38   Jonathan Culpeper One area which further research could usefully explore is the nature of the relationship between intensification through, for example, taboo expressions, and the degree of impoliteness perceived. In one study, there is a hint that the relationship may not be linear. Greenberg’s (1976) study of perceived verbal aggressiveness found that when an utterance reaches the higher levels of aggression the addition of boosters (specifically, frequency qualifiers like always) made little difference to how it was perceived. This raises the idea that above a certain point the addition of further intensity may not produce a proportional increase in offensiveness.

2.6  Taboo language and impoliteness in hate crime Culpeper et al. (2017) investigated the language manifested as religiously aggravated hate crime. The aim was to describe the linguistic characteristics of speech deemed by legal authorities in England and Wales to have the potential to be an indicator of religiously aggravated hate crime, and to use work on linguistic impoliteness (e.g. Culpeper 2011) as the analytical approach. The research was based on unique access gained to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) records for England and Wales. Here, I will focus on the role of taboo language and how it interfaces with impoliteness. Culpeper et al. (2017) observed that taboo words occurred with striking frequency. From the legal records, they extracted all the utterances that were at issue (i.e. they had the potential to break the law). This was relatively straightforward as they were almost always reported in direct speech. They then categorized those utterances according to the conventionalized impoliteness formulae in English identified by Culpeper (2011: 133–​7; these are listed at the end of Section 2.3). A total of 149 conventionalized impoliteness formulae instances were identified. 50.3% (or 75) of these included at least one taboo word. In contrast, Culpeper (2011: 136) found that a mere 2% of his 100 impoliteness events recorded by students contained taboo words. Not only this, but the taboo words used in the alleged hate crimes were dominated by those perceived to be most the offensive in Britain. The most frequent taboo words were fuck-​related, totalling fifty-​three instances, which corresponds with the second and third ranks in Millwood-​Hargrave’s (2000) rankings (see Table 2.1). The next most frequent was cunt, totalling eleven instances, which corresponds with the first rank in Millwood-​Hargrave’s (2000) rankings (see Table 2.1). These items were unrelated to the group membership of their targets. The point of them was to intensify the impoliteness formulae with which they were combined. Let us get a sense of the combinations of taboo words and impoliteness formulae by examining fuck-​related items. As is well known, fuck is a particularly versatile element. In our dataset, the outstanding example of this is example (4): (4) I’m a fucking DOUGLAS, so don’t you fucking fuck with me

Taboo language and impoliteness    39 Table 2.2. Fifty-​three fuck-​related taboo words in religiously aggravated hate crime language: Forms and functions Function





fucking NP

you fucking mug


fucking VP

we fucking hate Muslim scum





Negative expressives

fuck NP

fuck you



don’t fuck with NP

don’t fuck with me


fuck you ADV up

fuck you right up


fuck up NP

ready to fuck up Muslim scum


fucking ADJ

you’re all fucking dead


fuck off PP —​

fuck off back to the desert —​

5 3

Dismissals Other

[NP = noun phrase; VP = verb phrase; ADJ = adjective; ADV = adverb; PP = prepositional phrase]

Table 2.2 shows the functions, structures, and frequencies of fuck-​related taboo words in our data. Clearly, fuck-​related elements loom large in insults. Twenty-​one alone occur in the most typical insult structure: [you] + [modifier] + [NP] + [you] (square brackets indicate optional elements). Nevertheless, they are clearly not exclusive to insults.

2.7 Conclusions Taboo language, or indeed euphemisms, are virtually absent from politeness theory. However, Brown and Levinson (1987) noted that the mention of taboo topics involves threat to positive face (i.e. the positive values a person claims for themself). Leech (2014) noted that taboo language did not easily fit his Politeness Principle or the mirror image of it for impoliteness, but instead suggested that taboo words operate as general-​purpose emotional aggravators. Whilst Culpeper (1996), partly inspired by Brown and Levinson (1987), proposed a positive impoliteness strategy ‘Use taboo words—​swear, or use abusive or profane language’, that strategy does not in fact encompass all the complexity that attends the role of taboo language in the context of impoliteness. For one thing, that strategy ignores mentioning taboo topics. More substantially, whilst some taboo words (e.g. Paki, nigger, spastic) have relatively direct connections with identity, and are used to attack face (specifically, positive face), others, including the very common fuck and shit, are more a matter of violations of sociality rights, expectations about what should, or should not,

40   Jonathan Culpeper happen in certain contexts. As for whether the use of taboo words constitutes a strategy in itself, this is at best rather uncertain, given the rarity with which it occurs alone as the cause of impoliteness. I dwelt briefly on how the meanings of taboo and impoliteness expressions come about. They share the same processes. Neither taboo nor impoliteness expressions need an original semantic link to something negatively valenced. Through interaction with contexts that involve impoliteness or tabooness being produced and/​or understood, expressions become semi-​conventionalized or semi-​semanticized for those impoliteness or tabooness effects. Having achieved this semi-​conventionalized status, such expressions can then be re-​contextualized into contexts where they do not have such effects—​ bantering contexts being an example. The key role for taboo language with respect to impoliteness is undoubtedly intensification of impoliteness effects. Intensifying an impoliteness formula helps make it unambiguously impolite, securing its uptake. Taboo language can be like an intensifier, boosting the pragmatic force of what the speaker is trying to do, but unlike ordinary intensifiers it also raises the emotional temperature of the exchange and often marks a negative attitude towards the target. A question that remains open is the nature of the relationship between intensification—​through for example taboo expressions—​and the degree of impoliteness perceived; is there a ceiling whereby the addition of further intensifying taboo words makes very little difference? Finally, I considered taboo language and impoliteness in the context of hate crime reported in England and Wales. Taboo language occurs in concert with impoliteness with markedly high frequency, and across a range of impoliteness formulae, but notably as part of insults.

Chapter 3

Ta b o os in spe a k i ng of sex and se x ua l i t y eliecer crespo-​fernández

3.1 Introduction Sexuality is a powerful driving force of human life. We are not asexual; sex is part of ourselves, a deep, primal urge in all of us. As Foucault (2000: 163) puts it, sexuality is ‘a part of our world freedom [. . .], something that we create ourselves’. Although sex is a natural behavior in humans, sex-​related issues have always been taboo and subject to social condemnation. In spite of the censorship and shame surrounding sexual concepts—​or precisely for these reasons—​people feel the need to refer to them, in one way or another. It is proof of the paradoxical nature of taboo (see Benveniste 1974) which compels people to either preserve or violate social etiquette: sex may be forbidden yet tempting; shameful yet seductive. This ambivalence towards the sexual taboo is reflected in the tremendously high degree of synonymy in the vocabulary for genitalia and copulation. This seems to confirm Burridge’s (2004: 212) assumption that taboo ‘provides a fertile seedbed for words to flourish—​and the more potent the taboo, the richer the growth’. Judging from the endless series of both mild and pejorative references to sex-​related topics—​there exist approximately 1,200 terms for vagina, 1,000 for penis, and 800 for copulation, according to Allan and Burridge (1991: 96)—​sex is not only a major concern in most people’s lives but also a universal area of interdiction that shapes human behavior and communication. Although sexual censorship has progressively relaxed due to developments like the so-​called sexual revolution and the gay liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s, sex-​related matters are still considered—​to a greater or lesser extent—​taboo in today’s society. In fact, not only are prostitution, bestiality, and incest subject to censorship, but other socially accepted sexual topics like extramarital sexual intercourse, homosexual practices, even non-​procreative sex are severely sanctioned by religion, which still plays a role in the condemnation of sex, especially in countries with strong religious

42   Eliecer Crespo-Fernández tradition or under right-​wing governments (see Chapter 14 of this volume).1 The taboo surrounding sex is not only the consequence of social impositions. Proscription, it is important to note, is also self-​imposed by individuals. As Burridge (2010: 3) notes, ordinary people ‘act as self-​appointed censors and take it upon themselves to condemn those words and constructions that they feel do not measure up to the standards they perceive they should say’. Sex is, for many, a reminder of the human’s animalistic roots and base passions that should be kept private. The taboo of sex deserves the consideration of ‘multifaceted’ taboo: it is an area of human experience that stands at the crossroads of religious, psychological, and social impositions. This three-​fold understanding of sex can help to explain the remarkable staying powers of taboo over the centuries. Sex is therefore dependent not only on our own bodies, value judgments or intimate experiences but also on the morality of each society and historical period. As Weeks (2011: xi–​xii) claims, the subject of sex involves: more than simply talking about orifices, desire, behaviors and pleasure . . . also, and above all, about the history, society, cultures and languages which gave meaning to acts, provided the context for the emergence of subjectivities, identities, and beliefs, and made the erotic significant in human terms. Sexuality may be about bodies, but is also about society.

From all this it can be deduced that sex is a complex phenomenon that should be understood in a broad sense: it ranges from sexual games to pornography, from physiological dysfunctions to sadomasochistic practices, from masturbation to prostitution. The range of possibilities is great and so is the choice of vocabulary. In order to offer a representative picture of the way sexual taboos are dealt with in language, we should consider the different aspects that make up a whole in people’s experiences with sex. Following Cameron and Kulick (2003: xi), as all kinds of sexual practices ‘depend on language for their conception and expression, they should also fall within the scope of an inquiry into language and sexuality’. This chapter examines the way people talk about homosexuality, conventional and unconventional sexual practices, masturbation, prostitution, pornography, and tabooed body parts. To this end, I consider the types of X-​phemistic (i.e., orthophemistic, euphemistic, and dysphemistic) naming in these sex-​related topics. As metaphors are widely used in sex-​related communication (see Kövecses 1988; Murphy 2001; Crespo-​ Fernández 2015), special attention is paid to the use of figurative language in discussing sexual matters. Given the subject matter of this chapter, it partly (and inevitably) draws on some of my previous writings in which I  studied—​along the lines of cognitive semantics—​the role of euphemism and dysphemism when talking about sexuality in naturally-​occurring contexts of use (Crespo-​Fernández 2008, 2011a, 2015, 2018). This is why in this chapter I rely on the contextual information provided in my earlier works 1 

This repression of sexuality, following Foucault (2000), is caused by a dominant force exerted by powerful social institutions that considerably determines the discursive dimension of sexuality.

Taboos in speaking of sex and sexuality    43 on the subject when judging the X-​phemistic value of sex-​related words and expressions. This contribution is also indebted to other studies which have analyzed, from different perspectives, the interplay between sex and language like those by Epstein (1986); Chamizo Domínguez and Sánchez Benedito (2000); Allan and Burridge (1991: Ch. 4, 2006: Ch. 7); Santaemilia (2005); and Weeks (2011). After considering the role of X-​phemism and context when talking about sex, I will proceed to examine the communicative functions of X-​phemism in different sex-​related taboo areas, namely homosexuality, sexual practices, masturbation, prostitution, pornography, and body parts. Some remarks on the interplay between sex and language will bring this chapter to an end.

3.2  Speaking of sexual taboos: Euphemism, dysphemism, and context Taboo is sensitive to time and context. As Allan (Chapter  1 of this volume) argues, ‘[n]‌othing is taboo for all people under all circumstances for all time’. Sex has, however, always been subject to taboo, and there remains a wide range of taboos on people openly discussing sexual issues, as said earlier. Given the stigma attached to taboo topics centered around sexuality, people resort to euphemism as the best (sometimes only) way to refer to sex-​related topics in public discourse. Sex is indeed a breeding ground for euphemism in English. In Ayto’s (2007: 67) words, ‘the Anglo-​Saxon peoples, and particularly the British, are famous for their being embarrassed by sex, so it is hardly surprising that the English language contains more euphemisms for sexual activity than for any other topic’. Sometimes, however, the stigma surrounding sex or the influence of an oppressive setting proves to be more powerful than any mild-​sounding alternative, and not even the most indirect euphemism is able to provide a safe ground for the speaker’s reference to the taboo. In cases like these, a ‘culture-​related’ silence seems to be the only effective euphemism (Krajewsky and Schröder 2008: 595).2 While talking about sex is a source of embarrassment for many people, sex is by no means limited to euphemistic—​i.e., implicit, vague, or polite-​sounding—​alternatives to the taboo. Given the ambivalent feelings of veneration and hostility that taboo engenders (see Section 3.1), an explicit treatment of sex coexists with indirect allusions to sexual topics in present-​day communication. The way people deal with sexuality in discourse is not, therefore, a black and white phenomenon; this taboo gives way to a


Silence, however, has an ambivalent effect on the ways sex is dealt with in public discourse. On the one hand, silence stands on the assumption that naming is dangerous and silence is safe (Klein 1992: 3). On the other hand, as Foucault (cited in Clark 2012: 21) argues, the techniques for silencing sexual matters in discourse paradoxically incite people to talk about sex, especially during those periods associated with strict controls over sexuality, like Victorian England.

44   Eliecer Crespo-Fernández range of linguistic manifestations: from ‘pure’ euphemism to ‘straight’ dysphemism—​ that is, from mitigation to offence—​with different axiological3 categories between these two basic modalities of taboo naming, namely ‘orthophemism’ (direct and literal reference to the taboo concept); ‘quasi-​euphemism’ (apparent negatively-​loaded items which are used positively in certain contexts); and ‘quasi-​dysphemism’ (language expressions which, despite their socially acceptable disguise, are intentionally offensive). These X-​ phemistic modalities serve a variety of communicative functions such as persuading, insulting, attracting people’s interest, manipulating, displaying affection and in-​group identity, stimulating a partner sexually, or making a socially acceptable criticism (see Crespo-​Fernández 2015: 47). From this it can be deduced that sexual language is a contextually-​bound phenomenon that cannot be properly examined without looking at the context in which it occurs. Speakers may opt for different alternatives to sex-​related concepts, with different connotations and emotive load, to refer to sexual topics in particular ways. And these choices are determined by a number of contextual factors including the speaker’s purpose, the hearer’s world knowledge, and the degree of formality of the communication setting (Casas Gómez 2018). As Allan and Burridge (1991: 4) argue, euphemistic and dysphemistic naming are dependent on a given context, ‘both the world spoken of, and the world spoken in. We cannot properly judge something as euphemistic or dysphemistic without this information’ [emphasis in the original]. This helps explain why the boundaries between euphemism and dysphemism are usually rather fuzzy in real discourse (Casas Gómez 2012: 48–​52).

3.3  Speaking of sex and sexuality In order to account for the interplay between sex, sexuality, and language, I will examine some representative vocabulary areas in sex-​related communication.

3.3.1 Speaking of homosexuality Homosexuality has traditionally been subject to discrimination and social stigma: same-​ sex practices have, for centuries, been socially prohibited illegal practices and, more recently, associated with mass-​killing diseases like AIDS. As a result, male and female homosexuals, including transgender people, have been excluded from the heterosexual world because they do not conform to what is (socially and sexually) expected of men and women according to dominant heterosexist ideology (see Cameron and Kulick


When applied to linguistic research, axiology is related to the (positive or negative) values that lexical units acquire in communication.

Taboos in speaking of sex and sexuality    45 2006; Coates 2013). The vocabulary used to refer to gays and lesbians reflects the interdictions and restrictions associated with homosexuality and same-​sex practices which are verbalized, depending on the speaker’s intention, through a range of X-​phemistic references that fall into different axiological categories. One of the most popular expressions related to homosexuality is come/​get out of the closet ‘reveal one’s homosexual condition’. The notion of the closet derives from the idea of privacy, as it implies something hidden, whose public exposure may be shameful. This expression is an instantiation of the container metaphor: the parts that make up a container—​i.e., an inside, an exterior, and a boundary—​are used to talk about social attitudes regarding homosexuality; whereas the inside of the container represents conventional society as a closed and bounded space—​which, applied to the homosexual community, implies pressure and oppression; the outside of the container symbolizes sexual freedom. Following Lakoff ’s (1993) contemporary metaphor theory, the underlying conceptualization here can be postulated as follows: society is a closet in which homosexuals are locked up.4 It is worth noting that the full expression come out of the closet is abbreviated to come out or even simply out, which implies, an ‘extra euphemistic effect’ (Ayto 2007: 118) in that there are two euphemistic processes at work: a semantic process (metaphor) and a morphological one (shortening), and both contribute to the protective function of euphemism. The terms that identify types of gay men in the homosexual community belong to the X-​phemistic modality of quasi-​euphemism:  they are used only by those in that particular group. Descriptive terms used to refer to male homosexuals like bear, otter, wolf, or cub have a metaphorical origin: they can be included in the conceptualization people are animals. Although this metaphor is dysphemistic in origin in that it associates male homosexuals to animals and animal behavior, animal-​related words are not meant to provoke offence in the homosexual community. They are not used with a euphemistic purpose either, as the speaker’s intention is not to whitewash. These are terms of self-​identification within the gay community that are usually intended to attract attention and interest to the body type in question. For example, bear designates a usually mature homosexual with facial and body hair who projects an image of rugged masculinity. This metaphor maps certain characteristics of the source domain of bears (big, strong, and hairy animals) onto the target domain of homosexuality in order to refer to a particular type of gay man who rejoices in his masculinity.5 The word bear provides evidence for the fact that the metaphorical utilization of the source domain 4  It is not my intention here to present a full description of this well-​known cognitive framework. Suffice it to say that metaphor is considered a device with the capacity to structure our conceptual system, providing, at the same time, a particular understanding of the world and a way to make sense of that experience. From this standpoint, Lakoff (1993: 203) defines metaphor as ‘a cross-​domain mapping in the conceptual system’; that is, a mapping or set of conceptual correspondences from a source domain (the realm of the physical or concrete reality) to a target domain (the concept we want to talk about, sex in this case). 5  According to Ellis (2012: 49), the bear culture is a ‘rejection of mainstream gay culture that privileges slim/​athletic, youthful hairless men’.

46   Eliecer Crespo-Fernández is partial (Kövecses 2006: 214) and therefore subjective: the speaker singles out some of the components of the wild animal domain, namely their size and hairy bodies, whereas the element of ferocity that characterizes bears is deliberately left out. And the components of the animal source domain which are mapped onto the target domain of homosexuality in the case of bear differ from those highlighted in cub (a hairy homosexual, typically younger than a bear), an otter (thin and athletic), or a wolf (muscular and semi-​hairy). This is why, as Deignan (2005: 4) argues, metaphors present a distorted version of reality, a partial interpretation of the referent that fits the speaker’s communicative intentions. The same applies to lexical labels used to designate lesbians: butch, lipstick, and stud, for instance, are descriptive terms used by lesbians as a sign of self-​identification, in-​ group cohesion, and solidarity. These words transfer different attributes of the particular source domains they belong to in order to refer to different lesbian types. For example, butch and stud—​a word also used by heterosexuals to refer to men who are successful with women—​project an image of roughness and virility (short hair, masculine dress, etc.) whereas lipstick designates a lesbian who exhibits feminine attributes (make-​up, feminine clothing, or high-​heeled shoes) and pussy is used, via metonymy part for whole, as slang for a lesbian who adopts a feminine role (Allan 2007: 1049). Other terms, however, bear witness to an offensive attitude towards gays, effeminate men, and lesbians. For example, pansy and daisy are occurrences of the metaphor women are flowers in which female-​related attributes of the domain of flowers (delicacy, beauty, etc.) are mapped onto the target domain of male homosexuality in order to refer disparagingly to gays. In fact, the flower domain here is used with a dysphemistic intention as a symbol of effeminacy and lack of virility (Rodríguez González 2008: 229). In nancy the same female-​related attributes are used as a verbal weapon by virtue of the more general metaphor homosexuals are women. To this metaphor belongs the word queen, usually meant to provoke offence and disrespect and not only directed towards the gay community (e.g., the offensive nature of compounds like pillow queen, rice queen, or size queen). These homophobic metaphors highlight the fact that male homosexuals do not play the role they are expected to play according to heteronormative sexual behavior. The most common word to refer to homosexuals, gay, was first considered a euphemism, it later became a mark of homosexual militancy and is now a neutral descriptor for those attracted to the same-​sex. The same orthophemistic quality does not apply to the compound nouns in which gay occurs: gay-​friendly, gay marriage, and gay village, for example, are more likely to present a quasi-​euphemistic value in that they attract people’s interest to the concept being talked about. The same applies to queen compounds, used among gay males to describe each other, like muscle queen or leather queen. Queer had an interesting evolution. Regularly used in the homosexual community in the 1950s and 1960s and considered a term of abuse in the 1970s and 1980s, it later described new forms of homosexual culture and identity in queer cinema, queer studies, and queer theory (Weeks 2011: xiii). Obviously enough, these compounds are not only

Taboos in speaking of sex and sexuality    47 used by the gay community although they designate disciplines that study gay, lesbian, and bisexual topics. Before moving on to the vocabulary of sexual practices, it remains to be said that many acronyms and initialisms in homosexual parlance are used with a quasi-​euphemistic intention as a sign of in-​group cohesiveness. In CD (‘Cross Dresser’), DRAB (‘Dressed as a Boy’), FTM (‘Female to Male Transgender Person’), LUG/​GUG (‘Lesbian/​Gay Until Graduation’, i.e., women/​men of college age who experiment with same-​sex relationships before graduating), TS (‘Transsexual’), and many others, the concealing function of abbreviations reveals group affiliation. FWB is a case of what we could call a ‘double euphemism’ insofar as a euphemistic expression like Friend with Benefits, meaning ‘sex friend’ (whose dysphemistic alternatives include fuck buddy and fuck friend), is itself euphemized at a deeper level through a formal device that contributes to disguising the concept.

3.3.2 Speaking of ‘conventional’ sexual practices Curiously enough, conventional sexual practices are more usually subject to euphemistic naming than non-​conventional ones.6 This is probably so because to refer to sexual behavior that is within the range of ‘normality’ does not prove specially disturbing to people’s sensibilities; it is far less embarrassing than to speak about unconventional sexual acts, generally regarded as clandestine, dirty, even repulsive, and therefore unmentionable (see Section 3.3.4). Many of the lexical labels used to speak about sexual practices that could be considered conventional are metaphorical in nature, although their metaphoricity usually goes unnoticed. The source domains of work, games, heat, and journeys have inspired a great deal of sex-​related euphemistic and quasi-​euphemistic usages, as demonstrated in a previous study on the metaphors people use to talk about sex in Internet forums (Crespo-​Fernández 2015). This study reveals that the participants in online forums use different occurrences of the metaphor sex is work to refer to a range of sexual practices, like blow job (also found in the abbreviation BJ) ‘fellatio’, finish the job ‘make someone achieve orgasm’, do the work ‘perform anal sex’, go into business ‘get involved in an extramarital sexual relationship’, and get down to business ‘copulate’. It is worth noting that terms like job, business, and work introduce a contrast between the domains of sex and work in that work is, strictly speaking, opposed to pleasure. It is precisely this contrast that facilitates the euphemistic reference to sexual practices. This view of sex in terms of a kind of commercial activity features heavily in orthophemistic words used to designate coition like intercourse. This word has been lexicalized with a sexual meaning: it has lost the figurative sense it once had in order to indirectly 6  Although what is regarded as ‘conventional’ depends on the cultural values and norms of each social group, in this study conventional sex is considered as solitary sex or sex within the established couple excluding all forms of sex in group, public or anonymous sex, bondage, dominance, fetishism, etc.

48   Eliecer Crespo-Fernández refer to coition; indeed, nowadays it is hard to find in this word any connection between a sexual relationship with a commercial activity (Holder 2003: 198). Intercourse, however, retains its capacity to refer to the act of coition in a socially acceptable, hence euphemistic, way. Another commercial-​related word used with a sexual meaning is affair. Although it commonly refers to sexual intercourse with a person who is not your usual partner (Rees 2006: 10), affair also designates a range of sexual practices outside one’s established couple like swinging and group sex. Indeterminacy introduces an element of intentional ambiguity and vagueness (see Grondelaers and Geeraerts 1998; Chamizo Domínguez 2018) which considerably contributes to the euphemistic effectiveness of this term.7 Other general for specific euphemisms refer to concepts in which sex equally plays a role. Take, for example, the names given to methods of birth control (precautions, protectives) or genitalia (thing, member). The act of copulation is a major source of X-​phemistic vocabulary. When talking about sexual dysphemism, we must necessarily refer to fuck, one of the most taboo and powerful words in English, a word that invariably produces an emotional reaction in the audience (see Sheidlower 2009). Fuck is not limited to its sexual taboo sense alone: its shock value has made it a very versatile and potent taboo word insofar as it ‘can intensify emotional communication to a degree that non-​taboo words cannot’ (Jay 2009b: 155). This happens in cursing (Fuck you!), direct address (You fuck!), exclamatory questions (What the fuck?), among other expressions of anger, frustration, or annoyance (see Wajnryb 2005: 72). When fuck is deliberately used as a way to reinforce the strength of the taboo, we have a case of ‘inverted taboo’ because, as Fairman (2009: 59) notes, ‘it’s your use of the taboo word that supports the underlying taboo’. Euphemistic substitutes for fuck, including phonetically related milder versions (the f-​word, eff, fuckle, fudge) and the use of asterisks or dashes to obscure the term (f**k) allow the speaker to communicate the taboo word intended without arousing the hostility of fuck. More ‘pleasant’ alternatives for ‘coition’ include make love, go to bed, and have sex as well as orthophemistic terms like coition, copulation, or intercourse, typically used as a way to avoid being embarrassed and, at the same time, avoid embarrassing the audience. There are also metaphorical alternatives that refer to coition disparagingly. The verbs mount, ride, and straddle provide evidence for the existence of the metaphor to copulate is horse riding, which implies that one of the sexual partners is the rider whereas the other—​typically the woman—​is conceived as a horse by virtue of the people are animals metaphor. The metaphorical terms which conceive copulation in terms of horse riding are dysphemistic for two reasons: first, they portray a sexual encounter as an animal activity devoid of any tenderness in which the lovers are represented 7 

The boundary between the cognitive mechanisms of vagueness and ambiguity is sometimes rather fuzzy. As Chamizo Domínguez (2018) notes, ambiguity ‘generates in the fact that a given word (or syntagm) is polysemous’ whereas vagueness ‘originates in the fact that the meaning of a given word or syntagm (hyponym) is included in the meaning of another word or syntagm (superordinate term) and people may use a superordinate term for avoiding (inconvenient) hyponyms’.

Taboos in speaking of sex and sexuality    49 as irrational beings; second, one of the sexual partners (usually the man) is in a position of dominance over the other (usually the woman), who is represented as inferior. Another term belonging to the equine imagery is bareback, whose original meaning is ‘ride without a saddle’. The analogy between riding without a saddle and practicing anal penetration without protection seems evident. Bareback provides a sense of in-​group cohesion, as it designates a practice that is characteristic of the homosexual community. The conceptualization sex is violence (see Beneke 1982) responds to a view of sex in terms of confrontation and dominance that dates back to Elizabethan literature (see Partridge 1968; Oncíns-​Martínez 2010). The view of sex as a hostile activity explains why most of the metaphorical items that fall under this cognitive association (e.g., attack, bonk, screw, stab, strike ‘copulate’, shoot one’s load ‘ejaculate’, bash the bishop, beat one’s meat ‘masturbate’, etc.) tend to acquire dysphemistic overtones in communication. The use of terms belonging to warfare imagery to refer to coition implies that the lover is the enemy; consequently, seducing your partner is to dominate and ultimately annihilate the enemy. The hunting metaphor for sexual activity (chase down, hunt for, capture a prey) also echoes images of violence and dominance of one of the partners (metaphorically represented as the hunter) over the other (the prey). In this respect, it must be noted that most of the verbs of violence used in this conceptualization invoke the notion of non-​consensual sex, of sexual assault (rather than seduction) in which one of the partners (usually the woman) is attacked and coerced. This is why the violence source domain contributes to assert and legitimate male sexual dominance in the tradition of heteronormative discourse. To continue with metaphorical sex-​related references:  a number of words used to refer to sexual topics like sexual desire, sexual arousal, and lust belong to the source domain of heat. Given that one of the most characteristic physiological effects of sexual excitement is the increase in body temperature, sexual excitement is associated with being ‘hot’ by virtue of the metaphor sex is heat (Kövecses 2003). The heat imagery has therefore a metonymic basis effect for cause: the physiological effects of sexual arousal stand for sexual arousal itself. The underlying conceptual metaphor can be postulated as being excited is experiencing heat. Closely related is the metaphor sex is fire, a reoriented version of the heat metaphor based on hyperbole that accounts for a higher intensity of sexual excitement. Words and phrases deriving from the heat metaphor (hot, torrid, warm-​up) and the fire metaphor (ardent, flame, reignite the flame, light one’s fire, on fire) are regarded as socially acceptable alternatives to refer to the taboo of sexual arousal. This does not mean, however, that these metaphorical words are intended to hide the taboo; rather, they are meant to make the taboo of sexual arousal more appealing. Another leading source of sexual vocabulary is the metaphor sex is a game. The ontological correspondences of this metaphor (the game corresponds to sexual activity, and those engaged in sexual practices are people playing) allow us to reinterpret different sexual acts as a pleasurable, even innocent pastime that is implicitly associated to the image of a child playing games. Given the partial utilization of source domains in cross-​domain mappings, this metaphor highlights those aspects of the domain of

50   Eliecer Crespo-Fernández games (fun and innocence) that are more valid for X-​phemistic—​i.e., euphemistic and quasi-​euphemistic—​purposes in order to refer to a range of sexual practices: adultery (play away), mutual masturbation (play doctor), preliminaries (foreplay, loveplay), and (casual) copulation (play house, bed-​game). It is interesting to note that the compound bed-​game is an example of how the bed works as a location metonymy for sexual activity: the place where sex is usually performed stands for sex itself. This metonymy applies in verbal phrases like go to bed, be in bed, be good in bed, and lie with; in compounds such as bedfellow ‘lover, mistress’ and bedwork ‘copulation’ (Holder 2003); and in the insinuating phrases bedroom eyes ‘sensual, seductive-​looking glance’ and between the sheets (Ayto 2007: 77). The X-​phemistic function of the different occurrences of the game metaphor changes depending on the speaker’s intention and the taboo topic in question. Let us consider a practice subject to a high degree of interdiction: anal sex. Phrases like butt play ‘anal sex’ and play around the anus and play with one’s back door ‘stimulate someone’s anus’ illustrate the way in which the notion of playing serves to allude to the heavily tabooed area of anal sex by adding an element of fun. It is worth noting that in play with one’s back door both the domains of game and container conflate in this expression. Indeed, to refer to the anus as a back door implies considering the body as a bounded space made of three parts (an interior, an exterior, and a boundary) by virtue of the metaphor people are containers (Lakoff 1987: 267; Barcelona 2003: 263). As we will see in Section 3.3.6, this metaphor implicitly suggests that the container that represents our body at a conceptual level can be penetrated from the exterior, which serves to metaphorically refer to anal sex. The playful element that characterizes the game metaphor also features in the word toy and the more explicit compound sex toy. Toy refers to the object primarily used to facilitate sexual pleasure like a dildo, a vibrator, or a male masturbator. This word undergoes a process of conversion from noun to verb in cases like toy with someone ‘excite someone sexually’ and, in a nonsexual sense, also dysphemistic, ‘trifle with someone’. There is a taboo-​induced generalization of meaning at work here: toy as a verb extends its denotation, not restricted to the use of an object for sexual stimulation. It is a semantically vague word that can euphemistically allude, by way of indeterminacy, to a range of sex-​related practices.

3.3.3 Speaking of masturbation Although one of the most common conventional practices, masturbation is a topic that deserves separate treatment. The stimulation of the genitals, most commonly (although not exclusively) carried out by the individuals themselves, became a serious social and moral concern and considered a sinful and unnatural vice that was thought to lead to physical and moral decay (Allan and Burridge 2006: 145–​9). The masturbation phobia, which reached its height at the end of the nineteenth century, was ‘the outcome of a powerful alliance between religion and medicine: doctors took the moral arguments of

Taboos in speaking of sex and sexuality    51 priests and priests the medical arguments of doctors [. . .] and the result was a formidable body of dogma, endorsed by both the theological and the scientific establishments’ (Darby 2005:  47). As a result, masturbation was regarded as a degenerative disease which condemned people to hell. The taboo surrounding masturbation has generated a number of X-​phemistic lexical alternatives to refer to this practice. The now orthophemistic masturbation (from Latin masturbare, a blend from manus ‘hand’ and stuprare ‘defile’) was even considered a linguistic taboo and disguised, in a clear case of referent manipulation,8 under the condemnatory, yet socially acceptable, alternatives secret vice, solitary vice, solitary sin, self-​abuse, and self-​pollution, very much in use until the first half of the twentieth century (Ayto 2007:  83). These quasi-​dysphemistic alternatives to the taboo reflect how the notions of guilt and sin have been associated with solitary sex. Together with these quasi-​dysphemistic alternatives to the taboo, other euphemistic names—​more neutral in tone—​used to talk about male and female masturbation include self-​pleasure, self-​sexuality, and self-​manipulation. To these, the slightly more explicit, although still euphemistic in many cases, finger (used exclusively for female masturbation), caress oneself, and touch oneself, in which euphemism is achieved by understatement, should be added. Metonymy features in expressions in which the physical effect of the action, i.e., the achievement of an orgasm, stands for the action itself like satisfy oneself and relieve tension. As happens with many sexual practices seen in this chapter, masturbation is expressed via metaphor. The pervasive game metaphor for sex gives way to the playful expressions pocket pool or pocket billiards (‘masturbation with a pocketed hand’) or fly the kite (suggesting hand movement), five-​finger exercise, as well as to the less elaborate finger play, play with oneself, and play doctors and nurses (‘mutual genital exploration during childhood’). The war and violence metaphor is the source of a diversity of expressions that either present violent overtones (beat off, beat one’s meat, shake the bottle, slap the carrot) or are directly related to warfare and destruction (cock one’s shotgun, fire the flesh musket, fire the love rifle). The food and eating domain features in peel the banana/​ the carrot. Masturbating is also figuratively associated to some kind of job. These include compound nouns and verbal phrases containing the terms job (handjob, wristjob, which suggest male masturbation by a partner, and finish the job, a disguised metonymic reference to ejaculation) and work (work oneself off, work in the garden). To the slang of prostitution belong the in-​group (hence quasi-​euphemistic) expressions for assisted masturbation in which erotic massages are provided like body rub and body-​to-​body. This type of sexual service usually includes a ‘happy ending’, a provocative X-​phemistic label for ‘ejaculation’, as the ending of the massage. 8 

Referent manipulation is the process whereby language users present the taboo concept in a particular way, either softening its less acceptable aspects or, on the contrary, intensifying them (see Crespo-​Fernández 2015: Ch. 2). Obviously enough, the referent itself does not undergo any change at all, although the receiver is induced to regard it in positive or (as happens with these materializations of the concept ‘masturbation’) in negative terms.

52   Eliecer Crespo-Fernández

3.3.4 Speaking of ‘unconventional’ sexual practices Unconventional, even bizarre and deviant sexual practices, particularly subject to social condemnation—​even legally sanctioned—​are usually referred to through quasi-​ euphemism. When talking about unconventional sex, the purpose of those who engage in, or at least are familiar with, alternative sexual activities is not to hide a sexual practice that is more sexually arousing than ordinary sex. Rather, the words they use perform a two-​fold function: first, they attract people’s interest to the sexual practice in question; and second, they provide them with a safe and shared lexical ground to refer to socially stigmatized practices that are characteristic of a particular group of people. Take, for example, sex in group. A word like swinging refers to a non-​monogamous behavior in which people engage in sexual relationships outside the established couple. Soft swinging is a type of partner sharing in which people have sex in the same room but do not share their sexual partners and if they occasionally do, there is no penetration. A word that combines voyeurism, exhibitionism, and partner sharing is dogging. This term, which has its origin in the act of taking the dog for a walk, designates the act whereby people perform sex in a public place (parks, car parks, toilets, etc.), while others watch and usually masturbate. Another sexual practice that takes place in a public context is cottaging. This word refers to the act of performing anonymous homosexual sex in a public lavatory. Another term that also belongs to gay slang is cruising, meaning ‘walking about the streets in search of a casual homosexual partner’. This word is an instantiation of the metaphor sex is a journey: the voyage corresponds to the act of looking for sexual partners, and the ports where one stops correspond to the sexual partners. Although not exclusively found in homosexual slang, glory hole is associated with gay sex. This compound designates a hole for people to engage in anonymous sexual activity or observe others masturbating or having sex. It is of note that the expressive capacity of euphemism derives here from hyperbole: the pre-​modifier glory involves the exaggerated expression of a supposedly positive appreciation of the denotatum, which contributes to making a bizarre sexual practice more glamorous and tempting. A similar effect is achieved in golden shower, a fetish act involving urination that is characteristic of pornography (see Section 3.3.5). When talking about sexual practices beyond the limits of ordinary sex, it is necessary to refer to BDSM, i.e., Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission, and Sadism and Masochism, a breeding ground for metaphorical quasi-​euphemistic language. Words used to refer to acts of dominance and discipline use the imagery of sports (watersports ‘getting sexual pleasure by being urinated on’) and games (pony play, puppy play, kitty play, playmate, playroom) to disguise the sexual practice and fetish in question. It is worth noting that BDSM practices are not represented as violent or aggressive acts, but as pastimes. This derives from the conception of sadomasochism as a game in which those participating in these practices take different roles. For instance, in pony play the dominant partner takes the role of the trainer or handler of a pony, puppy play means role-​playing as a dog and kitty play as a cat. These practices involve a complete submission on the part of the person who takes the role of the animal, be it a pony, a

Taboos in speaking of sex and sexuality    53 dog, or a cat. The domains of games and sport establish a sharp contrast between the linguistic metaphor and the taboo referent and, in this way, provide a safe ground for the reference to these unconventional sex practices. Other words used in the BDSM community designate practices that also include domination and submission like spanking ‘slapping on the buttocks’, bondage ‘consensually tying a sexual partner’, and facesitting, also known as queening ‘sitting on the partner’s face’. The words used to refer to unconventional, bizarre, or deviant sexual practices seen so far provide people who engage in these practices with a private code that reflects their particular sexual preferences. This also happens in other socially stigmatized activities such as prostitution or pornography that, as we will see in Section 3.3.5, tend to favor a vernacular use of language which slides off into slang. After all, as Thorne (2005: 1) argues, slang ‘derives much of its power from the fact that it is clandestine, forbidden, or generally disapproved of ’. And this is what happens with those sexual practices that are beyond the limits of ordinary sex and therefore need ‘special’ lexical labels to refer to them.

3.3.5 Speaking of prostitution and pornography Prostitution constitutes a significant source of both euphemistic and quasi-​euphemistic vocabulary. The social stigma attached to prostitution has led to words and expressions intended either to upgrade this occupation or provide a private code to talk about prostitution and related issues, as we will see in what follows. Some terms and expressions used to talk about pornography are intended to enhance the social status of prostitutes and make them more attractive and desirable to potential customers. The conceptualization sex is work, whereby those engaged in sexual intercourse correspond to workers, gives way to the euphemistic metaphor a prostitute is a worker, which is the source of different socially acceptable (hence euphemistic) labels to refer to female prostitutes like hostess, masseuse, model, personal secretary, (commercial) sex worker, among others (see Holder 2003; Rees 2006: 327–​8). The euphemistic basis of these terms lies in the fact that prostitution is regarded as just another job and, in consequence, prostitutes are portrayed as people who, like any other workers, do a particular job to earn money. These words connote, as Quan (2006: 345) suggests, ‘that prostitutes are engaged in labor rather than business or frivolous entertainment’. From this perspective, work-​related terms to refer to prostitutes can be regarded as cases of PC (politically correct) language in that they provide a job description far from any moral or social judgment.9 At the same time, these words suggest that prostitutes

9  Although widely used by activist hookers, government officials, researchers, newspaper reporters, etc., it is worth noting that some work-​related terms are not always neutral and careful PC labels to refer to prostitutes. For example, sex worker has negative connotations in the American anti-​prostitution movement because, as Quan (2006: 346) notes, ‘[i]‌t’s the language of the opponent. Sex work is associated with the acceptance of the prostitute and the prostitute power’. This stands as a proof of the instability and contextual dependence of X-​phemistic labels.

54   Eliecer Crespo-Fernández (especially females, who are supposed to be weaker than their male counterparts) have more control of their lives than they probably do. This is also the case of other names given to prostitutes like escort (literally a companion), which, by way of semantic generalization, designates high-​class prostitution, free from the dark side of street prostitution, and the compounds escort agency and escort service ‘company that provides customers with prostitutes for a fee’. In all these cases, mitigation combines with expressive enhancement in what has been called uplifting euphemism (Burridge 2012: 69), a type of euphemism, common in expressions that imply a higher social status (Casas Gómez 2012: 53–​4), whose purpose is to upgrade and magnify whatever it denotes. Uplifting euphemism, it must be noted, is not really used out of concern for the prostitutes’ sensibilities; rather, it usually functions as a provocative euphemism, that is, as a means to attract potential customers and support their fantasy of experiencing a different and glamorous sexual relationship.10 The same work-​related imagery applies to generic names given to prostitution like business or trade which, by way of semantic vagueness, provide a polite way to refer to commercial sex exchanges. Another generic term which designates prostitution is the game. Here the game metaphor (see Section 3.3.2) allows the reinterpretation of prostitution and pimping as a pleasurable pastime whereas the reality is, obviously enough, much harsher. By virtue of the same metaphor, pimps are called players. What we find here are cases of ‘dishonest’ or deceptive euphemism (Allan and Burridge 1991: 13), a type of evasive naming that purposefully conceals the truth. This happens when apparently innocent words like game and players are deliberately used to mislead and deceive.11 In this way, this type of euphemism projects a self-​interested version of reality that contributes to hide the dark side of prostitution. A similar case of dishonest euphemism appears in those names belonging to the semantic domain family. Daddy, the name that pimps require the prostituted women under their control to call them, suggests that the pimp plays the role of a protective father. Outside the world of prostitution, some women use daddy as a means to get sexual stimulation, not really because they like fetishizing childlike behavior or incest but because they like fantasizing that the man is a dominant figure they enjoy submitting to during sex. In this case, daddy functions as what we could call a ‘dirty’ euphemism, within the more general phenomenon of ‘bedroom talk’ (Allan and Burridge 1991: 149; Bockler 2014): language that helps lovers ‘heat things up’. The family metaphor also features in family, a noun which designates the group of prostituted women under the control of one pimp.

10  In fact, the word escort is borrowed from English as a means to attract the attention of those seeking the services of prostitutes in some Spanish websites (see Crespo-​Fernández and Luján-​García in press). 11  This use of euphemism as a pernicious form of communication is relatively common in political discourse. Lutz (1999) calls this deceptive euphemism ‘doublespeak’ and defines it as ‘language which avoids or shifts responsibility, language which is at variance with its real or its purported meanings. It is language which conceals or prevents thought’.

Taboos in speaking of sex and sexuality    55 Other prostitution-​related names provide a private code to refer to certain sexual services that are characteristic of prostitution and therefore unknown to those who are not familiar with this world (Hees 2009). Take, for example, french ‘oral sex’, french kissing ‘kissing with deep tongue contact’, golden shower, yellow shower ‘urinating on your partner for sexual pleasure’, greek ‘anal sex’, half and half ‘oral sex followed by anal or vaginal sex’, and russian ‘rubbing a penis between the woman’s breasts’, among others. This private code also manifests in different initialisms, collected by Blevins and Holt (2009), that people who pay to have sex (or ‘johns’) use in order to conceal the concept in question: HJ ‘hand job’, i.e., manual masturbation of the penis, HSW ‘Hispanic Street Walker’, and OWC ‘Oral Without Condom’, among others. The bed location metonymy for sexual intercourse that, as we saw in Section 3.3.2, features in compounds like bed-​ game or bed-​work, also applies in bed dancing, a performance in which a woman, commonly naked, dances on top of a man on a bed in a private room. Pornography (in the form of X-​rated magazines, films, and online videos) is a key branch of the sex industry, along with prostitution, strip clubs, commercial telephone sex, and sex tourism. This helps to explain why many practices that are characteristic of prostitution are also likely to be found in pornography. In turn, many prostitution services are also unconventional, sometimes related to bizarre practices of bondage, dominance, or fetishism, and some include sexual acts practiced by established couples like mutual masturbation or oral sex. When it comes to sex, it is difficult to establish clear-​ cut categories. The social stigma attached to pornography, considered by many people as perverted, explains why euphemistic and quasi-​euphemistic vocabulary proliferates as it does with prostitution. The euphemistic adjective adult is equivalent to pornographic. It invariably takes this meaning in several compounds in which the word pornographic would be considered politically incorrect: adult book, adult video, adult publications, adult films, adult cable television, etc. In fact, pornography is euphemistically alluded to as adult industry or adult entertainment industry. A  location metonymy is also used to refer to pornography:  top shelf refers to the elevated placement of (usually softcore) pornographic magazines in newsagents, out of the reach of children.12 A wide range of prostitution-​related terms can be classed quasi-​euphemisms: they give prostitutes and their customers a relatively safe way to speak about sexual services. As said before, some of these practices are also characteristic of (usually hardcore) pornography, like golden shower, rimming ‘sexual stimulation of the anus’, or fisting ‘anal or vaginal penetration with the fist’. It goes without saying that these in-​group terms prevail over their learned or polite alternatives. For example, the scientific term urolagnia could never replace its quasi-​euphemistic equivalents golden shower or yellow shower in the slang of pornography. Of particular interest is the 12  From the perspective of feminist and queer theory, the notion of the top shelf in relation to pornography is considered to privilege the heterosexual male gaze and exclude women and homosexual men (Iqani 2015). In this regard, this notion contributes to legitimatizing the motto ‘for heterosexual men only’, characteristic of heteronormative discourse.

56   Eliecer Crespo-Fernández compound gang bang ‘sexual intercourse between a willing partner (usually a woman) and several men’. This compound projects a striking image of violence and hostility, as bang evokes the image of hitting the partner’s genitals. Of course, the goal of all these terms is not only to hide these practices but to make them more attractive for those who are fond of pornography. Consider again golden shower. The analogy between urine and a shower (with its connotations of cleanliness) and the use of the adjective golden is an example of how something repulsive may be depicted as sexually exciting. In this way, golden shower is much more effective as a provocative X-​phemism than its equivalent yellow shower. The same type of provocative X-​phemism appears in the naming of the various genres of pornography: amateur ‘pornography featuring non-​professional actors’; cream pie ‘pornography featuring ejaculation inside the partner’; mature ‘pornography involving mature women’, granny ‘pornography involving older women’; or scat ‘pornography involving defecation or urination’. Many terms that are characteristic of sadomasochism also designate genres of BDSM-​related pornography like bondage, fetish, and leather. Initialisms are also used to refer to pornographic genres like CFNM ‘clothed female, naked male’ and MILF ‘Mom I’d Like to Fuck’, a genre closely related to that of mature that features middle-​aged, sexually attractive women. Abbreviations in the form of initialisms and acronyms, as already mentioned, contribute to disguise the concepts behind the full forms.

3.3.6 Speaking of tabooed body parts The lexicon for sex-​related body parts is a breeding ground for X-​phemistic vocabulary. Terms for genitalia include ortho/​euphemistic labels, coarse and offensive words and expressions, and quasi-​euphemistic alternatives intended to provoke people toward a specific response. Examples of euphemism for genitalia include the standard clinical terms penis, testicles, vulva, and vagina. In compounds like reproductive parts, intimate parts, and private parts the ambiguous noun parts is premodified by an adjective to politely refer to genitals. Private parts is interesting in two ways: first, it reflects the tendency to consider genitals in plural as a euphemistic means to avoid specificity (as also happens in reproductive parts and intimate parts); and second, it evokes the notion of secrecy (also present in the secret vice ‘masturbation’) traditionally associated with sexual prejudice. Latin names also belong to the group of socially acceptable labels used to refer to tabooed body parts. Pudendum is a derivative of the verb pudere ‘be ashamed of ’ dating back from the fourteenth century whose etymology reveals the sense of guilt associated with sex-​related body parts. Genitalia is another Latinism that led to its anglicized counterparts genitals and genital organs. Metonymies inspired by their location in the lower part of the body are also used to refer to genitals: general for specific euphemisms like down below, down there, and nether regions are likely to be found in doctor/​nurse–​ patient conversation as a means to avoid embarrassment. Semantically vague terms

Taboos in speaking of sex and sexuality    57 such as thing, member, organ, and manhood also refer to the penis in a socially appropriate way in certain contexts. On the other side of the spectrum, explicit and offensive alternatives like cunt, pussy, dick, and bollocks are certainly avoided in polite conversation. Of particular interest is cunt (euphemistically disguised as the c-​word), an extreme term of abuse for female genitals that is considered ‘the most emotionally laden taboo term of English’ (Wajnryb 2005: 74) and, figuratively speaking, ‘verbal dynamite’ that has to be handled with caution (Dewaele 2017c, in press). Cunt is not only used denotatively, but also as a gender related insult that reduces, via metonymy, women to a body part. Because of its pejorative and sexist connotations, cunt is used most often in male discourse as a marker for group cohesion whereas females tend to avoid the word (Jay 2000: 130–​2). Figurative language plays a crucial role in naming tabooed body parts. The food metaphor (in the form of vegetables, desserts, fruits, meat, or fish) is particularly relevant when talking disparagingly about female genitalia. Some examples are melons (‘breasts’); artichoke, cake, cookie, muffin, fur burger, hair pie (‘vagina’), and cherry (‘hymen’, by extension, ‘vagina’; hence the compound cherry-​picker ‘womanizer’). Some of these metaphors are based on appearance (melons, artichoke) while others (cookie, muffin, or pie) respond to an overview of female genitals as something appetizing by analogy to sweet food. Of a different nature are the words from the sphere of fish and seafood that, as Allan and Burridge (2006: 195) argue, ‘play on the slipperiness of vaginal secretions and the fishy aromas evoked by a woman’s intimate body parts’. In this sense, fishy terms for vagina like trout, tuna, or shell can be considered, following Braun and Kitzinger (2001: 151), as metaphors of abjection and, as such, dysphemistic. Other metaphorical terms for female genitalia (box, purse, and honey pot) consider the vagina as a receptacle for the penis and, in consequence, for semen by virtue of the conceptualization people are containers (Barcelona 2003) that conceives our physical bodies as containers of spatiality. This image schema of spatial containment is also the source of back door ‘anus’, backdoor activity ‘anal stimulation’, and play with one’s back door ‘to stimulate someone’s anus’ in which both the game and container metaphors conflate. The implication here is that the container that conceptually represents our body can be penetrated from the back; hence their connection with anal sex. A wide range of metaphorical alternatives for male genitals, halfway between dysphemism and quasi-​euphemism, are used with a jocular intention. Some of them are based on appearance: banana, rod, sausage, tail ‘penis’, pencil dick ‘long and thin penis’; bell-​clapper metaphors like ding, dong, ding-​dong, dink that bring to mind the (flaccid) penis swinging like a clapper in a bell;13 balls, billiards, eggs, cobblers14 ‘testicles’, bag, basket ‘the scrotum’. Terms belonging to the tool metaphor like tool, joystick, drill, 13 

Allan and Burridge (1991: 97) mention another source for these bell-​clapper metaphors: the vagina as a bell activated by the penis-​clapper. 14  The term cobblers derives from the rhyming slang phrases cobblers awls (Australian English) and cobblers stalls (British English) for balls meaning ‘testicles’, hence the visual metaphor (Lillo and Victor 2017: 268).

58   Eliecer Crespo-Fernández and screwdriver focus on the functionality of the male member. In drill and screwdriver the notion of functionality combines with the implication of active aggression: these terms seem to suggest a penetrative movement that tends to reproduce the idea that ‘the phallus must act, dominate, avenge itself on the female body’ (Cameron 2006: 156). Hostility and aggression are the source of classic war metaphors that emphasize the notion of an erect penis ready to inflict pain upon the female: arrow, gun, (passion) rifle, pistol, sword, weapon, etc. The expression shoot one’s load ‘ejaculate’ brings to mind the notion of a weapon that discharges some sort of ammunition. Some war metaphors are so entrenched in language that their metaphoricity is not perceived. This is the case of hard-​on in reference to the erect penis. This word evokes ‘the male view of the penis as a weapon to wield power against a foe. The foe in this equation becomes the woman in the relationship’ (Murphy 2001: 23–​4). These examples are evidence for the war/​violence metaphor, a conceptualization that responds to a view of sex in terms of hostility and dominance in accordance with the heteronormative discourse that legitimates sexual male dominance over women. The penis is also associated, at a figurative level, with animals. The most popular animal-​related name for penis is cock, fully lexicalized with the meaning ‘penis’.15 Although nowadays cock is a dead metaphor for the male member, the origin of this word suggests the image of the (erect) penis with the attributes of a dominant and arrogant cock transferred to it (Allan and Burridge 1991:  104–​6; Murphy 2001:  20; Crespo-​Fernández 2015: 59–​61, 143–​4). The animal metaphor also gives rise to other dysphemistic terms like ferret, weasel, worm, and snake, together with its humorous alternative one-​eyed trouser snake. Mythical animal names are also applied, via hyperbole, to the penis: King Kong, King of the Jungle, and the Dragon are some of them (see Cameron 1992). There is no euphemistic implication in the food-​related words for male genitalia in which a metonymic process (part for whole) is at work: sausage (also a visual metaphor), meat, lunch meat, or piece of meat ‘penis’; meat and two veg ‘penis and testicles’. In other metaphorical terms for ‘penis’ like meat spear, beef bayonet, or mutton dagger the domain of war conflates with the food domain. This is also the case of beat one’s meat ‘male masturbation’. Also inspired by the food metaphor, meat injection ‘vaginal or anal penetration’ projects a striking image of violence and pain. The expressive enhancement of euphemism manifests in the terms jewels (short for family jewels and crown jewels) and diamonds meaning ‘male genitals’. These are cases of uplifting euphemism in which the hyperbolic reference to the taboo concept suggests that male genitals are a man’s (and, by extension, a woman’s) most precious possession. This type of praising euphemism also applies to jewelry showcase, a phrase 15 

As a consequence of its frequent use in the reference to the penis over the centuries, the term cock has lost its metaphorical status. Indeed, it is now hard to think of a connection of cock with a male domestic fowl in colloquial discourse. The same happens to its Spanish equivalent polla, whose literal, non-​sexual meaning ‘young hen’ has been virtually abandoned in present-​day Spanish (Crespo-​Fernández 2011: 64–​5).

Taboos in speaking of sex and sexuality    59 used in gay slang to refer to the bulging outline of the male genitals especially in tight pants. Personification of the penis is present in male names like Percy, Peter, Willie, or Dick. The use of these personal names is grounded in the physiology of the male member: the penis (particularly its erections) is out of the man’s conscious control: it has a life of its own. This view seems to support the idea of the ‘penis-​as-​a-​separate-​ person’ (Cameron 1992: 378).

3.4 Conclusions The interplay between sex and language is a complex phenomenon, not only because of the variety of taboos involved in speaking about sex and sexuality discussed in this chapter (sadomasochistic practices, intimate body parts, homosexuality, masturbation, pornography, prostitution, etc.), but also as a consequence of the different ways people talk about sex-​related topics. As Epstein (1986: 57) puts it, ‘[s]‌ex may be spoken of tenderly or toughly, lyrically or lasciviously, beautifully or brutally, and in all these various ways by the same person on the same day’. It does not come as a surprise, then, that the sexual taboo is a breeding ground for X-​phemistic language that ultimately depends on the speaker’s mood and intention, the people involved in the communicative act, and the degree of formality of the situation. All these contextually-​related factors considerably determine word choice when speaking of sex and sexuality. This chapter has shown that people feel the need to refer to sexual matters of all kinds, no matter how much they may be forbidden or shameful. Sexual taboos, from conventional sexual practices to the most bizarre acts, are prime candidates for X-​phemistic naming. When talking about sex, together with the basic modalities of euphemism and dysphemism, other categories of X-​phemistic language emerge, namely orthophemism, or straight talking, and quasi-​euphemism and quasi-​dysphemism as those in which the form of the utterance does not correlate with its illocutionary force. The words and expressions included in these axiological categories perform a variety of functions, namely attenuation (euphemism), offence (dysphemism), polite condemnation (quasi-​ dysphemism), and sexual arousal, provocation, upgrade, in-​group solidarity, and cohesion (quasi-​euphemism). To complicate matters further, it is sometimes difficult to establish the axiological value of a given word or expression with any certainty, as the relationships between taboo and language are complex and perhaps unpredictable in real communication. This is even more so when talking about sex, as some sex-​based expressions easily slide off into slang; in fact, the words used to talk about sadomasochism, pornography, or prostitution are commonly unknown to ‘outsiders’ and thus constitute a private code that reflects the particular sexual preferences of those who use them. As I hope to have demonstrated, metaphor is a powerful mechanism to verbalize and reason about sexual taboos in particular ways. Indeed, people’s understanding of sex and sexuality seems to be guided by metaphorical conceptualizations that assimilate the target domain of sex into different source domains, namely work, heat, containers,

60   Eliecer Crespo-Fernández journeys, food and eating, animals, war and violence, tools, playthings, and flowers. The diversity of domains used to talk about sex reflects the rich complexity of human sexuality. An important conclusion of this chapter is concerned with the evaluative and ideological properties of sexual metaphors. Some male heterosexuals overtly display their heterosexuality in the form of degrading references to women, homosexuals, and effeminate men. In fact, many of the metaphorical expressions discussed here ‘speak for themselves’: they reproduce sexual male dominance over women in accordance with heteronormative demands. I will conclude by saying that it has not been my purpose here to deal with the taboos in speaking of sex and sexuality exhaustively. Given the space limitations, I have merely attempted to discuss and reflect on some representative vocabulary areas in the sexual lexicon. I leave to others the challenging task of painting a full picture of such a complex phenomenon as the interplay between sex and language.

Chapter 4

Speaking of di se ase and deat h réka benczes and kate burridge

4.1 Introduction ‘Our home was a massacre place. People called it taboo. They said it is haunted and you will get sick if you go there.’ These are the opening lines of Australian writer Kim Scott’s novel Taboo (2017), which explores the difficult relationship of the descendants of the indigenous population of the country, the Aboriginal Australians, and the descendants of the people who took the land away from them. The plot centres on one indigenous family’s return to their traditional country, which has been otherwise shunned by generations following a massacre that happened there. The quote draws attention to one particular aspect of Aboriginal culture: the avoidance—​hence taboo nature—​of names associated with deceased people (Nash and Simpson 1981). Hence, the name of someone who had recently died could not be used any longer and a replacement name had to be sought instead (the taboo could last anywhere between a few months and a lifetime).1 In some Aboriginal cultures the taboo even extended to the vocabulary of the deceased person; for instance, if a deceased member of the Encounter Bay tribe of South Australia used ngnke for ‘water’, the tribe had to seek and use an alternative for the same concept for a considerable amount of time after that person’s death (Meyer 1879; cited in Nash and Simpson 1981: 165). This way, ‘[a]‌person’s everyday vocabulary . . . [became] a repository of social history, carrying the imprint of recent deaths’ (Nash and Simpson 1981: 165). While the avoidance of a deceased person’s name might seem overly superstitious (and even exotic) in a technologically advanced and largely secular twenty-​first century 1  In some Australian Aboriginal languages, such as Warlpiri, it is customary to refer to the deceased person as gumindjari, that is ‘no-​name’, for a year or so (after which the name of the person can be used again; Nash and Simpson 1981: 166).

62    Réka Benczes and Kate Burridge society, death has remained as much of a taboo today as it has been many centuries ago—​no wonder that Allan and Burridge (2006: 223) refer to it as ‘the great taboo subject’. The permanence of death as taboo might be sought in its complexity: death is a fear-​ based taboo that is constituted by a number of specific fears associated with it (Allan and Burridge 2006: 222). Thus, there is the fear of the loss of the loved ones; fear of the corruption and disintegration of the body; fear of the very finality of death; fear of what follows at the end of life, and the fear of malevolent spirits among the souls of the dead. Malevolent spirits have not only been associated with death, however. In the past, the dearth of knowledge concerning bodily organs, their processes and their pathological changes produced exotic medical doctrines built upon imagination and superstition. Thus, disease was generally thought of as something mysterious and supernatural, and any explanation for sickness related the complaint to the doings of evil spirits (Allan and Burridge 2006: 205). Illness, in fact, was commonly referred to as an evil; chickenpox was referred to as the foul evil, while epilepsy went by the name of the falling evil. Fear and superstition have enjoyed a long attachment to our beliefs surrounding disease and death; the challenge of confronting the biological limits of our own bodies have brought forth a vast repository of euphemistic language in connection with both subjects. Plenty of scholars have noted the fact that euphemistic expressions are in most cases figurative (Allan 2001; Allan and Burridge 1991; Gibbs 1994; Spears 2001; Benczes and Burridge 2015). McGlone et al. (2006: 276), for instance, point out the strong reliance on conceptual metaphors and—​implicitly—​metonymies to achieve the displacement effect associated with euphemisms. Disease and death are no exceptions; both are in fact rife with metaphorical and metonymical linguistic usage. Accordingly, we address this issue wherever possible, highlighting the most relevant and salient metaphorical conceptualizations. What is of concern here is whether the metaphorical conceptualizations merely reflect our ways of thinking about illnesses and death, or whether they can change or control our attitudes to possible health risks and what choices we make to avert them (Landau 2017). Parkin et al. (2011) have estimated that 43% of cancers could be eliminated by changing high-​risk behaviours; metaphor could play a pivotal role in this process. In an experimental study investigating the relationship between metaphorical language and imagery on the one hand and subjects’ fear of contracting skin cancer, Landau et al. (2016) found that subjects who were exposed to combat-​metaphoric messages in which the sun was depicted as an aggressive enemy experienced heightened levels of cancer risk worry and strengthened their intentions to apply sunscreen when going outside.

4.2 Disease Verbal taboos surrounding disease have been rampant throughout the centuries; these were often motivated by fear and superstition. For example, Allan and Burridge

Speaking of disease and death    63 (2006: 205) mention the common practice of referring to some of the most deadly illnesses in the Middle Ages by invoking a saint’s name. The plague was alluded to by calling on St Adrian, St Christopher, St Valentine, or St Giles—​in the hope of attaining the saint’s protection.2 While many once dreaded illnesses are now curable or preventable, mystery and intangibility surrounding maladies prevail, despite the advances and achievements of modern medicine. This is particularly true of stigmatizing illnesses, such as HIV/​AIDS, cancer, and mental illness, which are at the focus of the present section. The current social attitudes towards these diseases, as manifested in the language that we use to talk about them, still exhibit to some degree the medieval world-​ view of equating illnesses with ill-​doings and evil.

4.2.1 HIV/​AIDS Before it received the name AIDS, the illness went by a number of different labels: gay plague, gay disease, gay cancer, and GRID (standing for ‘Gay-​ related Immune-​ deficiency’). These were never used in the scientific and medical literature, however, and were eventually abandoned because they misrepresented the demographics of the disease. Nevertheless, there was an evident differentiation at that time between those who ‘brought it on themselves’ and the ‘blameless’—​who became sick with the disease through blood transfusion (the so-​called ‘just-​world hypothesis’; Anderson 1992). In the end, the term AIDS was selected as a label for the disease, presumably because of its optimistic ring: as if it were ‘a disease that wanted to help, not hurt. Just a plague whose intentions were good’ (Black 1986: 40). Further, in general usage, aids does have positive associations, denoting a material means of help, as in hearing aid or visual aid. AIDS also goes well with the category of -​s final disease names, such as measles, mumps, rabies, or shingles (Allan and Burridge 2006: 217). Nevertheless, discrimination and marginalization awaited those who were afflicted with the disease (Pittam and Gallois 1997; Weiss 1997), as the following quote from a young female patient illustrates: ‘I wish I had cancer instead of AIDS. I could stand the treatments and the pain and my hair falling out. And I’m going to die anyway. But then, at least, my family wouldn’t reject me. I could go home’ (Fisher 1995: 92).3 It was a disease that attracted ‘judgment and retribution, not empathy and compassion’ (Lam 2013); many viewed it as punishment from God for immoral acts, as reflected in the acronym WOGS, short for ‘Wrath of God Syndrome’—​it was predominantly gays, drug users, and 2 

Some 130 saints were invoked in this way. However, with time the diseases became so associated with the names of the saints that the saints themselves came to be seen, not as protectors of the faithful, but as perpetrators of the disease. This change in perspective inspired a return to pagan worship, with the result that the cult of saints was for a time tabooed by the church and the practice largely disappeared (see Huizinga 1924: 173–​7; Porter 1997: 111–​12). This is a striking illustration of the pejorative path that euphemism typically takes. 3  According to Katz et al. (1987), there was only one patient group that is feared, rejected, and blamed more than cancer patients: those afflicted with HIV/​AIDS.

64    Réka Benczes and Kate Burridge prostitutes who were afflicted with AIDS because of their perverse and dangerous behaviour. In Shona, a language spoken by 80% of the population in Zimbabwe, AIDS is referred to as Shamhu yaMwari (‘God’s curse’; Mashiri et al. 2002: 226). The taboo surrounding AIDS entailed that it is not reported in obituaries; rather, AIDS-​related illnesses, such as pneumonia or tuberculosis are identified instead as the cause of death (Allan and Burridge 2006: 219). In consideration of the stigma that attached itself not only to the disease, but to the person diagnosed with it, a new euphemistic vocabulary was established by the people of the AIDS self-​empowerment movement in 1983. One of the aims of the movement was to change the label by which AIDS patients were referred to, one from victim to Person With AIDS (or PWA for short). The manifesto of the movement, known as the Denver Principles, justified the need for this change in vocabulary in the following way: ‘We condemn attempts to label us as “victims”; which implies defeat, and we are only occasionally “patients”, which implies passivity, helplessness, and dependence upon the care of others. We are “People With AIDS” ’ (quoted in Callen 1997: 311). This new lexicon was later referred to by Shilts (1987) as AIDSpeak, the role of which—​in Shilts’ rather critical view—​was to conceal the truth about the illness and to contribute to the ignorance surrounding it. For example, the use of the AIDSpeak term exposed to the HIV virus (instead of infected by it) or the similarly euphemistic bodily fluids as the cause of the infection made people unaware of the fact that the disease could only be contracted through blood and semen, and not through saliva or tears (which also belong to the category of the euphemistic ‘bodily fluids’). Over the years, further euphemistic acronyms have been generated to bypass the negativity of the words victim, patient, or sufferer, such as PLWA (‘Person Living With AIDS’), PLWHA (People Living With HIV/​AIDS), PLWArC (‘Person Living With AIDS-​related Condition’), or PISD (‘Person With Immune System Disorders’); see Callen (1997). The optimism of such acronyms, including the original PWA, is founded on one of the characteristic features of English qualification: postmodification typically describes changeable and transient properties (Radden and Dirven 2007: 154). Thus, the use of such expressions suggests that the illness is only occasional and temporary, and further, seems less characteristic of the person. The evident preference for acronyms in the euphemistic terms for labelling people with AIDS also resides in the form of these expressions. The use of acronyms is a very common strategy in the creation of euphemisms (Warren 1992; Linfoot-​Ham 2005); by virtue of a part-​for-​whole metonymical substitution, whereby the letters in the acronym merely hint at the meaning, direct reference to the illness can be obscured. This is a quite commonplace phenomenon when euphemistically referring to other, potentially lethal illnesses as well, such as the use of TB for ‘tuberculosis’ or Big C or simply C for ‘cancer’. Nowadays new treatments mean AIDS is no longer the death sentence it once was and an HIV diagnosis today looks very different from what it did in 1980s. Thousands of HIV-​positive people are living healthy lives—​but quietly. The social stigma surrounding AIDS remains (see Lopez 2015), and evidence suggests that society is still a long way from coming to terms with the disease. Telling is the fact the name AIDS continues to be used

Speaking of disease and death    65 in the uppercase. While acronyms over the course of lexicalization typically lose their dots and their uppercase letters and enter the language as ordinary words (e.g. laser or radar), AIDS has still not yet become as accepted to drop the uppercase letters (although it has lost the dots).4 The many discussions and forums on the internet attest to the considerable fear and misunderstanding that still attaches to the disease (titles of articles and blogs such as ‘People living with HIV still face enormous stigma and hate’; ‘Stigma still an issue for people living with AIDS’; ‘Though not a death sentence, HIV/​AIDS still holds a powerful stigma’, and so on). Numerous medical studies describe how around the world HIV-​related stigma with its euphemistic entourage remains a challenge to the testing, care, and prevention of the disease (e.g. Florom-​Smith and De Santis 2012). In 2012 the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation conducted a joint survey of the popular attitudes and experiences related to HIV and AIDS (https://​​2013/​01/​8334-​f.pdf). It revealed that more than one in three Americans hold at least one serious fallacy about HIV transmissions (a considerable number continue to believe that the disease can be transmitted by sharing a drinking glass, by touching a toilet seat, and even by swimming in a pool with someone who is HIV positive). Clearly ignorance continues to drive the stigma around the disease.

4.2.2 Cancer According to Cancer Research UK, there are approximately two hundred different types of cancerous diseases.5 Nevertheless, to the lay person, the word cancer still refers to a single condition and the taboos that surround it are considerable. Even today when cancer is discussed more openly, death notices and obituaries continue to use euphemisms such as died after a prolonged illness or even after a long battle against illness, in order to conceal the real reason for which the person has died. In fact, obscuring the cancer diagnosis—​especially if it involved incurable cancer—​was once common practice among the medical profession, so that the patient’s feelings could be spared (and most likely also to relieve the doctor of a difficult situation). It is only since the 1970s that it has become standard practice for health practitioners to disclose the illness to patients (Allan and Burridge 2006: 220). How, then, do doctors and patients talk about cancer? In 1979, Susan Sontag published her monograph Illness as Metaphor, which was based on her own experience of being diagnosed and then treated for breast cancer. The book is an investigation into the effect that the symbolism surrounding cancer has had on attitudes towards the illness on the one hand, and to people afflicted with the disease on the other.6 Sontag observed the following: ‘a surprisingly large number of people with cancer find themselves being shunned by relatives and friends and are the object of practices of decontamination by 4 

This is not the case with the French equivalent of AIDS, sida, which is now treated as an ordinary word of the lexicon. 5 Source: http://​; accessed 9 August 2017. 6  See also Goffman’s (1968) classic study of stigma and the management of the self in the experience of long-​term illness.

66    Réka Benczes and Kate Burridge members of their household, as if cancer . . . were an infectious disease. Contact with someone afflicted with a disease regarded as a mysterious malevolency inevitably feels like a trespass; worse, like the violation of a taboo. The very names of such diseases [like cancer] are felt to have a magic power’ (Sontag 1979/​1991: 6). According to Sontag, this particular attitude towards cancer, resulting in a state of silence and disgrace for those afflicted by it, is a consequence of the metaphorical conceptualizations that are particular to the illness. Sontag’s main argument is that cancer is treated not simply as a disease, but as a ‘demonic pregnancy’, which results in making it not just ‘a lethal disease but a shameful one’ (Sontag 1979/​1991: 14). Although some of Sontag’s statements regarding the all-​pervasiveness of the metaphors surrounding cancer have been refuted (see especially Clow 2001),7 her monograph does draw attention to two very significant aspects of the discourse surrounding cancer: 1) the reliance and use of metaphor in framing the illness; and 2) the impact (or power) that the metaphorical imagery surrounding the illness can have on how cancer is perceived by the patients and society at large. Over the years, a number of studies have been carried out on how cancer is metaphorically conceptualized (for an overview, see Demjén and Semino 2016). Accordingly, research has focused on the metaphorical conceptualizations of how patients themselves experience and talk about it (Gibbs and Franks 2002; Appleton and Flynn 2014; Semino et al. 2016; Demmen et al. 2015); how it is conceptualized within public discourse, especially news reports and the media (Camus 2009); and how health care practitioners metaphorically make sense of cancer in their communication with patients (Demmen et al. 2015). The studies point to the prevalent use of the military metaphor (also referred to as ‘war metaphor’ or ‘violence metaphor’) in framing the discourse surrounding the illness in each of the studied groups. Within this scenario, clear metaphoric correspondences can be detected between the source domain of a military conflict and the target domain of cancer (see Table 4.1). Table 4.1. Correspondences within the military metaphor for cancer Source domain: Military conflict

Target domain: Cancer





Commander Allies Weaponry

Health practitioner Healthcare team Treatment

(after Reisfield and Wilson 2004: 4023)

7  See also the study by Hanne and Hawken (2007), who analysed the metaphors used by the New York Times for five illnesses (avian flu, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and HIV/​AIDS) within a nine-​month period. According to their results, diabetes and avian flu had higher proportions of metaphorical usage

Speaking of disease and death    67 Thus, the battle is either lost if the patient does not survive the illness or won if the patient recovers. The military metaphor is so rampant in the discourse surrounding cancer that it is even employed within pharmaceutical advertising. Reisfield and Wilson (2004: 4025) report on a pharmaceutical company’s information site for chemotherapy drugs designed for breast cancer patients that advises women to ‘FIGHT HARD and FIGHT BACK in your battle against advanced breast cancer’. Interestingly, attitudes towards the use of the military metaphor in discourse about cancer greatly vary among both health professionals and patients. While it might resonate among some patients,8 Miller (2010: 20), a practising oncologist, noted that many patients ‘detest’ it because ‘[i]‌t suggests that winning the war (defeating the cancer) is only a matter of fighting hard enough . . . . Thus, within the context of the martial metaphor, patients fail treatment instead of treatment failing patients’ (Reisfield and Wilson 2004: 4023). Further, by encouraging cancer patients ‘to fight’, health practitioners (unintentionally) contribute to patients’ suppression of their emotions surrounding the illness (Byrne et al. 2002). Yet, and despite the limitations of the military metaphor, the healthcare profession is mostly at a loss to find a better, more suitable or more widely accepted metaphoric frame to talk about the disease itself (Miller 2010), which might be a consequence of the general entrenchment and long history of the military metaphor in medicine. The metaphor came into wider use during the 1880s, when bacteria were discovered as ‘agents of disease’. Accordingly, bacteria were said to ‘invade’ or ‘infiltrate’ the body (Sontag 1979/​1991: 67). Yet alternative metaphors for cancer are being introduced in healthcare. Semino et al. (2016) draw attention to the recent use of the journey metaphor in policy documents on cancer care in the United Kingdom, according to which the illness is conceptualized as a journey, and the various treatments and care plans are alternative ‘pathways’. What is of significance here is the realization that metaphors can play a crucial role in the patient’s healing process; the question is, however, which metaphor to use and which do patients prefer. Preliminary results with regard to this latter question can be sought in Semino et al. (2016), who reported on a corpus-​based study of cancer patients’ use of metaphorical language in talking about their illness. What the researchers have found is that while patients make use of a wide selection of source domains in their discussions on cancer (such as machinery, sports, animals, fairground rides, etc.), the two most popular and persistent metaphors are the military metaphor (1.8 words per 1,000 words were analysed as related to the military metaphor for cancer) and the journey metaphor (with 1.46 words per 1,000 words analysed in the corpus as being related to the journey source domain). Nevertheless, Semino et al. (2016) also draw attention to the fact that the word than cancer. Further, the war metaphor used in talking about cancer was not as emotive as what Sontag (1979) observed. 8  Reisfield and Wilson (2004: 4023) mention the example of American World War II historian and author, Cornelius Ryan, who was diagnosed with cancer while finishing a historical novel. The military metaphor enabled to him make sense of his illness by drawing on a metaphorical source domain that was very familiar to him.

68    Réka Benczes and Kate Burridge war surfaced only once throughout their corpus; battle also occurred minimally. The words that the patients used were rather related to a general violence metaphor (such as kick butt, fight, strangle, etc.), suggesting that the military metaphor might not be a precise term for the metaphorical conceptualization of the disease. Instead, they propose the being ill with cancer is a violent confrontation with the disease metaphor, which can not only account for a wider array of linguistic expressions that are used in conjunction with the illness (including, but not limited to, war-​related expressions), but which can also be regarded as a more specific instantiation of an underlying metaphor, being ill is a violent confrontation with disease, that is able to account for the cancer metaphor’s motivation in the similar experiences that we have accumulated when ‘fighting’ any disease throughout our lifetime.

4.2.3 Mental illness One of our greatest fears, equalling those of cancer and death, is the fear of going insane (Gillis 1972: 177). Madness is considered as not being in control, giving rise to the expression out of/​losing one’s mind. It is this aspect, not being in control, that motivates many of the different meanings of mad and crazy in general, non-​clinical usage, as the following examples indicate: I’m going mad/​crazy: Indicating forgetfulness, confusion, losing one’s grip on sanity; I must be mad/​crazy: Said of undertaking something beyond one’s abilities and doing something excessively foolish; S/​he was mad/​crazy: Said of someone in uncontrolled rage; S/​he was quite mad/​crazy: Said of someone carried away by excessive enthusiasm. Allan and Burridge 2006: 213

All the expressions above imply excessive emotions and actions that are out of one’s control, as do many of the compounds that have been formed on the basis of mad or crazy: boy-​mad, girl-​crazy, car mad/​crazy, mad dog/​bull, etc. What the expressions suggest is that the person’s behaviour does not conform to socially accepted norms, and is thus typically viewed as peculiar and even possibly dangerous to others. In fact, right up to the 1800s, it was believed that mental illness was the work of demons, and people suffering from mental disorders were especially feared. While the association of mental disorder with demonic possession has waned (though has not disappeared completely—​see Hartog and Gow 2005; Loewenthal 1996), it is still heavily stigmatized, inspiring strong linguistic taboos and a long trail of euphemistic language, as the negative connotations reattach themselves and new words and expressions need to be found (Allan and Burridge 2006: 213–​15). Yet when it comes to mental illness, labelling is a two-​edged sword. For some patients, it might bring about a sense of relief, as the name legitimizes one’s status as a patient (Field

Speaking of disease and death    69 1976). It can also become a part of a person’s identity, ‘worn almost as a badge of pride’ (Lester and Tritter 2005: 658), as the following quote exemplifies (from a female patient suffering from mental illness): ‘I mean, because it doesn’t matter what euphemism you use at the end of the day. It’s about your ability to say “I have a mental health problem”. And actually, why should you have a big hang up about it? But it’s about feeling that you have the right to have a mental health problem and not feel that you should excuse it or feel guilty’ (Lester and Tritter 2005: 659). (Note the use of mental health problem as a euphemism for mental illness, which does contradict the patient’s words. Mental health problem highlights temporariness, implying that the condition is not permanent, and all it takes to be healthy again is to find the right solution).9 At the same time, a psychiatric label can also have an opposite effect; naming a disease can induce the apposite physical symptoms (Field 1976: 359). As Rosenhan’s (1973) now classic study has shown, once a person is identified with a particular mental illness, and hence ‘tagged’ (p. 252) accordingly, ‘it profoundly colours other’s perceptions’ of the person, and eventually the diagnosis becomes a self-​fulfilling prophecy: Eventually, the patient himself accepts the diagnosis, with all of its surplus meanings and expectations, and behaves accordingly’ (p. 254). Barker (2000: 99) also warns of the dangers of labelling within official clinical parlance. The Diagnostic and Statistic Manual (DSM IV) that health care practitioners use to identify and label mental illness, for example recognizes the condition of seriously mentally ill, which implies that there are some people whose mental illness is only a ‘trivial affair’ (Barker 2000: 99). As Barker notes, the language of clinical medicine—​ via its labels—​creates a ‘distance’ between those who consider themselves sane and those who are not, and who thus become the objects of clinical scrutiny and often pity.10 Despite the dangers that labels for mental illness might have, there has been a multitude of expressions over the centuries (Allan and Burridge 2006: 215). These include idiot, which has the same root as idiom or idiosyncratic, derived from the Greek idios (‘peculiar to oneself, private’). In ancient Greek, an idiōtēs was a ‘private person’, thus an idiot was probably conceptualized as a person locked away in his/​her own private world. The word demented goes back to Latin mens (‘mind’) and de (‘out of ’), with a very similar meaning as out of one’s mind or out of one’s head. While imbecile is now a strong word of abuse, it has also Latin origins, based on imbecillus, which literally meant ‘without a stick’, in other words, a mind ‘unsupported and feeble’. Lunatic reflects the belief that a certain type of madness was brought on by the changing phases of the moon (after the Roman goddess of the moon, Luna); nevertheless, this euphemistic suggestion is no longer apparent in the word (or in any of its shortened versions, 9 

The patient’s reluctance to describe her own preferred expression mental health problem as a euphemism illustrates the pejoration in ordinary usage of the term euphemism; impatient with the pretence that sweeter words might produce a sweeter world, many have now come to equate all euphemism with jargon (the sort of doublespeak that turns death into a substantive negative patient care outcome). 10  The term mental illness itself is a vague term that covers an array of conditions, ranging from mildly eccentric or neurotic behaviour to serious psychotic disorders. Due to the vagueness of the term, even mild anxiety can be labelled as a mental illness.

70    Réka Benczes and Kate Burridge such as loon or loony). The word insanity comes from Latin too, from in-​sanus, that is ‘not healthy’, but has narrowed down to ‘mentally unsound’. Originally, it had a much broader meaning, pertaining to all bodily organs and functions. Similar narrowing of meaning happened with deranged, which originally came from a verb meaning ‘to disturb, disarrange’. Coupled with the adjective mental,11 it was used to refer to people who were ‘disturbed in the mind’. However, by now, the concept of mental illness has effected the word negatively, and the meaning of deranged has thus becomes restricted to solely the ‘mad’ sense (without needing to use any sort of modifier). Similar narrowing of meaning is captured in the euphemism sick, which is often used for the description of a person who is mentally challenged, or in other words of an unsound mental condition (two further euphemisms). While the dictionary definitions of sick still focus on ‘affected by any disorder of health’, the slang use of the term has already become limited to ‘mental ill health, frequently with overtones of perversion’ (compare sicko and American sicknik). Many of the colloquial expressions for mental illness have also undergone a narrowing of meaning; a prime example is crazy (and hence crazed and cracked). Originally, the word meant ‘flawed, damaged’ (cf. crazy paving) and it could be applied to a wide variety of illnesses, but over the course of time narrowed to ‘mental illness’. The stereotypical mental patient as someone who is ‘flawed, deficient’ (compare mentally deficient) is the basis for many other dysphemistic expressions for madness: crack-​brained; scatter-​brained; shatter-​brained; head-​case; falling to pieces; unhinged; having a screw/​tile/​slate loose; kangaroos in the top paddock; one brick short of a load; not playing with a full deck; three cards short of a full deck; one sandwich short of a picnic; two cans short of a six-​pack; two bob short of a quid; not the full quid; a shingle short; a shrub short of a herbaceous border; and he’s lost his marbles. This kind of dysphemistic formula appears in a number of languages (Allan and Burridge 2006: 216). Conceptualizing mental illness as being out of one’s mind and/​or lacking proper reason and/​or judgment has also had an impact on how the legal profession has reacted to it (Platt 1965). Drawing on the ‘wild beast’ metaphor, which originated from one of the first systematic treatises of English law in the thirteenth century, the mentally ill person was considered to be on the level of a simple ‘beast’ (i.e. lacking mens rea ‘sound mind’), and was thus not held responsible for the crime committed. While the ‘wild beast’ metaphor strengthened the stigma surrounding mental illness, metaphor can in fact be used rather effectively in shaping mental illness communication and removing its negative image. Lazard et al. (2016) have demonstrated that the use of visual metaphors in health communication messages, based on the common metaphorical conceptualization of mental illness as a barrier, encouraged help-​seeking behaviour among American college students. Metaphor has also been 11  Note that mental has also deteriorated in its meaning: while dictionaries provide ‘pertaining to the mind’ as its central sense, ‘denoting a disorder of the mind’ typically ranks second, along with the colloquial senses of ‘mad’ or ‘foolish’. Cf. be/​go mental or become a mental patient.

Speaking of disease and death    71 employed within psychotherapy for decades to bring about a positive change in the therapeutic process (Cirillo and Crider 1995; Goncalves and Craine 1990; Kopp and Craw 1998; Levitt et al. 2000; McMullen 1996; Tay 2016). Metaphors can provide valuable insight into patients’ emotions, issues, and experiences (Barker 2000: 99) and can also generate possible outcomes, as they are perceived as being less direct and less threatening (Ahammed 2010: 249).12 Sarpavaara and Koski-​Jännes (2013) have examined patients’ use of the change is a journey metaphor, and concluded that patients who conceptualized themselves in a more proactive role in reaching their destination recovered better than those who did not. Further, metaphor can also become a tool by which a ‘therapeutic alliance’ (Tay 2016: 373) can be forged. Accordingly, the use of metaphors from the Qur’ān evoked positive responses from Muslim patients (Ahammed 2010). Health and illness are mostly socially and culturally constructed concepts that can only be captured and understood by examining the metaphorical language that is used to conceptualize them. Sensitivizing the medical profession to this figurative use of language as used by patients might increase a sense of compassion among doctors and nurses and might also help to deobjectify patients (Barker 2000).

4.3 Death The greatest enigma of human existence is its very end: death. Within modern society, it has become the great taboo subject, shrouded in fear and smothered in linguistic prudery in the form of euphemisms. Yet where does this prudery originate from? According to McCallum and McGlone (2011: 566) and citing cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker (1962, 1973, 1975), fear of death (and in particular, its denial) and the use of indirect language use are very tightly linked. Due to their high intelligence, humans are fully aware of their ‘biological vulnerability and inevitable mortal trajectory’ (to use McCallum and McGlone’s 2011 euphemistic-​sounding expressions) and thus the impossibility to avert eventual death. This results in a sense of terror that needs to be managed somehow. One possibility that is available to us is the use of indirect language, in the form of euphemisms. The use of indirect language serves ‘as a denial of creatureliness and thus as a means to mitigate existential terror’ (McCallum and McGlone 2011: 570). This hypothesis was tested and justified in an experimental study, where participants who were reminded about their own mortality (by means of a short essay on death that the participants had to write beforehand) showed a greater preference for the use of euphemisms for bodily functions than the control group (for whom mortality was not 12  Yet Barker (2000) also points out that the medical profession does not always take the metaphorical language of people suffering from mental illness seriously, considering it as ‘inferior’ as compared to official clinical parlance. This negligence results in the loss of ‘mountains of evidence’ of how people understand their condition.

72    Réka Benczes and Kate Burridge made salient). Such results indicate that ‘thoughts of death caused them [the subjects] to desire distance from their animal natures in an attempt to thwart awareness of physical finitude’ (McCallum and McGlone 2011: 572), corroborating findings elsewhere that humans cope with death anxiety through psychological distancing from their vulnerable bodies.13 In no other way can this distancing be best achieved than by resorting to metaphorical language. The metaphorical conceptualization of death has already gained scholarly recognition in the academic literature (see especially Allan and Burridge 1991: 161–​4; Marín-​Arrese 1996; Sexton 1997; Bultnick 1998; Özçalişkan 2003; Crespo-​Fernández 2006, 2011b; King 2015). In fact, one of the very central conceptualizations and recurring symbols of death itself, the Grim Reaper, is also rooted in a complex interplay of conceptual metaphors and metonymies (referred to as a ‘conceptual blend’ in cognitive linguistic literature; Fauconnier and Turner 2002). The Grim Reaper is first and foremost a personification: we make sense of death by conceptualizing it as a person. As Lakoff (1994: 231–​2) notes, death is personified in a relatively limited number of ways: as ‘drivers, coachmen, footmen; reapers, devourers, and destroyers; or opponents in a struggle or game’. What these personifications share is that ‘events (like death) are understood in terms of actions by some agent (like reaping)’. Yet why isn’t this agent (i.e. death) metaphorically understood as a cook, a hairdresser, or even a university professor? The answer lies in the fact that death is also simultaneously conceptualized as some sort of departure. Agents typically involved in events of departure—​such as coachmen or ferrymen—​are thus more suitable to act as sources for conceptualizations of death (Marín-​Arrese 1996: 43).14 The central metaphor that the Grim Reaper is based upon is the conceptualization of the human lifetime as the lifecycle of a plant, and, in particular, conceptualizing death as harvesting (Fauconnier and Turner 2002: 291–​5). Following these metaphors, the image of a reaper cutting down a plant corresponds to the person dying. Yet this image does not fully account for the symbol of the Grim Reaper: while reapers are interchangeable, Death is a single, individual reaper who is eternal (and that is why we refer to the Grim Reaper with the definite article). Reapers are also indifferent to the different stalks of grain, while Death-​as-​a-​reaper kills a specific person (and does not kill indiscriminately).15 Thus, the network of metaphorical associations also requires a further, Killer mental space (composed of a Killer who causes someone to die), as well as a Death mental space (composed of an empty tautology, according to which death


Brain (1979) also reduces the anxieties surrounding the body and bodily processes to the terror of our own mortality. 14  And note also the euphemism ‘that grim ferryman’ (quoted from Shakespeare) that also falls into this category (Marín-​Arrese 1996: 42). 15  Cf. the expression the Great Leveller, which highlights the idea that death does not differentiate; sooner or later everyone must die. With regard to its origins, Marín-​Arrese (1996) cites Neaman and Silver (1983: 150), who claim that the term ‘leveller’ goes all the way back to ‘the name of a political party of the 1640s that believed in obliterating all differences and privileges acquired by rank or position’.

Speaking of disease and death    73 is the cause of dying). Further, the typical depiction of the Grim Reaper as a skeleton is metonymy-​based: the final stage of the decay of the body is used to stand for the cause of the decay itself (death). Metonymy is also at work when it comes to the characteristic attire of the Grim Reaper, the cowl: this feature, via a part-​for-​whole metonymy relates back to the spiritual/​religious attendants present at the death or the burial (Fauconnier and Turner 2002: 291–​5). The macabre image of death as a skeleton is by no means a novel one; its origins go back to fifteenth-​century Italy (Koutny-​Jones 2015). In fact, confrontation with mortality was not considered sinister in the Middle Ages; everyday life was full of symbols to constantly remind people of death. Suppression of direct reference to death came about gradually; this change is well reflected in how epitaph and gravestone designs evolved over the years. In Stephenson’s (1985) study of colonial New England gravesites between 1680 and 1820, three major designs emerged. The first design, from the seventeenth century, was that of the winged and grinning death’s head, which brought forth the grim reminders of the transience of life and the inevitability of bodily decay. In the eighteenth century, this image gave way to the softer and more optimistic spectacle of a winged cherub, whose accompanying message stressed not the decay of beauty, but the soul’s flight to glory. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, religious symbols gave way to secular images in the form of an urn and cascading willow pattern with the words In Memory of . . . Slightly different results were uncovered by Crespo-​Fernández (2011b) in his study of Victorian epitaphs from Highgate Cemetery in London, where the religious imagery still prevailed in the nineteenth century, but this was conceptualized evidently within a positive frame, whereby death was a form of liberation from earthly life and the response to a call from God. Negative imagery and conceptualizations were negligible; Crespo-​Fernández argues that the positive conceptualizations of death in the form of a journey, a joyful life, etc. were all aimed at assisting those left alive in the bereavement process. Yet what exactly does the picture look like in contemporary language use?16 In a study on the euphemistic language of 10,000 English obituaries, Migut (2016) identified more than a dozen common metaphorical themes (and also pointed out that a vast number of English euphemisms belong to multiple metaphorical conceptualizations—​e.g. the expression enter into eternal rest and peace can be considered as building on both the death is rest and death is release metaphors). Due to space limitations, the following sections will focus on the most prevalent metaphorical domains and their corresponding euphemistic expressions, based mostly on Allan and Burridge (2006), unless otherwise indicated.


Over the years a number of studies have emerged on euphemistic language use related to death in languages other than English (and these are often of a comparative nature). See Marín-​Arrese (1996) and Crespo-​Fernández (2013) for Spanish, Özçalişkan (2003) for Turkish, Migut (2016) for Polish, Nyakoe et al. (2012) for EkeGusii (a Bantu language spoken in Western Kenya), Çerpja and Marteta (2015) on Albanian; Rabab’ah and Al-​Qarni (2012) for Saudi Arabic; and Lee (2011) on Oceanic languages.

74    Réka Benczes and Kate Burridge

4.3.1 Death as loss The euphemisms losing and missing take the perspective of those left alive—​or, to use the metaphor of death as a journey, those left behind. People are conceptualized as valuable possessions, who thus can be ‘lost’. In Our condolences for your tragic loss, the particular loss is carefully unspecified. We lost our father last winter and Our condolences on the loss of your husband view death as malign fate, an event over which the bereaved has no control. The deceased, having been ‘lost’, is then missed by those left alive to mourn their loss. The loss image is also found in statements about the loved one being taken (either by a god or by malevolent fate).

4.3.2 Death as sleep/​rest Activity in animals and humans is explained by the presence of a soul in the body; sleep and death indicate its absence, and which explains why sleep is a frequent euphemism for death. Its cultural roots go all the way back to Greek mythology: Thanatos, the god of death, was twin brother of Hypnos, the deity of sleep. During sleep, the soul’s absence is only temporary, but on death, the soul leaves the body forever; and a soul without a body to reside in must be laid to rest somewhere.17 There is an evident similarity between a sleeping body and a dead one, and sleep has often been regarded as a temporary death, a period when the soul leaves the body to later return to it when it awakens, as in the following classic children’s bedtime prayer from the eighteenth century: Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.

When death is described as sleep, we imagine that it, too, is temporary; no wonder that death notices often substitute sleep for death. The commonly used abbreviation of R. I. P. (‘rest in peace’) also draws on the metaphorical image of death as being a final (and eternal) resting point—​this image is also borne out on euphemistic tombstone inscriptions such as finally at peace or peace at last (Migut 2016: 189).

4.3.3 Death as a journey Life is often conceptualized as a purposeful journey; it is one of the most basic and central metaphors that we use on a daily basis to make sense of life (Lakoff and Turner 1989). 17 

The word cemetery derives from Ancient Greek koimotéroin (‘dormitory’), which draws on the image of the dead as sleeping bodies (Allan and Burridge 2006: 225).

Speaking of disease and death    75 Its converse is the conceptualization of death as the soul’s (purposeful) journey into the afterlife. Accordingly, death is often represented euphemistically as a journey to a better place for the soul of the dead person. The metaphorical expressions that arise from this notion include part, depart, pass, pass away, pass on, pass over, and arrival at the final resting place—​perhaps to be reunited with loved ones already dead. Somewhat more poetic are the euphemisms go the way of all flesh and go to the happy hunting ground. The latter is supposedly borrowed from Native American religious mythology; Christian counterparts are go to meet one’s maker, go to a better place, go to heaven, return to one’s Creator, return to the loving arms of God, etc. Death is thus seen as the beginning of a new life, and even as a reward or gift for one’s earthly merits (e.g. one’s heavenly reward awaits, to be gifted with eternal life, to be awarded with eternal life, etc.—​examples from Migut 2016: 215). Euphemistic expressions which have to do with notions of an afterlife are used by both the religious and non-​religious alike when dealing with death. For all who use them, they are preferred expressions and the image they offer is one of consolation by glossing over the physical event of death and dying, and thus creating a more acceptable image.

4.3.4 Slang, colloquialism, and humour It is questionable whether kick the bucket, used in banter, could be other than dysphemistic; whatever its etymology, the many theories around its origin all have in common gruesome stories of death (e.g. the suggestion of kicking the bucket away in order to hang, as suicide or, less likely, execution).18 Yet, as described in Chapter 10 of this volume, flippancy towards what is feared is widely used as means of coming to terms with fear, by downgrading it. Kick the bucket is but one of many bizarre and frivolous expressions for ‘to die’ (a detail made famous by Monty Python’s Dead Parrot Sketch (http://​​scripts/​Series_​1/​53.htm). A dead person can also be said to be pushing up daisies. Snuff it is from a candle being snuffed out and can be the result of foul play. Unassisted death is referred to in fall/​drop off the perch/​twig, turn up her toes, park/​pop his clogs and the like; these are irreverent and potentially dysphemistic, but more often than not used to challenge the fear of death. For those involved in the industry of death, it is perhaps the only way to survive in such a profession. Hospital slang, for example once included reference to crumbles ‘the frail and elderly at death’s door’, grots ‘derelicts and alcoholics’, vegetables ‘unresponsive or comatose patients’. This sort of gallows humour is extremely common among staff in nursing homes when talking to each other (Allan and Burridge 1991: §7.7). For people who have to deal with the dying and with death every day, the levity distances them from the sickness and death, and helps to blot out the awareness of their own vulnerability and 18  As etymologist Anatoly Liberman makes clear in his blog The Oxford Etymologist (February 2016), the source of this is expression is unclear, though the theories are plentiful; https://​​2016/​ 02/​kick-​the-​bucket-​idiom-​origin-​etymology/​ (accessed 21 October 2017).

76    Réka Benczes and Kate Burridge that of their co-​workers. Death while on military service is referred to by euphemisms that vary between the solemnly patriotic do one’s bit for one’s country, make the ultimate sacrifice—​which glamorize death and help to reinforce for those still surviving the illusory world of a glorious battlefield—​and the wryly humorous come home in a box. One of the most novel (and tongue-​in-​cheek) metaphorical conceptualizations that have emerged recently in English is understanding death as a system shutdown, where a person’s death is viewed as a computer error, as in he saw the blue screen or he errored (Migut 2016: 255). Dying can even be conceptualized as logging out for the last time or getting one’s life account banned (by a metaphysical systems administrator—​i.e. God). Humorous expressions such as these help to defuse the anxieties surrounding death. Even so, there is some evidence that death may well be losing some of its taboo element, at least within these online communities. This possibility is strengthened by Migut’s (2016: 255–​6) research of the most characteristic euphemistic words or expressions for ‘died’ in 2.5 million online obituaries on the American website According to his data, the most frequently used word in twelve states was the orthophemistic died; the euphemistic entered eternal rest came as only the second most frequently used expression (being the most favoured expression in eight states).

4.4 Conclusions The fear of illness and disease is certainly less acute than in earlier times, at least for those of us in the lucky position of being able to access twenty-​first-​century medicine. Nonetheless, it is clear that disease is still something that afflicts us, and over which we exercise little control. For most of us ill health remains something of a mystery: there are symptoms and there are sick patients, but there is often nothing tangible in disease itself. It seems mostly to arrive out of the blue and just as mysteriously seems able to transmit itself from person to person, affecting some, while leaving others curiously untouched. This is particularly true in the case of stigmatizing illnesses, such as AIDS or cancer. Current social attitudes towards these, as well as towards disorders included under the label ‘mental illness’, still reflect the medieval equation of good with wellbeing and evil with disease. As Porter's (1997) history of medicine shows, we have never before been so healthy. Yet ill-​health continues to raise profound anxieties, inspiring some of our strongest linguistic taboos, as indicated by the flourishing of figurative language and/​or verbal play which English speakers rely on to censor the vocabulary of disease and death. Modern humans still have to confront the unnerving reality that, despite the medical breakthroughs that rescue people daily from death, they will not live forever. Nevertheless, we do have a choice when it comes to how we talk about disease and death and what metaphorical conceptualizations we rely on—​which can either further aggravate or help disperse the fears surrounding them.

Chapter 5

The psych ol o g y of expre s si ng a nd interpret i ng lingu istic  ta b o o s timothy b. jay

5.1 Overview In decades past there existed scant psychological research to describe how people use taboo words in everyday speech. Now, considerable scholarship on taboo word use exists and more definitive statements can be made regarding how and why people express themselves with taboo words. More is known about how people understand taboo word expressions than why people say them. Little is known about the pre-​vocal stages of taboo word production (e.g., emotionality, brain function, intent). These statements about taboo word production versus comprehension research are true about non-​taboo language as well (Jay 2003). Taboo words are emotionally arousing, negatively-​ valenced ‘bad’ words used to express emotions and convey feelings to others; they are also referred to as swear words, curses, vulgarity, profanity, obscenity, name-​calling, slurs, and scatology (Jay 1992, 2000, 2009b). Taboo words differ from non-​taboo words because taboo words are more emotionally arousing and more negatively valenced than non-​taboo words. Hearing taboo words feels more like a physical, bodily reaction than hearing non-​taboo words. After all, taboo words have been characterized as insults to the body, as if they physically harm the body in a manner that non-​taboo words do not, although non-​ taboo words can be offensive and insulting too. Of interest here is how people react to taboo words and why people say taboo words in the first place. This chapter covers topics selected to examine expressing with taboo words (spoken frequency, verbal

78   Timothy B. Jay fluency, personality traits, emotion expression, anger and frustration, name-​calling, humor, and coping with pain) and topics selected to examine interpreting taboo word expressions (connotation and denotation, word offensiveness, frequency judgments, fighting words, sexual harassment, and pragmatic contextual variables). The conclusion sums up the current state of research and it points to future psychological research on taboo words.

5.2  Expressing with linguistic taboos 5.2.1 Spoken frequency One preliminary step to studying taboo words is descriptive: to establish how frequently they occur. Which taboo words are commonly used? Taboo word use is not uncommon as field recordings of public taboo word use and corpus linguistics studies have demonstrated. Field studies of swearing have provided consistent estimates for frequency of use. Jay (1980) found seventy swear words in an 11,609-​ word tape-​recorded sample of conversation or a rate of 0.7% of the corpus. A more recent British spoken corpus showed that taboo words occurred at a 0.3% to 0.5% rate (McEnery 2006). Similarly, in research using electronically activated recorders, Mehl and Pennebaker (2003) found a 0.5% taboo word rate among American college students over a two day period. They also showed that the rate of swearing was consistent over the recording sessions for individual speakers (r = .86) but that there were substantial individual differences for frequency of use: rates varied from 0% uses per day to a maximum of 3.4% per day. Research by Mehl and colleagues (Mehl, Vazire, Ramirez-​Esparza, Statcher, and Pennebaker 2007)  determined that the average speaker utters 15,000–​16,000 words per day. Estimating spoken word rates using the figures mentioned (0.5% to 0.7%) suggests that speakers utter 80–​90 taboo words per day. Recent studies show that taboo words appear frequently in social networks on the Internet. Thelwall (2008) reported a 0.2% taboo word rate in MySpace, and Subrahmanyam, Smahel, and Greenfield (2006) reported that 3% of chat room utterances contained obscene words (one taboo word every two minutes). Research on computer mediated taboo word use over the last two decades has expanded with increasing participation in social networks. It has shown that taboo words have cropped up just about everywhere in online messaging: in email messages, chat rooms (at a rate of 0.2% of total words), MySpace (rates range from use in 7% to 35% of comments), Twitter (in 5.8% of men’s tweets and 4.8% of women’s tweets), and in blogs (in men’s more than women’s and younger bloggers’ messages more than in older bloggers’). Taboo words are common in Facebook, YouTube, and 4chan messages. Frequency data indicate that taboo word use is a common, normal human behavior and should not be considered as deviant or abnormal behavior.

The Psychology of expressing and interpreting linguistic taboos    79

5.2.2 Taboo word fluency Do people say taboo words because they cannot think of non-​taboo words to say? What is the relationship between taboo word choices and the overall size of a speaker’s vocabulary? There is a pervasive folk assumption that taboo words are chosen because speakers cannot find non-​taboo words to express themselves. This is assumed to occur because speakers lack vocabulary. This is the notion that taboo word use occurs due to a poverty of vocabulary. A competing explanation for taboo word use is that fluency is fluency: people say taboo words for strategic purposes and not because they lack vocabulary (Jay and Jay 2015). Regardless of what one is talking about there is no reason to propose that a difference in lexicon size causes people to use taboo words instead of non-​taboo  words. In order to test which one of these hypotheses best accounted for swearing fluency, Jay and Jay (2015) compared general verbal fluency via the Controlled Oral Word Association Test (COWAT) with taboo word fluency and animal word fluency in spoken and written formats. Both written and spoken production formats produced positive correlations between COWAT fluency, animal fluency, and taboo word fluency, supporting the fluency-​is-​fluency hypothesis. Jay and Jay found that with either spoken or written formats, a set of ten taboo words (fuck, shit, cunt, bitch, asshole, whore, slut, motherfucker, bastard, damn) accounted for 55–​60% of all taboo words produced. In contrast to research that found gender differences in swearing (e.g., Jay 1992), Jay and Jay (2015) found little sex-​related variability in taboo word generation, and, consistent with findings that do not show a gender difference in taboo lexicon size, there was no overall gender difference in taboo word generation. Speakers with good vocabulary skills are good at generating taboo words, it is not—​as is often claimed—​because they lack vocabulary. Taboo word fluency also depends on personality characteristics of the speaker. Taboo fluency was positively correlated with the Big Five personality traits1 Neuroticism (tense and moody) and Openness (curious), and negatively correlated with Agreeableness (sociable and easy to get along with) and Conscientiousness (careful and responsible). The Big Five model of personality consists of five traits that have surfaced repeatedly in almost all personality research, which were uncovered using a lexical approach to personality. The model proposed that crucial aspects of personality are embedded in our language: if a personality trait is important in daily life, we communicate about it a lot in, for example, dictionaries and literature. The Big Five personality correlations with taboo word use make sense here: people who are anxious and fearful along with those who are open to varied experiences are most likely to use taboo words; those people who seek agreeable relationships with others and are organized and efficient would not be as likely to use taboo words. Taboo word use can be spontaneous or well thought out but neither form should be considered an


The Big Five personality traits are: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism.

80   Timothy B. Jay indication of a substandard lexicon or the lack of education. People say taboo words explicitly to express themselves, not because they cannot think of anything else to say.

5.2.3 Personality traits and taboo word use As the fluency data suggested, some people are more likely to say taboo words than others. Taboo word use depends on one’s group affiliation, values, and personality factors. Although precise frequency rates are unknown, taboo word use has been documented in the lexica of many social groups in the United States: soldiers, police, high school and college students, drug users, athletes, laborers, juvenile delinquents, psychiatric patients, and prisoners (see Jay 1992, 2000). Social rank can also play a role in swearing; McEnery (2006) in a language sample from the UK found socially low-​ranking speakers produced higher rates of taboo words than did high-​ranking speakers. Social rank data are less readily available in corpus samples from the United States. Personality type also plays a significant role in frequency of taboo word use, as do one’s level of hostility, sexual anxiety, and religiosity. Hostile swearing is a defining feature of the Type A personality construct and it is directly related to the speakers’ incidence of cardiovascular disease. By contrast, taboo word use is less prevalent in people characterized with high religiosity, high sexual anxiety, or high sexual repressiveness (Janschewitz 2008; Jay 1992, 2000). Mormons and other religious people have been found to opt out of taboo word use by using euphemisms (‘euphemistic dysphemisms’ such as shoot, darn) when they are emotional instead of saying taboo words (see Jay 2005). Mehl, Gosling, and Pennebaker (2006) reported that taboo word use is negatively correlated with high scores on the Big Five personality factors of Agreeableness and Conscientiousness. Later, Fast and Funder (2008) found that people who use taboo words most frequently in life-​history interviews were generally described as more extroverted, dominant, and socially negative. Fast and Funder’s research complements that of Mehl et al. (2006) by reporting that people who use taboo words frequently are clearly lower in Agreeableness and higher in Extroversion. In contrast to Mehl et al. (2006), Fast and Funder found no strong negative correlation with Conscientiousness: women’s taboo word use was only slightly negatively correlated with it (r = −.12). Men’s swearing was positively correlated with Neuroticism (r = .20). An awareness of the personality dimensions underlying taboo word use should reinforce our reluctance to make blanket statements about people and their swearing habits. We should not think in terms of how an ‘average’ person uses taboo words; instead, we must pay attention to each individual’s group affiliation and personality. Speaking in terms of an ‘average’ person glosses over important social and personality dimensions with respect to taboo word use.

5.2.4 Emotional expressions with taboo words Competent speakers of any language know that some words are more taboo than others; our theories of language use need to recognize this fact. Language scholars need

The Psychology of expressing and interpreting linguistic taboos    81 to recognize that the tabooness or inappropriateness dimensions of a word are part of that word’s semantic meaning. Tabooness is a word’s connotative or emotional tag (Jay 2009b). How does this tagging happen? How do the emotional contexts in which taboo words are used become part of the taboo word’s meaning? Bower (1981) anticipated this need to understand the role of emotion in models of language and semantic memory. He argued that the emotional aspects of words are an inherent part of their semantic meanings and that the emotional contexts for a word’s use or prohibition are stored along with its semantic and syntactic properties. The pragmatic question then becomes: how do we express any emotional thought whether taboo or not taboo? How do we select the right words? According to the emotional tag hypothesis (Jay 2000, 2003, 2009b), word selection is based on how offensive words are. For example, prick, dick, and cock are more offensive than penis. Children learn these nuances as they develop and parents are more likely to punish children who use highly offensive words relative to using mildly offensive words. As a demonstration of how context influences punishment and emotional tagging or word offensiveness, we—​Jay et al. 2006—​asked adults to recount how they were punished for saying taboo words as children. Our participants’ narratives bolstered Bower’s argument for emotional tagging, as the participants recounted vivid details of being punished for saying taboo words. In contrast this kind of inappropriateness tagging does not occur for learning most non-​taboo words. Because the contexts are not as offensive, arousing, or provocative as they are for taboo words, most people do not have strong emotional tags for many of the non-​taboo words they learn. If we have a semantic memory that includes emotion information at the lexical level, speakers can use emotionality as a basis for lexical access during the swearing process (see Levelt, Roelofs, and Meyer 2000). Taboo words are tagged with information regarding their arousal level, offensiveness, and appropriateness (see Jay 2003, 2009b). A competent speaker uses emotional tags during lexical access in order to choose the appropriate offensive word if swearing, or inoffensive word if not swearing. A man will tell his physician ‘I was bit on the penis by a tick,’ although with his mates over a beer he is more likely to say he was ‘bit on the dick.’ The syntax and semantics here will remain the same in either utterance but the emotional nuances change. The appropriateness of a lexical choice whether swearing or not swearing has to be based on a word’s emotional or connotative meanings. Competent native speakers make appropriate choices based on contextual variables, such as who is listening and where the conversation takes place; however non-​native speakers are less accurate at using contextual information to make appropriateness decisions about taboo word use (Dewaele 2010; Jay and Janschewitz 2008). It takes time and experience with taboo words in English before non-​native speakers learn where they are appropriate and where they are not. One of the primary reasons for saying taboo words is that they express our emotions effectively and efficiently, more effectively than trying to express deep emotions with less emotional, non-​taboo words. To put it another way, there is no other way to communicate the contempt in a phrase like fuck you! using non-​taboo  words.

82   Timothy B. Jay

5.2.5 Anger and frustration expression with taboo words Emotional taboo word use has been most closely associated with the expression of anger and frustration but not in the way readers might think (Jay 2000). The expression of anger or frustration is more complicated than the hammer-​to-​the-​thumb reflexive suggests. It is better to think of anger as a goal-​directed, strategic behavior than as a reflex. In support of this explanation Averill (1983) surveyed people about their experiences with anger and the functions that anger fulfilled for them. Averill found that people who become angry do not immediately become aggressive; instead they first try to engage in some non-​aggressive or calming behavior. When people do become aggressive, most of the time they revert to some form of verbal expression but they do not automatically revert to physical aggression. In Averill’s view it is clear that before they physically lash out speakers will express anger or frustration in speech that sometimes includes taboo words. Ultimately, swearing in anger is a complex, multistage emotional process, not a simple ballistic act. Swearing unfolds like this: first there is a provocation that creates the level of anger or frustration, followed by an attempt at inhibition, as Averill found. Next, there is disinhibition that results in swearing followed by the final stage of retribution or getting even (see Jay 1992, 2000). Research from our field studies (Jay 1992)  demonstrated how children used taboo words to express different emotions at a summer camp. On most occasions (64%) children used taboo words to express anger or frustration. Taboo words were used only 14% of the time denotatively (I have to take a piss) and 12% of the time to express humor or in joking. Taboo words were used in 5% of the episodes recorded to express surprise and 5% of the time to express sarcasm. We have replicated this type of field recording methodology in several settings (mental health facilities, nursing homes, and on college campuses) and the data from all of these settings show that most episodes of taboo word use, about two-​thirds of them, express anger or frustration (Jay 2000). From these studies we concluded that the primary use of taboo words in public for both children and adults is to express anger or frustration. A description of how children’s anger expressions evolve from the physical forms to more abstract forms is outlined in Chapter 6 of this volume.

5.2.6 Name-​calling, insults, and verbal abuse with taboo words In many cases when people become angry and frustrated, they vent their feelings toward other people. Angry and frustrated speakers vent their emotions toward themselves and others in the form of name-​calling, insults, and slurs that are used to debase their targets of venom. Native speakers learn these forms of offensive insulting early on. Name-​ calling, insulting, and abusive language using taboo words occur early in children’s verbal repertoire as outlined in Chapter 6 of this volume and elsewhere (Jay and Jay 2013, 2015; Jay 1992, 2000). Children’s insulting language reflects a simple view of others (ass, chicken, stupid) when compared to adults’ insults which reflect a greater social and

The Psychology of expressing and interpreting linguistic taboos    83 psychological awareness of others (sexist pig, damned Nazi). Offensive sexist slang terms (cunt, dick, fag, dyke) are used to describe in-​and out-​group members with the intent of insulting them; these kinds of insulting slang terms for outsiders or non-​conformists develop in all kinds of social communities. Ethnic, gender, and racial slurs (kike, faggot, nigger) serve the purpose of insulting out-​ group members. The growing literature on slurs (see Croom 2014) has suggested that slurs represent the most offensive forms of derogatory linguistic expressions used to insult people. Slurs are often considered to be a form of hate speech. The use of slurs in social contexts does not occur randomly but instead slurs are used systematically, depending on the features of the targets they abuse. Slurs are particularly offensive because they focus on aspects of targets that are not changeable such as gender, race, or ethnicity. Other forms of insults rely not on ethnic, racial, or gender references but are responses to temporary conditions or behaviors such as calling someone an asshole for crowding in line or calling someone an idiot for behaving recklessly. How insulting words are interpreted depends on the speaker–​listener relationship. In the final analysis there are no words or phrases that are universally insulting or hurtful, as even insults perceived as offensive such as nigger or cunt can be used affectionately in the right circumstances (Jay 2009a and Chapter 1 of this volume).

5.2.7 Humor and taboo word use The use of taboo words to entertain, delight, or amuse is a practice that is centuries old but some language scholars writing about taboo words ignore the connection between taboo words and humor (see Jay 1992). Mass media and scholarly research should more readily recognize that many uses of taboo words are humorous (Jay 2009b; Jay and Janschewitz 2007). Psychologists’ work on taboo words and humor include books by Goldstein and McGhee (1972), Chapman and Foote (1976, 1977), McGhee (1979), and a more recent integrative approach from Martin (2010, also see Roeckelein 2002). Taboo humor and dirty jokes are addressed in Chapter 19 of this volume. In a review of the literature, Wyer and Collins (1992) acknowledged the role of obscenity, slang, and vulgarity in humor elicitation, especially in sexual and scatological jokes, derogation, and sarcasm, so scholars need to look at taboo humor broadly. To give a complete picture of taboo word humor other scholarly approaches to taboo word use in jokes should be cited; for example Coser (1960) studied joking on a hospital ward and showed how status affects joke telling: jokes were told by higher status personnel to those lower in the hierarchy but not told up the hierarchy. Love and Deckers (1989) examined the relationship between sexist content in cartoons and their perceived funniness; they found that for women, as the sexist content increased, funniness ratings decreased; maybe this is because men were not the butt of the sexist humor. For men, the opposite was true; as the level of sexism increased, funniness ratings also increased. General statements about taboo humor and sex differences are not easy to make, however. Crawford’s research (Crawford 1989; Crawford and Gressley 1991) demonstrated how conversational context and gender stereotypes about humor challenge

84   Timothy B. Jay a misconception that women are a deviant and deficient group without wit or a sense of humor. Legman (1968, 1975) examined thousands of taboo jokes and their underlying social meaning. Topics included homosexuality, prostitution, disease, marriage, adultery, women, men, children, fools, animals, castration, cursing, and scatology. Legman noted both the personal and cultural meanings of taboo joke telling, which he summarized as: your favorite joke reveals your psychological values. Legman thought that taboo joke telling represented an exchange of hostilities disguised as an exchange of amenities. This is the ‘secret’ of joke telling: the joke reveals the joke teller’s personal values and other sources of tension in the culture at large. Long and Graesser (1988) developed a taxonomy of ten joke types and eleven types of wit. Their taxonomy outlined those forms most likely to employ taboo words. Sexual jokes can range from the suggestive to obscene. Scatological jokes make references to bodily functions and bodily products. Ethnic jokes disparage or derogate a person or a group of people, representing a level of prejudice. Hostile jokes attack people—​not social institutions or policies—​through sarcasm and insult. Jokes that are demeaning to men represent men as the derogatory targets of women. Jokes that are demeaning to women represent women as the derogatory targets of men. Sick jokes or black humor rely on topics such as death, disease, deformity, physical handicaps, and mental handicaps. Hostile wit victimizes individuals—​not social institutions or policies—​and it allows the speaker to chastise listeners. Examples of these joke types appear in Table 5.1. Other Table 5.1 Joke Types and Examples Type



Two girls are talking: ‘How did you make out on your date last night?’ ‘Lousy, I had a chance to fuck him, but blew it.’


Why do farts smell? For the deaf.


What is the difference between a canoe and a Jew? A canoe tips.


A man goes to a psychiatrist, who gives him a battery of tests. Then he announces his findings. ‘I’m sorry to have to tell you that you are hopelessly insane.’ ‘Hell,’ says the client indignantly, ‘I want a second opinion.’ ‘Okay,’ says the doctor, ‘You’re ugly too.’ At a fashionable dinner, a dignified lady rebuked Winston Churchill. ‘Sir, you are drunk.’ ‘Yes,’ Churchill replied, ‘and you are ugly. But tomorrow I shall be sober and you shall still be ugly.’


Male: What do I have to give you to get a kiss? Female: Chloroform. Q: Why did God make man before He made women? A: Because He didn’t want any advice on how to do it. A blind man enters a department store, picks up his dog by the tail and begins swinging it over his head. A clerk hurries over and says, ‘Can I help you sir?’ ‘No thanks,’ he replies, ‘I’m just looking around.’


(Long and Graesser 1988)

The Psychology of expressing and interpreting linguistic taboos    85 categories of wit such as satire, self-​deprecation, teasing, puns, or double entendres also use offensive words. Taboo humor occurs in various forms where humorous material is actively sent in the form of messages from one person to others as with cartoons, email, and graffiti. Years ago written humor was distributed in organizations as ‘photocopy humor’ (Preston and Preston 1981), where office workers made photocopies of cartoons, newspaper articles, or other printed humor and circulated them to co-​workers. Workers also distribute humor electronically through email. These forms of humor are common among in-​group members, but the jokes can represent a form of unwanted, discriminatory, or sexist humor amounting to sexual harassment. Taboo humor appears in the form of limericks and song. LaBarre (1939) made a psychodynamic analysis of offensive drinking songs, at that time usually sung by men. Baring-​Gould (1967) provided a brief but representative collection of hostile and sexual limericks. Later, Wheatley (1990) noted how women rugby players changed the sexually explicit lyrics of men-​originated rugby songs to fit the characteristics, concerns, and identities of female rugby players. Women’s taboo rugby songs are meant to challenge patriarchal ideology in social and sexual relations; they also create a discourse pointing toward dissolution of the boundaries between male and female activities and the broader social context. Why do people tell offensive jokes? According to McGhee (1979) the clever taboo joke allows for the release of sexual or hostile feelings or tensions and it will end up being funnier than a joke that is emotionally neutral. In the United States there is a vibrant culture of taboo adult joking and humor in the form of stand-​up comedy, comedy video and album sales, comedy clubs, and numerous comedies on television that employ taboo words. If joking releases tension, then listeners and viewers can find relief and positive effects of laughing at offensive jokes, one of the primary reasons for saying them in the first place (Chapman and Foote 1976, 1977; Zoglin 2008).

5.2.8 Coping with pain through swearing One repeated meme regarding taboo word use is: people swear when they experience pain, classically illustrated by a speaker’s reaction to a hammer striking his or her thumb. Richard Stephens and his colleagues (Stephens, Atkins, and Kingston 2009; Stephens and Umland 2011) created a laboratory model of taboo word use during pain using the cold pressor task which requires a participant to submerge his or her forearm and hand in a tank of ice cold water for a period of time. The question Stephens and colleagues addressed was whether participants could tolerate the painful ice water longer if they were allowed to say a taboo word during the submersion, relative to participants who did not say swear words. They found that swearing increased pain tolerance, particularly for participants with lower daily swearing frequencies. This suggests a cathartic effect for swearers in pain. In general, too few normative data have been collected for us to make definitive statements about the consequences of swearing in pain. The Stephens et al. research attributes

86   Timothy B. Jay the cathartic effect to physiological processes when the fight-​or-​flight reaction is activated by the limbic system. Another possibility is that the act of saying taboo words diverts the speaker’s attention from the painful stimulus. Note that the cold pressor task is longer in duration than a single blow with a hammer and constantly repeating the same taboo word is a task that requires the participant’s attention which could help attenuate some of the attention to the pain. Nonetheless swearing is intimately tied to the experience of pain.

5.3  Interpreting taboo expressions This section covers how we comprehend and then respond to taboo word expressions.

5.3.1 Connotation and denotation A standard approach to the question of semantic or lexical meaning is to look at the distinction between connotation and denotation. One interesting facet of taboo word use is the variation in their denotative versus connotative interpretations. Denotative meaning is the information typically given in a dictionary, the mental representation of a set of objects, characteristics, or events that a word refers to. The adjective shitty is interpreted denotatively when we understand that a baby’s diaper in need of a change. Connotative meaning is the affective or emotional representation commonly associated with the denotative meaning. Shitty is interpreted connotatively in I feel shitty today. Taboo words’ connotative meaning dominates denotative meaning and the taboo words are typically interpreted connotatively, not denotatively (Jay and Danks 1977). When we call someone a bastard we are not questioning the legitimacy of his or her birth but expressing our dislike of that person. How do taboo words affect our feelings about the objects or people so described? If the meaning of a taboo word is interpreted connotatively, the expression usually is one with a negative valence. Interpreted denotatively, the taboo expression should not make such a strong negative impression of the referent. Bill is shitty would usually express the speaker’s dislike for Bill or that Bill is bad tempered. However, if Bill is a one-​year-​old infant with diarrhea, then the expression is denotatively accurate. In either scenario, our impression of Bill will be different, depending on the semantic interpretation of the adjective shitty. With a connotative interpretation, the listener’s impression is less favorable than when denotation is used. An advantage to using taboo words to study comprehension processes is that the distinction between semantic usages can be made using the same word. We can use prenominal adjective ordering to study semantic meaning because prenominal adjective ordering is a function of denotative meaning. The adjectives that maintain much the same meaning regardless of the context tend to be preferred closer to the noun.

The Psychology of expressing and interpreting linguistic taboos    87 For example, the small red car is preferred to the red small car. Red denotes much the same color regardless of the object, but to understand small the listener needs to know whether it is modifying a person or a planet. Since taboo words can be used to denote specific properties of referents and to connote emotional overtones, taboo adjective ordering will affect semantic interpretation. Taboo adjectives create fairly consistent impressions. The interpretation of the ordering of taboo and non-​taboo adjectives can be derived from the semantic dimension of intrinsicalness. When the taboo adjective is closer to the noun (the sincere shitty person), the person is more of a shitty person than a sincere one, since the adjective closest to the person is most intrinsic to it. Shittiness would be more a part of the person’s personality than sincerity. When the person was evaluated, the meaning of shitty dominates the impression. With the reverse ordering (shitty sincere), the person would be evaluated more positively as a sincere person. Prenominal ordering not only preforms a discriminative function but influences emotional reactions too. When taboo words appear closer to the noun (the sincere shitty person) and are thus more intrinsic to it, they exert a negative influence on our interpretation relative to the case when taboo adjectives are ordered farther from the noun and are less intrinsic (the shitty sincere person). The first person description is interpreted as a shitty person but the latter is more sincere. Results from Jay (1981) indicated that connotation and denotation provide different impressions about people who are described with taboo words. Denotation has the effect of making impressions more favorable than connotation, but neither type of taboo word expression leads to impressions that are as favorable as positive non-​taboo expressions. We might think that all taboo adjectives provide less favorable impressions than non-​taboo adjectives; however, this is not so. People described as greedy or mean are liked less than those described with some taboo adjectives such as crappy or bastardly. At the level of individual words, we should question the distinction between taboo and non-​taboo categories because some non-​taboo descriptions create less favorable impressions than those with taboo words. Taboo word comprehension must be understood from a contextual or sociolinguistic point of view (Jay and Danks 1977; Jay 1992, 2000, 2003). Who is speaking and what they are talking about makes a big difference. The nature of the speaker–​listener relationship, the social and physical setting, the topic of discussion, and the intended meaning of the message must be considered before we comprehend what taboo words mean. When another person is described with taboo words (e.g., bitchy, shitty, slutty, pissy), the impression is generally negative or unfavorable. The degree of the unfavorableness depends on who is doing the describing. If your worst enemy describes another person, the target person is liked more than when your best friend utters the same description. Your enemy’s words are less valuable, credible, or believable than your friend’s words. A listener wants to disagree with his or her enemy, changing the enemy’s negative opinion to a less negative one. In the study by Jay (1981), participants read statements such as: ‘Your worst enemy (best friend) says: M. K. is a shitty, sincere person. How much would you like M. K.?’ Neutral speakers were presented as: ‘Another person says . . .’ Ratings were on a 1-​(not

88   Timothy B. Jay like at all) to-​6 (like very much) scale. Looking at the impact of enemy, friend, and neutral speaker messages Jay (1981) found that the enemy’s messages were rated more favorably than the friend’s or neutral speaker’s messages. Participants disliked the friend’s target of abuse more than the enemy’s and they provided less likable ratings as a result. But there was not a complete reversal with the enemy speakers, that is, they did not like his or her descriptions positively. As in previous prenominal taboo adjective ordering research (Jay and Danks 1977) the taboo/​non-​taboo prenominal ordering used in Jay (1981) created more favorable impressions than the non-​taboo/​taboo orderings. The point here is that how we interpret taboo word messages depends on who is talking and how they describe the person abused.

5.3.2 The perception of taboo word offensiveness Several studies have demonstrated that adults make accurate judgments regarding the relative offensiveness of a list of taboo words (Bergen 2016; Jay 1992). Native speakers through experience have learned that some words are more offensive than others; this perception allows them to compare one word to another on the basis of relative offensiveness or to generate numerical ratings on a one-​to-​nine scale on the basis of offensiveness. In a 1972 study (see Jay 1992) participants were asked to rate words based on how offensive they were to ‘a significant part of the population’ on a 1-​(not obscene at all) to-​9 (most obscene word imaginable) scale. The framing of the task was meant to tap general attitudes towards taboo words not college students’ personal attitudes. The top ten ratings from highest to lowest were: motherfucker, cocksucker, fuck, pussy, cunt, prick, cock, bastard, son of a bitch, and asshole. Jay (1992) also reported offensiveness ratings from a 1978 study where participants were asked to rate a set of taboo and non-​taboo words on a 1-​(not offensive at all) to-​9 (most offensive imaginable) scale. The top ten offensive words from highest to lowest were: motherfucker, cunt, cocksucker, cockteaser, fuck, blowjob, douchebag, cock, pussy, and prick. The correlation between the 1972 and 1978 ratings was quite strong (r = .92) indicating consistency in the perception of taboo words in terms of their offensiveness. A more recent set of ratings of word offensiveness was created by Janschewitz (2008), who measured a word’s inappropriateness in two ways, one from the point of view of the rater in terms of offensiveness, and a second in terms of how the rater perceived the inappropriateness or tabooness of the word to society at large. The semantic or emotional property is different from the personal reaction of the participant (Jay 1992) so separating judgments based on personal offensiveness from those based on social tabooness was necessary. Some raters acted as if they were not offended by anything and these types of reactions belied their judgments of words’ offensiveness to the general public (tabooness). Janschewitz asked participants to provide one-​to-​nine judgments of inappropriateness and found that taboo words were rated as more offensive than non-​taboo words in the study, as expected. Participants also provided tabooness ratings (M = 4.83) that were higher overall than the offensiveness ratings (M = 2.77).

The Psychology of expressing and interpreting linguistic taboos    89 These data indicated that word inappropriateness has dimensions based on both personal reactions as well as on society at large and that taboo words are judged as more offensive to the general public than they are judged to be offensive to the college student participants in the study. The top ten taboo words in terms of personal offensiveness from highest to lowest were: nigger, cunt, fag, cocksucker, chink, motherfucker, buttfuck, bitch, retard, and whore. The top ten words in terms of public tabooness from highest to lowest were: nigger, buttfuck, motherfucker, cocksucker, fuck, cunt, fag, chink, blowjob, and pussy. Offensiveness ratings spanning decades reveal the consistent effects of sexual and racist-​sexist semantics on taboo words’ negative interpretations. All taboo words are not equally offensive or taboo, a judgment of word differences that has been incorporated into mass media broadcast standards, legal decisions, and conduct codes for schools and for language standards at work (Jay 2009a).

5.3.3 Frequency judgments Numerous studies over the last thirty years have demonstrated that adult native speakers can make accurate judgments regarding how often taboo words are used in public. Researchers have been careful to frame the frequency of use questions in terms of how often the participants use each taboo word as well as how often they hear other people saying the taboo words. Jay (1992: 143) asked college students to rate a list of taboo and non-​taboo words on the basis of ‘everyday communication by college students’ using a 1-​(never heard at all) to-​9 (heard very frequently) scale. Overall the mean frequency rating for taboo words (M = 5.87) was higher than the mean frequency rating for non-​taboo words (M = 4.50). Ratings ranged from 8.57 (shit) to 2.63 (spic). Highest rated taboo words were shit, damn, goddamn, bullshit, hell, ass, fuck, Jesus Christ, and son of a bitch. A follow up study conducted several years later (Jay 1992: 148–​51) using a similar methodology ranked the most frequent words as: hell, shit, ass, asshole, bullshit, son of a bitch, damn, goddamn, Jesus Christ, bitch, fuck, and bastard. The goal of the frequency studies was to provide a picture of how often people think they hear taboo words. The reliability correlation between the data in these two studies was very high (r = .92), despite the fact that the studies were conducted several years apart (1972 and 1978) and in different geographic locations in the United States (Ohio and Massachusetts). The correlation between these frequency estimates and frequency data collected by recording taboo use in public (Jay 1992) was r = .58; this indicated a strong, valid relationship between participants’ perceptions and what is actually heard in public. An updated set of frequency of use ratings was reported by Janschewitz (2008) who demonstrated how different types of frequency ratings will be obtained depending on how the frequency of use question is framed. Janschewitz measured frequency on a 1-​to-​ 9 scale in terms of personal use, that is how often the rater used the words him-​or herself as well as in terms of familiarity or how often the rater estimated that the word was used

90   Timothy B. Jay in general. Janschewitz expected that personal use ratings would be lower than familiarity ratings due to demand characteristics of the experiment and due to participants’ desire to appear socially appropriate. As expected, raters provided higher familiarity ratings (M = 4.79) than personal use ratings (M = 3.64). Compared to the non-​taboo words used in the experiment, taboo words were rated lower in overall frequency than the non-​taboo word set. The top ten personal use words from highest to lowest: stupid, damn, dumb, pee, lame, shit, suck, ass, butt, and fuck. The top ten familiar words from highest to lowest were: shit, fuck, stupid, damn, bitch, ass, dumb, suck, boobs, and gay. Given the demand characteristics of the experiment, one can see that participants indicated that they hear offensive words more than they use them personally. It is important to consider how the frequency of use perception questions are framed in order to interpret the ratings as a function of an individual’s personal use versus their familiarity with the word’s use in general. Relative to non-​taboo word frequency estimates, taboo word estimates indicate that taboo word use is common and that taboo word use should be regarded as a normal language phenomenon not a rarity or oddity (Jay 1992, 2009b).

5.3.4 The perception of taboo words as fighting words Fighting words, according to American legal doctrine, are personally provocative insults that are spoken face-​to-​face, and that lead to immediate violence. As such, fighting word use can be punishable by law (see Greenawalt 1995). In the United States fighting words court cases are carried out on a state-​to-​state basis, as each state has its own historical standards for what constitute fighting words depending on the cases that have appeared in courts in that state. Very limited psychological research exists on fighting words judgments. Jay (2000) created a set of words and phrases used in previous verbal aggression research and asked a group of college students to judge their potential as fighting words (would cause the person to fight with the speaker). Participants were given the list of phrases and asked to rate them on a 1-​to-​5 scale on the basis of words that would ‘cause me to fight.’ The scale was: 1 = never cause fight; 3 = 50/​50 chance; 5 = would always cause me to fight. The top ten fighting word phrases from the 2000 study and ratings appear as: Just to teach you a lesson, I’m going to smash your motherfucking face in. (4.15) He might leave you alone but I’m going to beat the living shit out of you. (3.92) I’m going to kick your ass. (3.62) The reason you act so messed up is that your parents aren’t even married. (3.43) Correct your mistakes or I’m going to break this club over your goddamned head. (3.38) I’ll pulverize the hell out of you. (3.32) I’ll bet you work in a mortuary just so you can get a chance to screw those dumbass corpses. (3.25) Kissing the boss’s ass must get to be a drag for a brown-​nose shit like you (3.23) You goddamned stupid asshole, I bet you eat your own stupid shit. (3.21) You act like a motherfucking idiot with shit for brains. (3.20)

The Psychology of expressing and interpreting linguistic taboos    91 Notice that those expressions most likely to cause people to fight are phrases with threats, severe derogations with taboo words, or a stream of taboo words. This list of phrases makes it obvious that fighting words include some threat of violence or some type of strong derogation with taboo words. Importantly, only rarely in this study (Jay 2000) would a single taboo word result in a judgment that the word alone (cunt, pussy, motherfucker) would cause one to fight. It appears that the major determinant of the fighting words judgment is the perceived threat to the listener. It might be best to end this section with a comment about the relationship between taboo word use and violence: we have recorded over 10,000 episodes of adults and children using taboo words in public and have never seen a single one of these episodes escalate to violence (Jay 2009a, b); the overwhelming uses of taboo words in public are nonviolent.

5.3.5 The perception of taboos as sexual harassment Where to draw the line between acceptable workplace speech and unacceptable workplace speech is not entirely clear since each workplace evolves its own values and standards for what is considered acceptable for the average person. Workers enjoy the freedom to make jokes, tell stories, and use slang and jargon in the workplace but they cannot use speech which would be judged as sexual harassment (Jay 1992, 2000, 2003, 2009a). Most psychological studies of sexual harassment focus on physical coercion for sex and less so on harassing speech. Gervasio and Ruckdeschel (1992) reviewed the research on verbal sexual harassment and surveyed college students’ attitudes. They found that verbal sexual harassment can be differentiated from ‘inappropriate’ sexual remarks and, also, that men and women have different thresholds for judging speech as harassment. Men find inappropriate speech less harassing than do women. Other factors found to underlie harassment included judgments of appearance, obscene statements, and belittling gender-​related remarks. However, one could question whether their research adequately examined the subtleties of belittling and harassing remarks that rely on metaphorical or figurative speech. Jay (1992:  225–​33) designed a study to determine if sexualized figurative speech is perceived as harassing to women or men. Gervasio and Ruckdeschel (1992) used items based on figurative speech (e.g., she’s a sexual pit bull, you look hot), but they did not analyze these figures of speech in detail. Figurative speech is common, and presumably less obscene and less offensive than other speech but it has not been examined in sexual harassment research. In previous interpersonal speech research with figurative language (Jay 1992; Kövecses 1988), it was found that participants relied on different semantic features to categorize figurative speech as statements of lust versus love versus affection. Lust metaphors were predicated on references to heat, cheapness, games, sex, meat, wild animals, and beds. Love metaphors referred to unity, closeness, and the heart. Affection metaphors were based references to desserts, closeness, and domesticated animals. Figurative speech

92   Timothy B. Jay ranges from mildly offensive affectionate references (e.g., you are my sweetie) to more offensive, sexual lust references (e.g., we are hot in bed). Jay (1992) suggested that lust figures (e.g., heat, beds) are more likely to be perceived as sexual harassment than affectionate metaphors. Love metaphors (e.g., I gave you my heart) should fall between the lust and affection metaphors. Participants were given instructions designed to parallel a speech context in the real world (i.e., a member of the opposite sex uttering the phrases to them). They were first asked to rate each sentence on an offensiveness scale of 1 to 5, with 1 meaning ‘not offensive at all to me’ and 5 meaning ‘extremely offensive’. After completing the first task, they were asked to rate each sentence on a harassment scale of 1 to 5, with 1 as ‘not harassing at all’ and 5 as ‘extremely harassing to me’. Participants were told to imagine their employer, who was the opposite sex, making the comments to them at work. For women, their harassment ratings ranged from 4.83 (you are a tramp) to 1.70 (you are as precious as gold) with a mean of 4.38 for the top forty items. For men, ratings ranged from 3.79 (you are a tramp) to a low of 1.61 (you had a tenderness in your heart) with a mean of 3.13 for the top forty items. Every one of the women’s highest forty items was rated as significantly more harassing when matched with men’s ratings of the same item. As a group, women felt more harassed by these items than did men. These ratings confirmed previous research indicating that women feel more harassed by offensive speech than do men. Looking at the semantics of sexual harassment, the harassing comments were based on lust references to sex, cheapness, games, heat, meat, bed, and wild animals as opposed to figures based on love or affection metaphors. What constitutes offensiveness in speech is not necessarily the same as the basis of harassment; also men and women experience offensive speech differently. Men tend to be less offended and less harassed than women by the same figurative speech; women had a lower threshold for both judgments with the figures used here. Suggestive figurative speech is a potential source of verbal sexual harassment in the workplace. Therefore, notions of verbal sexual harassment can be expanded to include non-​taboo and nonliteral metaphorical or figurative speech, as well as ambiguous conversations that include requests for sexual favors as more recent research suggests. Keyton and Menzie (2007) examined the ways in which language features of conversations contributed to the perception of verbal sexual harassment. While Keyton and Menzie noted that there are no absolute standards against which verbal behavior can be judged as sexual harassment, there are identifiable features of conversations that underpin judgments of verbal sexual harassment. Verbal sexual harassment judgments can be based on: requests for personal relationships outside of the workplace that are unwanted by the listener, sexualized content referencing body parts, physical, sexual, or intimate closeness, the perception of the speaker’s presumed power over the subordinate, and messages with multiple meanings including sexual references. While absolute judgments about verbal sexual harassment cannot be made, verbal sexual harassment judgments do have identifiable bases for decisions based on the qualities outlined by Keyton and Menzie.

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5.3.6 Pragmatic variables affect taboo word judgments How do contextual variables such as speaker–​listener relationship, topic of discussion, physical location, and social setting affect taboo word judgments? Jay (1992, 2000) demonstrated that native speakers have the ability to make appropriateness judgments about when and where taboo words are appropriate. Participants were asked to determine the likelihood and offensiveness of taboo expressions based on contextual variables: speaker status, physical location, and a speaker’s ownership of a location which is his/​her ‘turf ’. Participants judged written combinations of speakers, taboo words, and locations (e.g., the dean said ‘hell’ in the parking lot), judging on a scale of 0 to 100 how likely these combinations were to occur. Participants also judged the same set of materials and made offensiveness judgments on an offensiveness scale of 0 to 100. The results were very orderly and meaningful: native speakers can judge the appropriateness of taboo words based on salient contextual information. When changes are made with regard to speaker, location, or expression, these changes affect judgments of likelihood and offensiveness. Speakers with high status (e.g., a college dean) are perceived as less likely to use taboo words and are considered more offensive when they do compared to lower status speakers (e.g., college students). Offensiveness judgments are positively related to how taboo the word was—​the more taboo a word is generally, the more offensive it is when spoken. Likelihood judgments are strongly negatively related to tabooness—​words that are more taboo are less likely to be spoken. Offensiveness and likelihood also depend on location of the speech. Speakers were judged more likely to use taboo words on their own ‘turf ’, and they are judged to be less offensive when they do. Evaluating speech appropriateness as a function of context provides a valid measure of how likely taboo words are used in public. Native speakers use taboo words if the social and physical context is right. Native speakers will adjust their speech content according to salient contextual conditions in order to avoid punishment and gain social acceptance. Native speakers can accurately judge the appropriateness of taboo word use as a function of pragmatic contextual variables but are non-​native speakers equally aware of how context influences taboo word appropriateness? Jay and Janschewitz (2008) tested the effects of English language experience and gender on ratings of offensiveness and likelihood of use of taboo words in different social and speaker contexts. This was a replication and extension of Jay (1992), which manipulated speaker, location, and word in hypothetical scenarios involving taboo words. As in Jay (1992), an inverse relationship between offensiveness and likelihood was expected, and ratings were expected to depend on contextual variables, with the highest offensiveness and lowest likelihood ratings pertaining to high status speakers who used highly offensive taboo words in campus locations that were not considered their turf (Jay 1992, 2000). Native English speakers were expected to have a more context-​dependent sense of appropriateness than non-​native English speakers, reflected by greater variability in offensiveness and likelihood ratings relative to non-​native speakers. Non-​native speakers’ degree of

94   Timothy B. Jay English experience was accordingly expected to influence their overall estimates of likelihood and offensiveness. Jay and Janschewitz also expected lower offensiveness ratings from non-​native speakers based on non-​natives’ taboo word judgments from Dewaele (2004b) and from research by research by Harris, Ayçiçegi, and Gleason (2003) which found lower physiological responses to taboo words from non-​native English speakers with less English language experience. Jay and Janschewitz (2008) asked native and non-​native speakers to rate sentences in which pragmatic variables were combined and varied in hypothetical scenarios: speaker status (dean, student, janitor), location (dean’s office, dorm room, parking lot), and tabooness of a word (high, medium, low). All combinations of these variables were presented twice, once in a questionnaire measuring the offensiveness of the scenario and once in a questionnaire measuring the likelihood of the scenario. Ratings were made on 1-​to-​7 scales where 1 meant low offensiveness or likelihood, and 7 meant high offensiveness or likelihood. Speakers and locations were chosen to be familiar to participants. Taboo words high in tabooness were cocksucker, cunt, and fuck. Moderate-​tabooness words were bastard, goddamn, and piss. Low taboo words were crap, hell, and idiot. An example scenario was: How likely would it be to hear a dean say ‘idiot’ in a dorm room? Results supported the prediction that native English speakers would show more variability in ratings than non-​native speakers. Significant interactions were obtained between English experience and speaker and English experience and tabooness for offensiveness ratings, and between tabooness and English experience for likelihood ratings. In each case, the range between the highest and lowest average rating was larger for native than non-​native speakers. The results confirmed that native English speakers are more responsive to the influence of contextual variables in swearing scenarios than non-​ natives, which suggests that greater English experience is associated with higher sensitivity to the nuances of situational determinants of swearing. With more experience, each scenario can be evaluated on its own unique merits, the composite of speaker–​ listener relationship, physical setting, and individual word used. All speakers with sufficient experience evolve a folk knowledge surrounding appropriateness of taboo word use: first that there are good and bad words, then that some words are worse than others, and finally that some bad words cannot be used in some contexts (Jay 2009b).

5.4 Conclusion The study of taboo word use is fascinating and one that all competent speakers of a language can appreciate at some level; however, the psychological and sociolinguistic variables that affect taboo word production and comprehension are more complex than the average person realizes. Rather than making universal statements about why people use taboo words or what taboo words mean to people who hear them, scholarly work on taboo word use must describe the phenomenon as one highly dependent on context and then proceed to elucidate how contextual variables affect production and

The Psychology of expressing and interpreting linguistic taboos    95 comprehension. Research on taboo word expression and comprehension must take into account how context affects what we say and hear. This chapter sampled several areas of research that can be used to elucidate the conditions that give rise to taboo word use and those that affect comprehension processes. It is this type of holistic contextual approach to taboo word use that will advance scholarship on taboo words and our understanding of them. Whether a unified theory will emerge from research in neurology, linguistics, psychology, sociolinguistics, anthropology, and pragmatics is questionable as scholars in these different disciplines do not often cross-​pollinate each other’s work. Fortunately more compilations like the present volume will help in the cross-​disciplinary understanding of taboo word use. The research described in this chapter is empirically driven and the attempt here was to describe taboo word phenomena before explaining in detail why the phenomena happen. Rather than being exhaustive, the topics sampled here were those with enough research history behind them to describe why people say taboo words and describe what people perceive when they hear them. A successful theory of taboo word use will emerge after both descriptive and explanatory stages have been successfully accomplished. Studies based on brain imaging and physiological aspects of taboo word processing hold some promise for future explanations of taboo word use especially in the pre-​vocal stage of speech production where motivational and intentional factors arise (see Bergen 2016; Jay 2003). Unfortunately not enough is yet known about how the brain produces taboo word expressions to make summary statements. Fortunately this leaves room for a future of neuroscience research to answer questions about swearing; for example, do taboo words harm people and if so what is the nature of the harm? How does the bilingual brain represent swear words in two languages? Why does a motor tic disorder such as Tourette syndrome produce uncontrollable swearing? Why does damage to the frontal lobe or to language areas in the left hemisphere result in frequent bouts of swearing? How do children develop higher arousal to taboo words than non-​taboo words? There are plenty of questions like these to be answered by language scholars in the future. After the author’s forty-​five years of research on taboo word use, it still seems like a new understanding of them is just around the corner.

Chapter 6

Tab o o l a ng uag e awareness i n e a rly childh o od timothy b. jay

6.1 Overview One reality regarding the human condition is that children start saying taboo words from the moment they learn to speak. Unfortunately, there has been little social science research on this phenomenon. Our knowledge regarding what children think about the taboo words they use has been obscured by this paucity of research and also by methodological and ethical problems surrounding studying children’s offensive language. Consider this:  how can we question two-​year-​old children about words such as fuck or cunt without somehow affecting their views of these words? Until language scholars can explain how and why children say taboo words, our account of human language acquisition will remain incomplete. Observing and describing how children swear is a starting point for establishing children’s awareness of taboo words. The second phase of taboo word awareness research involves interviewing children, asking them questions about the taboo words that they know and say. This chapter focuses primarily on the first phase of awareness research, on what words children of different ages say and how the taboo lexicon changes with age. Another study asking children to make word ‘badness’ judgments addresses the second phase of research and provides some insight into their awareness of taboo word meanings. From these data presented here we can speculate about why children say the offensive taboo words they do and what those words mean to them. We start with a look at how infants learn to express their emotions.

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6.2  From screaming to swearing Swearing is the use of offensive emotional language to vent our feelings and convey them to other people. Learning to use taboo words and one’s broader sociocultural awareness of them emerges through a series of stages (Jay 2003). The infantile preverbal foundation of childhood swearing originates with primitive nonverbal emotional expressions. At the end of the sequence adolescents and adults are able to use taboo words figuratively in ways that are detached from deeply felt nonverbal emotions. Infants, however, are unable to do this. Some of adults’ taboo expressions are so emotionally detached from deep emotions that they can be interpreted as innocuous, non-​emotional expressions that employ taboo words but are not meant to offend at all, saying for example, This music is fucking great. It will take some time and experience for children to talk like this. The following is a description of how the sequence unfolds. Initially infants produce emotional expressions in reaction to conditions in the physical world (Jay 2003). Their expressions form a progressive sequence that begins with motor physical outbursts (hitting, biting, tantrums); after that, oral physical expressions appear (screaming, yelling, laughing, refusing). Next to emerge are symbolic emotional expressions in the form of offensive taboo words (slurs, curses, insults, name-​calling), and finally the sequence ends in late childhood with the production of nuanced, figurative emotional speech (lies, euphemisms, sarcasm, hyperbole). Young children’s expressions are not like this; they are honest and direct. As the sequence unfolds, children replace physical reactions with verbal-​symbolic ones and achieve, finally, the most abstract and cognitively complex forms of emotional response that veil their primitive physical emotional feelings with indirect figurative speech like sarcastic irony. Sarcasm on its surface offers speech that represents the opposite of the felt emotion. Older children and adults end up with the ability to use figurative speech in a manner that hides or veils their true feelings. An example of this mature ability would be saying I love you so-​o-​o much when what is really felt should come out more honestly as I hate you! or fuck you! Young children do not understand sarcasm and they do not produce sarcastic or ironic statements until around age eight years (Jay 2003). While sarcastic irony hides the feelings that initiate it, swearing in anger closely represents the emotion that initiates it. Anger is the one emotion that most frequently gives birth to swearing for both children and adults (Jay 1992). Montagu (1968) traced the roots of swearing to the child’s discomfort and frustration that causes them to learn conventionalized ways to express anger depending on how their parents responded positively and negatively to their needs and word use. Florence Goodenough (1931) goes a step further than Montagu when she asked parents to monitor and record their children throughout the day. Goodenough documented how children’s verbal forms of anger emerge as substitutes for overt motor expressions of anger when children were tired, ill, hungry, or sleepy. During this early phase of anger expression between the ages

98   Timothy B. Jay of two and four years, children have the opportunity to hear the name-​calling, scatology, and epithets that parents use. Anger control and expression becomes the source of early taboo word use for children. The progression from physical to spoken expressions of anger forms the child’s foundation for using taboo words rather than biting and hitting others when angry. Verbal refusals—​with or without motor behaviors—​ appeared at the age of two years and these refusals increased steadily through age four. Threats appeared at age two and three years and increased through age four years. Calling names appeared between ages of two and three and increased in frequency through age four. Arguing and insisting appeared first at the age of three years and increased in frequency through age four. With advancing age, verbal forms of anger became directed toward a given goal, as physical bodily reactions were replaced by symbolic forms of anger. Verbal forms appear after physical forms and verbal forms increase in frequency from age two through age four. Maturity and childrearing practices will teach the child to replace physical forms of anger that injure the body of others with verbal forms of retaliation directed mainly to hurt the feelings of others, not hurt them physically. What Goodenough described should be regarded as normal emotional development. Linking anger research to the current swearing literature, children’s acquisition of a taboo lexicon must be viewed as a normal language phenomenon that occurs in the context of normal emotional and sociocultural development (see Jay 2000, 2017; Jay and Jay 2015). A young child’s sociocultural understanding or folk psychology of taboo word use is similar to the situation where a non-​native speaker is learning how to swear in a second language (Jay 2009b; Jay and Janschewitz 2008). First the child or non-​native speaker learns that most words are good words but there are some words that are bad (should not be repeated in the home or in public). Next they learn that some bad words are more offensive than others (shit is more offensive than poop). Later on they learn contextual constraints on taboo words such as where not to say them (school) and who not to say them to (elders, teachers, parents). All competent native speakers learn this etiquette of taboo word use; whether children or adults actually use taboo words or not depends on their psychological and cultural makeup (Jay 2000). Childhood swearing as such is not rare and I  note this emphatically in order to counter claims that swearing is unnatural, a bad habit, or not normal language (see Jay 2009b). Previous research on child development also suggests that—​because it reflects a routine part of linguistic competence—​children’s knowledge of taboo words is normal (see Harrison and Hinshaw 1968; Heins 2001). At the same time it is also clear that child swearing can be problematic for parents and caregivers in terms of its social consequences (Berges et al. 1983; Jay 1992; Jay et al. 2006). In contrast, rarely advanced, is the notion that many uses of taboo words are innocuous or even beneficial (see Jay 2009a, 2009b; Jay and Janschewitz 2007). Unfortunately, at this point too few normative data have been collected for us to make definitive statements about the consequences of swearing for children. The examination of much more data from multiple contexts is necessary to substantiate the consequences of swearing in both children and adults as the remainder of the chapter suggests.

Taboo language awareness in early childhood    99

6.3  The emerging lexicon We start to answer the question about what children know about swearing by observing them when they use taboo words. One of the most striking examples from my data on swearing acquisition as a normative language phenomenon can be seen in the rapid growth in the taboo lexicon size between one and four years of age (as reported in Jay 1992). During this time period boys’ taboo vocabularies grew from a vocabulary of six to thirty-​four words, and girls’ taboo vocabularies grew from eight to forty words. This growth in taboo words use is not an oddity but is co-​emergent with a general word spurt, occurring around two years (Nelson 1973). Children are learning new taboo words because they are learning more words, generally speaking. A parent of young children would not be surprised to hear that at an individual word level, one-​and two-​year-​olds use offensive words (e.g., shit, fuck) that are common in adult speech along with words that are more characteristic of infants’ concerns about body parts and products (e.g., poop, piss). Why the child’s focus on scatological terms? Wolfenstein (1954) proposed that a primary source of infants’ and young children’s taboo word use was derived from the tensions associated with toilet training. Therefore mildly taboo scatological words such as pee pee, do do, and poop, or poophead are used both to amuse and incite their age-​mates and caregivers. Adults do not generally use these kinds of scatological references with other adults but young children say them to adults and other children. Mechling (1984) conducted an analysis of scatological and sexual words used at a Boy Scout camp. He showed that young children’s focus on the toilet training-​related words continues into later childhood. Mechling reported that many of these scatological terms he recorded were used to describe food: shit on a shingle, shit on snow (when rice is used); chocolate pudding was called scoots which was also used in reference to feces-​ stained underwear. Oatmeal oddly enough was linked to the scrotum which resulted in scroatmeal. Mountain doo was a term used to refer to diarrhea as was the term Hershey squirts (from Hershey’s chocolates). The extent of the taboo lexicon of the three-​to four-​year-​old is impressive; children at these ages are learning name-​calling and psychosocial insults, abusive language, common profanities, scatological language, and gender-​related insults. The growth in the taboo lexicon levels off a bit later at about the time children enter elementary school in the United States. The leveling off is a function of parenting pressures combined with school speech codes that punish students’ offensive language. This is the time, when entering school, that children are under the view of other teachers and adults, a time when American parents worry that their children’s speech reflects home parenting practices and language values. There are only a few additional published studies that document the emergence of the taboo lexicon throughout childhood. A study of children’s use of taboo words in the 1980s (see Jay 1992) revealed one-​to two-​year-​olds using taboo words. At this age,

100   Timothy B. Jay children will repeat offensive words without understanding what they mean to adults. Name-​calling or insulting is another reason for swearing as was demonstrated in research by Winslow (1969). Winslow reported that the children he recorded insulting each other often used taboo terms as insults, names, and ethnic slurs which focused on physical appearances and peculiarities (Bubble Butt, Fatso), others’ names (Jerry-​ Fairy), mental traits (Dopey, Jerky), and social relationships (Chickenshit, Faggot, Bully, Blabbermouth). Winslow believed that these kinds of derogatory insults reflected the perceptions, anxieties, norms, and put-​downs that were pertinent to the children who said them to other children. Children also use taboo language when they talk about taboo topics in the stories they tell. Research indicates that five-​to ten-​year-​old children use sexual terms in their narrative stories; Sutton-​Smith and Abrams (1978) reported that young children told stories that focused on scatology and self-​exposure, whereas older children’s narratives involved more sexual themes incorporating taboo sex. Children younger than seven told stories that included shitting, pants down, naked girls, pee fights, biting wieners, pinching asses, and fucking. Children of eight years and older made references to having a boner, farting, tits, being horny, having babies, cunts, eating shit, whores, vaginas, and incest (Sutton-​Smith and Abrams 1978: 524). Precisely what young children knew about the semantics of the words they used in stories in not known but, as Sutton-​Smith and Abrams’s (1978) data indicate, children’s taboo word use changes over time before an adult-​like knowledge of taboo topics appears, a knowledge based on how adults view the world. Children’s use of—​and comprehension of—​taboo language parallels the development of communication about emotions. As children develop, their awareness and production of emotional language, evaluative judgments, and linguistic politeness increases with development (Arunachalam et al. 2001; Peterson and Biggs 2001; Ridgeway et al. 1985). Children use less offensive taboo words at younger ages and more offensive language as they get older. The trend occurs in part because parents are less likely to use extremely offensive words around young children and because young children lack the social awareness needed to make nuanced distinctions with taboo words related to politics, race, or social class. Jay (1992) noted that infantile insults recorded from children between ages three and eight years were not used by older children. Instead, adolescents and adults produce insults evidencing greater awareness of social, political, and economic issues, for example, using words such as dickteaser, chauvinist, wolf, slut, libber, skinhead, or dyke (see Eble 1996; Holland and Skinner 1987; Jay 2003). Young children do not often use words like these that reflect adults’ greater social awareness. A common finding in the literature about the frequency of taboo language use in adults is that men outswear women in public (Jay 1992, 2000, 2009b; McEnery 2006; Mehl and Pennebaker 2003). When does this gender difference start to emerge? Unfortunately, scant research exists to elucidate how gender influences children’s swearing. In the 1980s Jay (reported in Jay 1992) recorded more boys uttering taboo words than girls, and with the exception of three-​to four-​year-​olds, boys produced a larger lexicon of taboo words than girls. Others have found similar results; for example, in a cross-​cultural study of

Taboo language awareness in early childhood    101 gender differences of three-​to eleven-​year-​olds in six different cultures, Whiting and Edwards (1973) found that in all six cultures younger and older boys produced more insults than girls, with the exception of one group of New England seven-​to eleven-​year-​ old girls, who produced more insults than their male peers. Gender differences in swearing evolve as children acquire gender-​based communication practices through social interaction. Thorne (1993) reported on gender differences that unfold when boys and girls play where a sense of ‘us versus them’ arises. Boys and girls insulted their same-​gender peers for nonconformity and they insulted cross-​ gender peers for being different. School children routinely engage in teasing, threats, gender-​related insults, racist slurs, and name-​calling. In this case, the ‘us versus them’ mentality gives rise to gender conformity within a group and insults levied against those who do not follow the norm. More recently Jay and Jay (2013) recorded taboo word use by children from one to twelve years of age. Their results showed that more taboo utterances were recorded from boys in age ranges five to six years, seven to eight years, and eleven to twelve years. In the three-​to four-​year-​old age range, girls produced significantly more utterances than boys, a result which has been found before (Stenström 2006; Whiting and Edwards 1973). Jay and Jay (2013) found no overall gender difference in lexicon size. Analyses by gender within age groups showed a significant gender difference for lexicon size only at ages seven to eight, with boys drawing from a larger lexicon than girls. The amount of the overall child lexicon shared by boys and girls was 58%. By age range, the overlap was 8% (age one to two years), 45% (three to four years), 31% (five to six years), 30% (seven to eight years), 30% (nine to ten years), and 38% (eleven to twelve years). These percentages show a lot of variability in boys’ and girls’ taboo word uses because boys and girls are drawing from different taboo lexica. For all children, their most frequent ten words accounted for 53% of the data; like adults’ swearing, children’s swearing primarily relies on a few words that are repeated often. The top three most frequent children’s taboo words, fuck, shit, and (oh my) god, accounted for 27% of the data. The lexica for boys and girls overlapped somewhat, but both boys’ and girls’ most frequent words differed depending on age range (Jay and Jay 2013). Children’s swearing data by age range also indicated that, with age, the child swearing lexicon shifted to become more adult-​like. Whereas some taboo words and insults were common across all age ranges (shit, stupid), others appeared only in the lexica of younger children (chicken, poop) or older children (motherfucker, slut). The children’s frequency data were generally positively correlated with adult frequency data but the strength of the correlation depended on child age group. Eleven-​to twelve-​year olds’ data were more strongly correlated with adults’ data than were nine-​ to ten-​year-​olds’ data or seven-​to eight-​year-​olds’ data. Younger age groups tended to share few words with adults and did not show significant correlations with adults based on word frequency. The oldest children had more words in common with adults than did younger children but they only showed 40% overlap with adult lexica, indicating that there were obvious differences between the way that older children and adults use taboo words.

102   Timothy B. Jay

6.4  The emerging awareness Once we understand how children’s taboo lexica emerge over time, we can approach the question of what these taboo words mean to the children who use them. Unfortunately, we know more about what children say than we do about what they know because very little research has been done to determine what taboo words mean to young children. We know that children say taboo words but we know little about what these taboo words mean to children in terms of the words’ connotative (emotional) and denotative (literal) meanings. In order to address the question of whether children have the same perception of taboo language as do adults, Jay and Jay (2013) asked parents or caregivers and their children to make subjective ratings of the ‘badness’ of taboo words. Ratings from younger children were then compared with those of older children and adults to document developmental changes in the perception of the offensiveness of specific words. The study’s results describe the awareness of taboo words in childhood and into adulthood. These findings represent the kinds of data that can begin to address the nature of taboo word awareness. Jay and Jay (2013) created a list of thirty-​eight words, half ‘good’ words and half ‘bad’ words. Bad words came from a list of taboo words spoken in public by seven-​to nine-​ year-​olds (from Jay 1992). Good words were selected from a list of commonly spoken words by seven-​to nine-​year-​olds (Hall et al. 1984). Each child (six-​to twelve-​year-​olds) and his or her caregiver was read the list of words and asked to say out loud whether a word was a good word that could be used in their home or a bad word that was not used in their home. Parents or caregivers and children were interviewed separately. Some children said they did not know the meaning of some of the taboo words. The words that some children said they did not know were noted and they provided additional insight into children’s awareness of taboo words. Of the forty-​two children tested, six reported not knowing one or more of four words from the entire list: fag (four ‘don’t know’), queer (four ‘don’t know’), piss (three ‘don’t know’), and bitch (one ‘don’t know’). It is informative to examine the cases where adults and children disagree about what constitutes a good or bad word. Several words were evaluated as bad by a significantly greater percentage of children than adults: crap, damn, dork, fart, hell, stupid, suck, and wimp. Judgments of Jesus Christ and pig also trended in this direction. This list of bad words was perceived differently, as less bad, by adults than children. In other words the children found mild taboo words to be more offensive than adults did. It is also informative to look at disagreements between younger and older children. Younger children (six-​to eight-​year-​olds) and older children (nine-​to twelve-​year-​olds) differed slightly in their evaluations. A greater percentage of the older children evaluated down as a good word than did younger children and a greater percentage of older children evaluated balls as a bad word than did younger children. A greater percentage

Taboo language awareness in early childhood    103 of younger children evaluated dork as a bad word than did older children. It seems very likely that more young children are insulted by the word dork than older children. What have we learned? Collectively the Jay and Jay (2013) data show that adults and children, even from the same home, have differing awareness of what is taboo speech. Adults were more liberal with their evaluation of mild taboos than children were. But the definition of a mild taboo is something that researchers have interpreted according to adult standards. Importantly, young children do not show the same pattern of word evaluations as adults. There were fewer disagreements between adults and older children demonstrating that taboo language values become more adult-​like with age. Likewise the older children were more conservative than younger children toward the sexually loaded taboo word, balls. Younger children are probably not aware of how offensive words are because they have not yet acquired adult-​like emotional communication practices, as demonstrated in research on the use of emotion terms, evaluative judgments, and linguistic politeness (Arunachalam et al. 2001; Peterson and Biggs 2001; Ridgeway et al. 1985). The question of what taboo words mean to children demands additional research. What we know from the Jay and Jay (2013) study is that by the age of six years most children have learned something about the social norms surrounding taboo words. There were only a few cases where children reported not knowing the meanings of the taboo words in the study. Future studies can meaningfully contribute to our understanding of the emergence of taboo awareness by sampling younger one-​to five-​year-​old children, in addition to documenting their social home environment; including contributing factors such as their family’s level of religiosity and media-​use habits associated with swearing.

6.5 Discussion Previous research on children’s use of taboo speech is heavily weighted toward research based on children’s production of taboo words and much less so on research regarding their comprehension and knowledge of the meanings of the taboo words they say. Toddlers say taboo words as soon as they begin speaking and their taboo lexicon expands rapidly between one to two years and three to four years; their lexicon size increases from thirteen to fifty-​one types of taboo words or phrases as indicated by the Jay and Jay (2013) data. By the time children go to school (five to six years), they have a forty-​two-​word taboo vocabulary. In all, these data showed that even young children have experience with and knowledge of taboo words. Consistent with this statement, as early as six years of age, children are capable of making word badness ratings, providing evidence of a word’s appropriateness. Children’s swearing is similar to adults’ in the respect that a limited number of words, which are repeated often, account for the majority of episodes of swearing. Importantly,

104   Timothy B. Jay although children and adults may use the same words (e.g., baby, dork) children may attribute more emotional force to the taboo words that are used to insult them. Children but not adults are more likely to use baby as an insult. Therefore, the same word recorded in the speech of children and adults may have different interpretations. In the case of the word baby, it can be included as a part of the child’s taboo lexicon but not the adults’. There is then a methodological problem of attributing an ambiguous word to the taboo lexicon unless its intention and context are known. A word such as baby has to be used as an insult to be counted as a taboo word. In other words, adults and children will use taboo words differently—​as indicated by the finding that adult word frequency data were best correlated with frequency data from older, not younger, children (Jay and Jay 2013). Adults and children, especially young children, viewed taboo words differently in terms of their appropriateness. Young children and adults also exhibited differences in evaluation of mild taboo words; specifically, children found mild taboo words more offensive than adults did. Young children in the badness study disagreed more with adults than did older children about what was ‘bad’ or inappropriate. The finding that younger and older children disagree about the inappropriateness of specific words means that children at different ages have different views of taboo words’ meanings because they have different knowledge about sexuality, gender identity, and social status. Future studies of the development of a swearing vocabulary need to account for the development of complex cognitive processes and knowledge structures. Consistent with previous research (Jay 1992, 2000, 2009b; McEnery 2006; Mehl and Pennebaker 2003), children exhibit gender differences in frequency similar to adults with boys and men being recorded swearing more frequently than girls and women. Gender differences in children’s taboo word use are most obvious as they age (generally over five years old); this suggests that the transition to school is when adult-​like gendered habits of emotional expression become salient. More observational data clarifying the time of the emergence of adult-​like gender patterns in swearing will be necessary to evaluate this argument. We also need more focused research on the nature of the home versus school environments that give rise to children’s swearing and linked to meaningful speaker variables such as religion, ethnicity, employment, and education.

6.6  Limitations of research with children Studying taboo language practices such as swearing has been itself a taboo topic for language scholars until recently. Swearing research now has become a legitimate scholarly pursuit (see Jay 1992, 2000; Jay and Jay 2015). Most of the existent scholarly research has been based on adult samples and much less is known about children’s use of taboo

Taboo language awareness in early childhood    105 words. Exactly how young children understand the words they say, or the words they know but do not say, is yet to be determined. The most puzzling and the most understudied aspect of swearing is accounting for how children learn to swear in their first few years of life (Jay 2003). This knowledge gap leaves open for future research a lot of unanswered questions: How do children learn to attach taboo words to their feelings and what do these words mean to the children who say them? We know that adults hear children saying taboo words but do those adults hear what the child means? Seven-​year-​old boys say the words fag and homo but do they understand the social and psychological implications of these words the way an adult understands them? Most likely the children do not but we need to figure out exactly what children do know. One problematic ethical and methodological issue resides in how to interview two or three-​year-​old children in regards to what they know about taboo words. How can a researcher interview toddler without somehow influencing their lexical knowledge or making their caregivers suspicious? Consider what kinds of parents would grant permission for asking their two or three-​year-​olds about obscene words. Some parents would not participate in such a study on moral or religious grounds, resulting in a biased sample of children. Nevertheless we need to know what moralistic and religious families feel about taboo words. How do you ask those youngsters who participate if they understand what fuck and shit mean? Could the child be honest or candid with an adult researcher about what these kinds of words mean? Would the process of interviewing a child about what fuck or shit meant to them affect them emotionally or at least make the parents suspicious of such a study in the first place? These kinds of ethical problems associated with offensive language research have created a paucity of knowledge about what children think about taboo words; but we are not entirely without a clue as to what taboo words mean to children because we have been able to listen to children swearing at different ages and make inferences about what they know about the taboo words they say (Jay and Jay 2013).

6.7  Future research Research on parent–​child ‘bad word’ judgments has merely opened the door to much more research on how parents and their children develop language values. The issue of consistency in parent and child taboo word awareness deserves further study because it can provide insight into how children learn what words are inappropriate. To gain this insight we need to sample a larger, more diverse pool of adults and children to provide a more complete analysis of parent–​child or caregiver–​child gender interactions. We might predict that children will agree more with their mothers’ values than their fathers’ because mothers do a greater percentage of childrearing chores (see Finley et al. 2008; Maccoby 1998). Also, mothers have been found to play a more significant role than fathers in controlling children’s use of taboo words in the home (Jay et al. 2006). Most

106   Timothy B. Jay caregivers have rules restricting young children’s swearing at home (Jay et al. 2006), although adults have different childrearing standards depending on the gender of their children (Adams et al. 1995; Gleason 1987; Jay et al. 2006; Maccoby 1998). Childrearing practices that affect swearing need further study. Relatedly, developmental differences between boys and girls might also contribute to gender differences in swearing changes throughout childhood. School-​aged children develop different strategies to communicate with their peers; for example, research indicates that girls are more sensitive than boys to the social impact of swearing on their peers, while boys tend to be more self-​centered and less socially oriented (Bird and Harris 1990). Children who are sensitive to the impact of swearing on their peers should be more reluctant to use insulting language than children who are more self-​directed. More research relating swearing behavior to phases of children’s social and cognitive awareness is clearly necessary. Although previous studies have shown that children use and can evaluate taboo words, we know little about the extent of children’s semantic or pragmatic knowledge. Fluent adult speakers know the etiquette of swearing and are sensitive to contextual or pragmatic variables (e.g., gender, age, ethnicity, social status or occupation of listener, social occasion, and physical location) that constrain taboo word use (Jay and Janschewitz 2008; Locher and Watts 2005; Thomas 1983; Wells 1989). One way to address this question would be to measure in children the physiological responses and brain activity associated with taboo words that has been evidenced by adults (e.g., Jay et al. 2005). We know virtually nothing about how children’s brains process taboo words. We also know very little about the learning mechanism: Can we demonstrate that the emotional meaning of a taboo word arises through a process of classical conditioning (see Jay 2003, 2009b)? We should consider studying how people learn to swear in non-​native languages, so that the learning strategies can be compared to those used in learning to swear in a native language (L1). If language researchers are able to answer questions in the context of L1, they can extend these analyses to the acquisition of non-​native (L2) swearing (see Dewaele 2010 and Chapter 12, this volume). Questions to be addressed include: How is swearing competence in L2 related to competence in L1? What are the universal and unique aspects of L1 versus L2 swearing? Is learning to swear in L2 like learning to swear in L1? Do adults learning L2 use the same learning strategies that native children use in L1? Another persistent methodological limitation across many studies of taboo language has been the lack of consistency in the definition of ‘taboo words’ over time (Jay and Jay 2015). The necessity of developing a master list of taboo words and the problem of doing so comprehensively highlights the difficulty we have defining a very heterogeneous, context-​and mode-​dependent category of taboo words (Jay et al. 2005; Jay and Jay 2015). Unless language researchers can agree on a definition of the pool of words they are studying—​i.e., what words are taboo words—​comparisons and generalizations across different studies will be suspect.

Taboo language awareness in early childhood    107 Finally, a limitation of the research presented here is that the sampling is limited to primarily English-​speaking, white, middle-​class speakers. Repeated sampling allowing a more accurate representation of population differences in ethnicity, religiosity, geographic region, and education is needed. It is certainly needed to make broader generalizations about swearing in North America. If researchers collect these kinds of comprehensive data, they will be better able to make judgments about what to expect from children and adults in terms of emotional comprehension and expressions.

Chapter 7

Swearing and t h e   bra i n shlomit ritz finkelstein

7.1 Introduction This chapter is about swearing and the brain. Specifically, it focuses on taboo-​breaking expletives, be they single words or idiomatic expressions that have claimed their place in a person’s lexicon much like single words (Müller 2008). These expletives are spontaneous and sometimes involuntary, and they do not include those that are uttered endearingly in in-​group situations. This chapter is about the neurological substrata of expletives. Many of the brain regions discussed are assemblies of nuclei, further divided into subterritories defined by specific cellular architecture, neuronal connections, and distinct functions. To support the reader, I describe briefly the relevant regions, connections, and neurotransmitters as we encounter them. Often, I do not specify the subterritories and I include adjectives like ‘anterior’, ‘posterior’, or ‘ventral’ and ‘dorsal’1 only when they are commonly used. In addition, I comment briefly on some of the methodologies used for collecting the data discussed. Swearing involves a speaker and one or more hearers. Here I discuss only the speaker.2 Studying the speaker is challenging due to the spontaneous nature of the behavior and the difficulty of evoking such behavior in controlled laboratory conditions. Direct data 1 

For animals whose motion is parallel to the contour of their body, like fish, dorsal/​ventral is respectively superior/​inferior—​ventral from the Latin ‘venter’, meaning ‘belly’, and dorsal from the Latin ‘dorsum’ meaning ‘back’. For humans, with upright position, perpendicular to their moving direction, dorsal/​ventral is superior/​inferior only in the forebrain but posterior/​anterior in the vertical parts of the body—​the spinal cord and the brainstem. 2  There are several studies that show that hearing or reading swear words evoke different responses from neutral words. The response latency to swear words is longer than to neutral ones; and swear words are better remembered (MacKay et al. 2004; Jay et al. 2008). In addition, reading or hearing swear words leads to faster heart rates and greater sweating as measured by skin conductance (LaBar and Phelps 1998). But direct empirical neurophysiological data about hearing is still lacking.

Swearing and the brain    109 about swearers and their brains come mainly from clinical research, which comprises much of this chapter. Our discussion of the swearer follows four threads that start with the medical tales of four famous individuals who lived in the nineteenth century. Each represents one of four disorders—​aphasia, Tourette syndrome (TS), Alzheimer’s disease (AD), and a disorder following brain injury to a previously healthy adult. When referring to these four collectively, I call them ‘The Four’. They mark an era in which searching for neurogenic explanations for human behavior was revived after a period in which the psychogenic explanations of human behavior were in fashion. Therefore, their stories lay the foundation for modern neuroscience and for the modern understanding of disorders. Despite the richness of data about The Four there are important limitations to the insights that can be drawn from them. To begin with, no two lesions are the same. Therefore, many studies cannot be repeated and cannot apply to a population. Another important limitation is that while aphasia, TS, and AD are studied extensively, hardly any of their studies focus on swearing. Scientists and physicians are typically interested in loss of language in aphasia, in involuntary tics in TS, and in memory loss in AD. And even though swearing is prevalent in these populations, the topic is largely ignored in academic circles (Nagaratnam et al. 2003). Importantly, this chapter is about swearing, not about aphasia, Tourette syndrome, Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, or brain injuries. It attempts to understand the neurophysiology of swearing through them, not to study these disorders for their own sake. Therefore, much of the research of these disorders is not mentioned here at all. For us, only swearing matters. Although many family studies since the nineteenth century strongly suggest that heredity plays an important role in disorders that involve swearing such as Tourette syndrome (Meige and Feindel 1907/​1990), we still know only little about the genetic contribution to complex behaviors due to the heterogeneity of phenotypes of the disorder and the contribution of more than one gene to neuropsychiatric disorders (Fernandez and State 2013; Pagliaroli et al. 2016). Similarly, even though almost two decades ago Timothy Jay proposed a preliminary program to studying swearing (Jay 2000), Diane van Lancker and Jeffrey Cummings proposed a preliminary neurobiological foundation for swearing (Van Lancker and Jeffrey 1999), and Steven Pinker hypothesized a neurological cascade-​like scenario for cathartic swearing (Pinker 2007), not much neural evidence has been gathered to date. Admittedly, in the voluminous body of neuroscience data that have been collected in recent decades, we are collecting the crumbs under the dinner table. Limiting the discussion of human behavior to the brain is, by definition, incomplete. There are complex interactions within a network of biology, psychology, and social environment, in which each provides and receives input for a certain behavior, in our case, swearing, while also interacting mutually with each other. The scope of this chapter prohibits such a complex and important discussion. Throughout this chapter, I  refer to the people who suffer from disorders as ‘the ­afflicted’. Using it as a noun is rare, but I have found no better word. Especially in the case of TS, many of the afflicted live full lives with friends, family, jobs, education, books,

110   Shlomit Ritz Finkelstein music, and nature, much like the population at large. The reverse is also true; almost everybody—​afflicted or not—​swears. After discussing the afflicted, who provide direct data to our inquiry, the chapter moves to the population at large, with focus on swearing and aggression, swearing and pain, and swearing and social inhibitions. Much can be learned from the afflicted and applied to the population at large. The data reported here often lead to findings, insights, and conclusions, described in sections I call ‘Lessons’ and summarized in the Discussion section (Section 7.9) of the chapter. Finally, I propose two hypotheses that can guide future research of swearing and the brain.

7.2  Localization: the cortex The search for localization of behavioral functions in the brain followed the phrenology of Franz Gall (1758–​1828) who considered the brain as an organ of the mind and divided its cortex into well-​defined functional regions. Phrenology has been proven completely wrong in its specifics, and especially in its claim to be able to assess brain structures from the shape of the skull, but its basic idea of linking the anatomy of the brain to behavior started a scientific endeavor that still continues in our own time. (For the modern, non-​ phrenological, division of the cortex to lobes see Figure. 7.1). Lateral View of the Brain Central sulcus

Postcentral gyrus

Precentral gyrus





Lateral sulcus

Pons Medulla oblongata


Figure 7.1  The lobes of the human brain. Retrieved from https://​​wiki/​Lobes_​of_​the_​brain (date accessed: 20th Oct 2017). By BruceBlaus -​Own work, CC BY 3.0.

Swearing and the brain    111

7.2.1 Monsieur Leborgne: aphasia Louis Victor Leborgne (1811–​ 61) developed epilepsy in his youth, and expressive aphasia—​loss of speech—​at the age of thirty. As the French physician Paul Broca (1824–​ 80), who took care of Leborgne during his last six days of life, described him, Leborgne understood almost all that was said to him, but ‘could no longer produce but a single syllable, which he usually repeated twice in succession; regardless of the question asked him, he always responded: tan, tan, combined with varied expressive gestures. This is why, throughout the hospital, he is known only by the name Tan’ (cited in Dronkers et al. 2007: 1443). When the gestures and ‘tan, tan’ failed to communicate his meaning, Tan’s anger arose and he uttered ‘Sacré nom de Dieu’3 (Broca 1861). Leborgne had lost all his spoken language. Only the automatic and meaningless ‘tan, tan’ and the expletive ‘Sacré nom de Dieu’ survived. The autopsy revealed a lesion in a region in the frontal lobe of the patient’s left hemisphere now known as Broca’s area (Figure 7.2). It is identified with Brodmann’s areas 44 (BA44) and 45 (BA45) of the left hemisphere in a cortical map drawn by the German neurologist Korbinian Brodmann (1868–​1918) and based on the architecture of cortical cells. It is still used extensively. Comparing softness of the brain tissues with behavioral records, Broca also found correlations between the progress of Leborgne’s speech loss and the deterioration of his Broca’s area (1861). Broca identified the site of Leborgne’s lesion in ‘the third frontal gyrus’4—​BA44 and BA45—​of the left hemisphere as important for speech5 (Figure 7.3). (a)





Figure 7.2  Leborgne’s brain and the prefrontal cortex. A: Leborgne’s brain lesion: arrow points to lesion. B: Broca’s area. C: Left prefrontal cortex lateral view. D: Right PFC medial view. E: Left PFC front view. A: Dronkers et al. (2007); B: Retrieved from https://​​wiki/​Broca%27s_​area (date accessed: 8th Sept 2017). Polygon data were generated by Database Center for Life Science (DBCLS). Polygon data are from BodyParts3D, CC BY-​SA 2.1 Japan; C–​E: Retrieved from https://​​wiki/​Prefrontal_​cortex (accessed 25th Sept 2017). Polygon data were generated by Database Center for Life Science (DBCLS). Polygon data are from BodyParts3D, CC BY-​SA 2.1 Japan. 3 

The literal translation of Sacré nom de Dieu is ‘Sacred name of God,’ but it better translates as ‘Goddammit!’. 4  The many folds in the brain’s cortex increase its area within a constricting, quite rigid skull. The ridges are called gyri (gyrus in singular) or convolutions, and the grooves are called sulci (sulcus in singular). 5  Most of our right side’s physiology is controlled by our brain’s left hemisphere. Broca and others have taught us that for most of us, so are our speech and much of our propositional language processing. As more than 90% of the population are right-​handed, we expect their speech and much of their language

112   Shlomit Ritz Finkelstein

Figure 7.3  Top: Brodmann’s cortical map of the left lateral hemisphere; Bottom: Brodmann’s cortical map of the right medial hemisphere. Retrieved from https://​​com/​photo/​16389-​brodmann-​areas (date accessed: 1st March 2018). Original image by Georg Graf von Westphalen. CC-​BY-​SA. Leborgne’s brain restudied Today, Broca’s region has been redefined and extended beyond BA44 and BA45. Broca did not examine the medial6 parts of Leborgne’s brain because he wanted to avoid cutting the brain into its two hemispheres. Instead, foreseeing a scientifically more advanced time than his own, he left the brain for posterity. Today, Leborgne’s brain is kept in Musée Dupuytren in Paris.

processing to be left-​brained, but 5% of the right-​handed people are right-​brained for language. And while we expect the left-​handers to be right-​brained for language, only 18% of them are (Roth 2005). In this chapter I discuss only right-​handers whose left hemisphere is dominant for language processing and speech production. 6 

Medial means extending toward the midline plane of the brain dividing the two hemispheres.

Swearing and the brain    113 Using computerized tomography (CT) Castaigne and colleagues scanned Leborgne’s brain in 1980 (cited in Dronkers et al. 2007), and in 1984, Signoret and colleagues repeated the scanning (Signoret et al. 1984). They found that the damage to Leborgne’s brain extended medially, affecting the left basal ganglia (Figure 7.5) as well as the entire insula (Figure 7.7), to which we will return later. In 2007, using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and 3D-​reconstruction, the neuroscientist Nina Dronkers and her colleagues conducted an analysis of Leborgne’s brain (2007) to which we will return later. They too found Leborgne’s lesion to extend beyond BA44 and BA45 and include BA47, which is adjacent and below BA45, and BA11, which extends medially (Figure 7.3A). Their findings agree with many modern studies of living people who suffer from Broca’s aphasia (e.g., Eling 1994; Geschwind 1997b; Goodglass 1993). In today’s nomenclature, BA44–​BA47 collectively are called the inferior frontal gyrus (IFG), and BA10 + BA11 + BA47 make up the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC). Four findings of the Dronker team’s study are relevant to our inquiry: (i) Leborgne’s right hemisphere was intact; (ii) the most significant damage in the left hemisphere was in the IFG; (iii) the damage also affected some subcortical areas, specifically, the left basal ganglia; and (iv) damage was also observed in the fibers of the internal capsule that relays information back and forth between the cortex and the basal ganglia.

Lesson I: The right cortical hemisphere enables swearing When summarizing the lessons from Leborgne and many other aphasia patients, we can answer two questions: What was preserved despite Leborgne’s illness? And what was impaired or lost altogether? Behaviorally, the automatic ‘tan, tan’, and ‘Sacré nom de Dieu’ were preserved. Neuroanatomically, Leborgne’s right hemisphere remained intact. As for the loss—​behaviorally, he lost his ability to utter intentional, propositional speech. Neuroanatomically, his left hemisphere, mainly the IFG, was lesioned. What do these observations suggest? Neuroscientists have concluded that while the left hemisphere is implicated in intentional, propositional speech, the right hemisphere is implicated in automatic speech (e.g., Damasio and Geschwind 1984; Geschwind 1997a), including expletive swearing. Additional evidence for this hemispheric distribution of labor comes from studies of mouth movements during speech. They are asymmetric; like all other movements, they are controlled contralaterally revealing which hemisphere primarily controls them. Robert Graves and Theodor Landis (1985) found that despite some right-​side facial paralysis, fifteen aphasic patients, like most healthy people, showed a right facial bias—​implying left hemisphere control—​with a slightly more open right side of the mouth, while producing word lists, repetition, and conversation; and a left facial bias—​ suggesting right hemisphere control—​during more automatic speech such as counting to ten, reciting the days of the week, and singing. More support for differentially distributed control between propositional speech and expletive swearing is provided by a report about the forty-​seven-​year old E. C., whose left hemisphere was surgically removed due to a tumor. His speech behavior after the operation recalls Leborgne’s, ‘He would open his mouth and utter isolated words, and after

114   Shlomit Ritz Finkelstein apparently struggling to organize words for meaningful speech, recognized his inability and would utter expletives or short emotional phrases (e.g., ‘Goddamit!’). Expletives and curses were well articulated and clearly understandable’ (Smith 1966: 468). Remarkably, E. C.’s intentional speech, controlled by his left hemisphere, was impaired after the removal of this hemisphere, but the swearing was preserved since his right hemisphere remained intact. E. C.’s case, along with those of other aphasia patients, supports the notion that swearing differs from propositional language and that the brain processes them differently by assigning the left hemisphere to propositional language and the right hemisphere to swearing and other forms of automatic speech.

7.2.2 The Marquise de Dampierre: Tourette syndrome The French physician Gilles de la Tourette (1857–​1904) started to study la maladie des tics, the syndrome that the influential French neurologist Jean-​Martin Charcot (1825–​ 93) named after him, by researching its phenotype—​the observable characteristics of those who suffer from it (Kushner 1999). Among his reports was one published several decades earlier by the French neurologist Jean Marc Gaspar Itard (1775–​1838). Itard’s patient, the Marquise de Dampierre, was first examined by her physician when she was twenty-​six years old, eighteen years after the first outbreak of her symptoms. She became famous in part due to her high social status and in part due to the fact that she lived to the age of eighty-​five. She has become emblematic of the syndrome. This is how Itard described her behavior: In the midst of a conversation that interests her extremely, all of a sudden, without being able to prevent it, she interrupts what she is saying or what she is listening to with bizarre shouts and with words that are even more extraordinary and which make a deplorable contrast with her intellect and her distinguished manners. These words are for the most part gross swear words and obscene epithets and, something that is no less embarrassing for her than for the listeners, an extremely crude expression of a judgment or of an unfavorable opinion of someone in the group. (Translated by Kushner 1999)

Unlike with Leborgne, no autopsy of de Dampierre was reported; only her behavioral phenotype. To understand the neurological roots of her swearing, or coprolalia,7 we must rely on modern definitions and techniques. TS is a neuropsychiatric disorder with its most recent definition in the DSM-​58 (APA 2013). Its onset is before the age of eighteen years. More males than females are affected, 7 

Coprolalia is the name Gilles de la Tourette gave to the involuntary swearing of TS. It is derived from the Greek kopros (dung) and lalia (talk). 8 The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-​5) is the 2013 edition of the American—​widely and globally used—​manual of neuropsychiatric disorders, defining their diagnostic criteria.

Swearing and the brain    115 with a ratio of about 3–​4:1 (Tanner 2005). TS is characterized by motor and at least one vocal tic, both mandatory for its diagnosis. But while vocal—​phonic—​tics are mandatory, they need not be coprolaliac for diagnosis; only about 20% of those who suffer from TS have coprolalia. A smaller group has, in addition, copropraxia—​inappropriate gestures. Collectively, coprolalia and copropraxia are called coprophenomena (Freeman 2007). Central to TS’s motor and vocal tics are the premonitory urges preceding and predicting them. TS patients often describe these as resembling the urge to sneeze. The tic provides an immediate and temporary relief to this urge. Until the 1960s, TS was understood as psychogenic, but the psychogenic paradigm was abandoned in the second half of the twentieth century in favor of a biological understanding (Kushner 1999). Despite some progress in narrowing the genes involved, no biological markers have been identified (Fernandez and State 2013). As its etiology, its cause, is not known, TS is diagnosed by signs and symptoms.9

7.2.3 Localization: methodologies While until the mid twentieth century the access to human brains was limited to autopsies, today we have access to the living. For studying brains and their functioning in vivo, a variety of imaging techniques are used. Structural techniques study the structure of a person’s brain—​tissues, their thickness, their volume, possible brain tumors, and the like. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a structural imaging technique and because it is non-​invasive it is widely used. Functional techniques study the activation of various brain regions when the person functions or performs a task. The functional imaging used in the studies this chapter cites are functional positron emission tomography (PET), single-​photon emission computed tomography (SPECT), and functional MRI (fMRI). fMRI is also used to observe resting states, in which co-​activation of various brain regions is observed while the person lies in the scanner without any assigned task.

7.2.4 The prefrontal cortex Many structural MRI studies have been performed on TS patients, children and adults (for a review see Greene et al. 2013),10 but hardly any of them address the specificity of coprolalia. One study deserves our attention: Yulia Worbe and her colleagues (2010) 9 

Signs are observable and can be measured objectively, like body temperature or blood pressure. Symptoms are subjective experiences known to the physician only when reported by the patient, like pain or anxiety. 10  Among the many challenges is that many of the studied TS individuals are medicated, which might mask the disorder. In addition, TS is often accompanied with comorbidities like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and obsessive-​compulsive disorder (OCD), and very few studies examine people with ‘pure’ TS. Even fewer studies select from within this population the patients who suffer from coprolalia.

116   Shlomit Ritz Finkelstein used MRI to image the brains of a group of TS patients with coprolalia, echolalia, and palilalia11 and compared them to age-​and sex-​matched healthy adults. The researchers found diminished cortex thickness in the TS group that included, in addition to sensorimotor areas, the left frontal gyrus (Brodmann areas 6, 8, 9, 44, and 46), the right inferior frontal gyrus (BA45) and the orbitofrontal gyrus (BA47) (Figure 7.3). The lesions in the left hemisphere, especially in BA44 and BA46, remind us of Leborgne. But the diminished thickness in the right IFG of TS patients with automatic swearing and repetition raises a question about Lesson I, that the right hemisphere supports swearing. I will address this difficulty later, in Lesson XI suggesting that a bilateral collaboration is necessary to inhibit swearing.

7.2.5 Mr Phineas Gage: a brain injury In his book Descartes’ Error (1994), neuroscientist Antonio Damasio tells the tragic story of Phineas P. Gage (1823–​60). A construction foreman for the Rutland and Burlington Railroad in Vermont, New England, Gage was healthy, strong, intelligent, respected, and liked by his co-​workers. On 13 September 1848 he had an accident. During performing a detonation task, Gage’s tamping rod, used to pack the explosive powder that is covered by sand, touched the exposed explosive directly and triggered the detonation prematurely. The explosion sent the iron arrow-​end of the rod into his mouth that was opened since he was talking with his co-​workers, and then through his face, skull, brain, and out the top of his head, until the rod could be seen ‘lying in the road below, all blood and brains’ (Fleischman 2013). Ten weeks after his injury, Gage’s physician, Dr. John Harlow, declared him, with the exception of the loss of his right eye, fully recovered: still weak, but with his wounds healed, intelligent, and without any impairment of movement or speech. But with time it became clear that something had changed, ‘the equilibrium or balance, so to speak, between his intellectual faculty and animal propensities.’ As Gage’s friends and acquaintances reported, ‘Gage was no longer Gage’ and Dr. Harlow described him as ‘fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom).’ Gage’s employers on the railroad reported that the once gentle and much-​ liked Gage ‘insult[ed] old workmates and friends [and] spout[ed] vulgar language in the presence of women’ (Damasio et al. 1994: 1102). The modern study of Gage’s skull Dr. Harlow did not perform an autopsy of Gage’s brain because he found out about Gage’s death only five years after the event, but he got permission from Gage’s mother to exhume the skull, which, along with Gage’s tamping rod, was given to the Warren Medical Museum of Harvard University (Figure 7.4).


Echolalia is repeating the speech of others. Palilalia is repeating one’s own speech.

Swearing and the brain    117

Figure 7.4  The skull and tamping rod of Phineas Gage. Retrieved from http://​​ (date accessed: 8th September 2017); reproduced from Bigelow (1850: 13–​22).

Years later, with modern technology, cognitive neuroscientist Hanna Damasio with colleagues studied Gage’s skull (1994). The team created a 3D reconstruction of Gage’s injured brain and reached a high level of confidence about the path of the tamping rod and the neurological damage that was caused to Gage’s brain. They concluded that Gage’s lesion did not involve Broca’s area or the motor cortices, which explains why Gage’s language and motor behaviors were not affected by the accident. Most of the damage was to the ventromedial regions of both frontal lobes. More specifically, in the left hemisphere, the lesion involved Brodmann’s areas 8–​10, 11, 12, 24, and 32. The dorsolateral regions were spared (Figure 7.3).

Lesson II: Intact prefrontal cortex guards against swearing Extensive research has provided much evidence that the prefrontal cortex (Figure 7.2), which includes Brodmann areas 8–​14, 24, 25, 32, and 44–​7 (Figure 7.3), is the most human of our brain regions in that it is crucial for normal socioemotional and executive functioning (Eagleman 2015). Executive functions are the cognitive control functions that include selective attention, social inhibitions, emotion regulation, and relying on working memory (Diamond 2013). Most of these cognitive functions are relatively slow and take time. By contrast, expletives are often reflexive and therefore much quicker and effortless. When the prefrontal cortex (PFC) is compromised, specifically its medial part that is involved in social decisions, the performance of the inhibitory guards deteriorates and the automatic swearing wins over. Lesions in the medial prefrontal cortex were observed in Leborgne (e.g., Dronkers et al. 2007), in the Worbe’s study of coprolalia in TS (2010), and in Phineas Gage (Damasio et al. 1994), and are understood to be the reason for compromised inhibitory control that enabled the failure of guarding against eruptive swearing.

118   Shlomit Ritz Finkelstein

7.3 Localization: below the cortex—​the basal ganglia The basal ganglia (BG) are a collection of subcortical nuclei strongly connected to the thalamus and the cortex and implicated in motor actions, learning and habit formation, and emotions and cognition. While I name the BG nuclei (Figure 7.5) I cannot do them full justice, as each of them is further divided into subregions that differ in structure and specific functions. The striatum, with gray and white striped, striated, coloration, serves as the primary input to the rest of the basal ganglia nuclei. Relevant to us are the ventral striatum that includes the nucleus accumbens, which is important in the reward system, the dorsal striatum that includes the caudate nucleus, which is richly innervated with dopamine neurons, and the putamen, which is an important hub in the BG. In addition, the BG includes the globus pallidus (GP)—​the pale globe, the substantia nigra (SN)—​ the black substance owing its coloration to its dopamine, and the subthalamic nucleus (STN) (Borsook et al. 2010; Nolte 2002). The labor distribution between right and left hemispheres observed in the cortex has been also observed in the BG. Following a right BG lesion, a right-​handed man, aged seventy-​five, was unable to recite familiar verses. Serial automatic speech, singing, recitation of rhymes, and swearing were impaired. By contrast, propositional speech was preserved in both French and Hebrew (Speedie et al. 1993).

Caudate Body Caudate Head



Caudate Tail

Globus Pallidus

Nucleus Accumbens

Figure 7.5  The basal ganglia. Retrieved from https://​​wiki/​Basal_​ganglia (accessed 8th Sept 2017). From Lim et al (2014). CC BY 3.0.

Swearing and the brain    119

Lesson III: The right basal ganglia support automatic speech and swearing. This rare case suggests a labor distribution of the subcortical BG between propositional and automatic speech similar to that of the cortical distribution. Because of his lesioned right BG, the person lost his automatic speech. By contrast, thanks to his intact left BG he preserved his propositional speech. Are there connections between the cortical hemispheres and the subcortices that can explain their parallel distributions of labor? The case of Leborgne (Dronkers et al. 2007) led us to Lesson I that the right cortex enables swearing. The French and Hebrew speaker reported by Speedie and colleagues (1993) led us to the current Lesson III that the right BG enables swearing. The ventromedial aspect of the frontal cortex, compromised in Gage and in twelve other patients reported by Damasio (1994), is connected to subcortical nuclei that control basic biological regulation. This connection leads us to begin to move beyond the paradigm of mere localization.

7.4  Networks: nodes and arcs Regions alone would not do; connections matter. The possibility of connected brain regions was already raised by the end of the nineteenth century. The prominent British neurologist John Hughlings Jackson (1835–​1911), in studying his aphasic patients and acknowledging the importance of the third frontal gyrus for speech, challenged the theory of localization. The German physician Carl Wernicke (1848–​1905), whose name is linked to receptive aphasia, proposed a model in which the pathways connecting brain regions play an important role (1874/​1976). Even the great localizer Paul Broca doubted the functional localization of complex disorders (1861). The current consensus is that the brain is a network, or rather a network of networks, with pathways as the arcs that connect the nodes—​the nuclei—​near and far. The basic elements of the pathways are the neurons. The neurons’ electrical signals propagate unidirectionally from their nuclei along their axons, collectively known as white matter due to the white myelin that coats them for better transmission (Figure 7.6). In most cases, chemical signals transported by neurotransmitters cross the synapse—​the gap between neighboring neurons—​and propagate from one neuron to its postsynaptic neurons. Postsynaptic receptors act as guardians that allow or prohibit the effectiveness of a chemical on a postsynaptic neuron, depending on the nature of the neurotransmitter. As with regions, pathways can be studied in vivo. Many of the hypotheses regarding human brain function result from inferring from non-​human animal studies using radioactive dyes. Direct functional studies of humans had to wait for new technologies to emerge. Non-​invasive diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) is a magnetic resonance technique that traces white matter by measuring the diffusion of water in the neuronal tract. Functional Connectivity MRI (fcMRI) is another approach, based on temporal synchrony in the activity among regions. Regions that activate together in fMRI scanning—​ that their hemodynamic activity is coupled—​are considered functionally connected,

120   Shlomit Ritz Finkelstein Cell body Axon



Axon hillock

Endoplasmic reticulum Mitochondrion

Synaptic terminals

Golgi apparatus

Dendrite Dendritic branches

Figure 7.6  Signal transmission. The electric signal propagates along the axon. Then a chemical signal passes from the presynaptic to the post synaptic neuron. Retrieved from https://​​wiki/​Neuron (date accessed: 5th March 2018). By BruceBlaus. Own work, CC BY 3.0.

whether their coupling is during performance of a task or when an individual is at rest. Unlike DTI, the fcMRI does not identify the connected anatomy. It defines functional connectivity. The network model, much richer than mere localization, is also more complex. When attempting to link brain lesions with behavioral deficits, it is not always clear whether a specific structure is indeed the source of the behavior or whether the damage is somewhere else within the network, in another structure or in the white matter. Damage to any location might interrupt the entire circuit.

7.4.1 The limbic system As swearing expresses and evokes emotions (Finkelstein et al. 2016), two bodies of literature that study emotions inform our exploration. They use different nomenclatures. I introduce them now. The limbic system, defined by its functionality, consists of several brain structures connected by pathways and circuits that are central to emotions. Its definition is still controversial and not all agree on which structures should be included (LeDoux and Phelps 2000; Panksepp 2005). There is a consensus, though, that the limbic system includes the cingulate gyrus (Figure 7.8), which is a medial aspect of the cerebral cortex and lies immediately above the corpus callosum that bridges the two hemispheres; the orbitofrontal cortex, which is part of the PFC; the insular cortex (Figure 7.7), a sizable but hidden

Swearing and the brain    121 PARIETAL LOBE




Figure 7.7  The insula is covered by the operculum, which is cut away here. Retrieved from https://​​wiki/​Insular_​cortex (date accessed: 28th February 2018). Reproduced from Sobota (1906).

structure between the temporal, the parietal, and the frontal lobes (Figure 7.1) and believed to be involved in sensing and regulating the body’s homeostasis; the hippocampus, which plays a central role in consolidating new memories; the amygdala, known to mediate fearfulness; the nucleus accumbens (Figure 7.5), involved in reward and pleasure and which some claim is implicated in aggression; the hypothalamus—​a center of the limbic system connected to all its elements; some subterritories in the thalamus (Figure 7.5); and the olfactory system, whose sensory signals are the only sensory inputs that bypass the hub of the thalamus. Two rare studies of individual TS patients with coprolalia are informative and shed light on the limbic structures involved in the coprolalia of TS—​the insular cortex (Figure 7.7) and the cingulate cortex (Figure 7.8), as well as the thalamus (Figure 7.5) and the cerebellum (Figure 7.1). The first focuses on one participant in a PET imaging study of seventy-​ two TS patients. This individual was singled out for a separate analysis because more than 90% of his tics were vocal. The patient’s coprolalia was associated with activity in a large number of regions, including Broca’s area, implicated also in Leborgne’s lesion (Dronkers et al. 2007) and found to be important also in the study of TS patients who suffered from coprolalia and other automatic forms of speech (e.g.,Worbe et al. 2010). In addition to activity in areas in the temporal lobe that are implicated in auditory processing speech,12


For a review the systems of production and comprehension of language see Baron-​Cohen and Robertson (1998).

122   Shlomit Ritz Finkelstein


ral Cent s RAL l u s cu PARACENT LOBLUE







callosum Corpus nix For



lca r











ip. occ tofissure



e Par











c of a Par a e r a


Figure 7.8  The cingulate cortex. Retrieved from https://​​wiki/​Basal_​ganglia (accessed 20th Oct 2017).

coprolalia-​related activation was found in this individual’s basal ganglia, insula, thalamus, and cerebellum (Stern et al. 2000). The second study is of a fifteen-​year-​old boy with Tourette syndrome, characterized by his uttering fuck every two seconds on average, with occasional breaks of five to eight seconds. His fMRI was compared to that of a healthy girl his age mimicking his vocal tics. After subtracting the brain areas activated for both, only the TS patient showed activation in areas similar to those reported in the Stern study (2000), especially the cingulate cortex that was activated during the eruption of coprolalia (Gates et al. 2004). An important caveat is that the girl’s mimicking behavior was not spontaneous, which might have affected the comparison between the two.

Lesson IV: The cingulate cortex is implicated in coprolalia The studies of Stern (2000) and Gates et al. (2004) reinforce previous findings that the prefrontal cortex (Lesson II) and the basal ganglia (Lesson III) are involved in swearing. Importantly, both Stern’s and Gates’s studies show activation of the cingulate cortex specific to coprolalia. In addition, they observe the contribution of the cerebellum, to which I will return later in greater detail.

7.4.2 The CSTC (cortico-​striato-​thalamocortical) circuits Circuits are closed loops; they are pathways that return to their locale of origin. Several parallel circuits that connect the cortex and the BG and pass through the thalamus have

Swearing and the brain    123 been identified by their specific subregions. They are also distinguished by their functionality. Collectively they are called the cortico-​striato-​thalamocortical (CSTC) circuits. They are ‘discrete, essentially non-​overlapping parts of the striatum, globus pallidus, substantia nigra, thalamus, and cortex’ (Alexander et al. 1986). Especially relevant to us are two of the CSTC circuits, the prefrontal and the limbic (Wichmann and DeLong 2006). These circuits are implicated in several disorders, including TS, the injury of Phineas Gage (Damasio et al. 1994), and possibly the aphasia of Leborgne (Dronkers et al. 2007). There are empirical data from humans about these circuits: in some refractory cases, when people do not respond to any behavioral or pharmacological therapy, deep brain stimulation (DBS) is applied, sending electrical signals to modulate the functions of the relevant brain circuits. Electrodes are implanted in a predetermined anatomical target (or targets) in the patient’s brain, and the operational parameters of the electrodes (e.g., frequency) are tuned remotely in an iterative trial-​and-​error process, to achieve best behavioral adjustment for the individual. Whether the targeted circuit is indeed linked to the behavior can be studied only from the patient’s response to the procedure. Juncos and colleagues report on two cases (2008) of TS patients with coprophenomena who underwent DBS bilaterally in the internal part of their globus pallidus (GPi). Of these two patients, Dylan’s13 coprolalia decreased and became muffled. His copropraxia improved too. He stopped touching himself and others in public. He also succeeded in disguising the nature of his raised middle finger (Finkelstein et al. 2007a). Daniel’s coprolalia disappeared completely (Finkelstein et al. 2008). In a review of DBS performed on TS patients between 2000 and 2015 and resulting in remission or, at least, improvement in coprolalia or in obsessive crying, Avram Fraint and Gian Pal summarize the targets for DBS in TS patients (2015). The regions greatly varied. A team at the Mayo Clinic and the University of California, San Francisco performed centromedial thalamic DBS on eleven TS patients. On a follow-​up study conducted more than a year after the procedure, the patient who had suffered from coprolalia and one of the three who had suffered from coprolalia and copropraxia were completely free of any coprophenomena. Of the other two, one lost the coprolalia but kept the copropraxia; the other remained with both (Testini et al. 2016). Is it a specific brain region that plays the main role in a given function or is it the circuit that contains this region? This question is still without a definite answer. As we saw, different clinics have targeted different brain regions for performing DBS for TS patients. The choice of the specific target is often guided by the comfort zone of the medical team that performs the procedure—​the brain areas with which the team members are most experienced. This decreases the risk of surgical complications. The selected different targets for the electrodes often lead to similar behavioral results. Common to these targets, however, is that they all participate in the limbic-​or the prefrontal-​CSTC circuits (Porta et al. 2013).


To protect the patient’s privacy, a false name is used.

124   Shlomit Ritz Finkelstein

Lesson V: Lesions in the prefrontal-​and limbic-​CSTC circuits are implicated in swearing There is still much to learn and understand about DBS. The results are ambiguous, partly because of individual differences among patients. We still do not know why it works when it does, nor why it fails. But we do know so far that the limbic-​and prefrontal-​ CSTC circuits are involved in all the cases. The fact that the behavioral results are often similar for several different specific targets supports the network paradigm in understanding the phenomenon of swearing. The ultimate player seems to be the circuit.

7.4.3 The cerebellum The cerebellum, the small brain, is easily distinguished from the rest of the brain (Figure 7.1), and historically was considered as implicated only in motor behavior. With its elegant geometry, the cerebellar internal structure is different from the rest of the brain. Its cortex contains a tightly folded layer of gray matter. The white matter underneath the gray matter connects it to four deep cerebellar nuclei. In addition, three paired cerebellar peduncles, stalk-​like white matter, connect the cerebellum to the brainstem. Whole-​brain functional scans of high level cognitive tasks have demonstrated activation of the cerebellum (Gernsbacher and Kaschak 2003), and people have started to explore its involvement in cognition, emotion, and language (Mariën and Manto 2015). Schmahmann and Pandyat (1997) wrote, ‘The cerebellar contribution . . . permits the ultimate production of harmonious sensorimotor, cognitive, and affective/​autonomic behaviors.’ The Stern study of a TS patient with severe coprolalia (2000) showed activation of the vermis of the cerebellum—​the medial, unpaired portion of the cerebellum that connects to its two hemispheres. In reviewing the contribution of the cerebellum to affection, Schmahmann and Sherman (1998) point to the vermis as being consistently involved in patients with pronounced affective presentations. Addressing specifically anger and aggression, Schmahmman (2013) summarizes studies of people with lesions in their cognitive and limbic cerebellum.

Lesson VI: The cerebellum contributes to swearing The specifics of the involvement of the cerebellum in non-​motor behavior are still lagging behind cognitive and affective studies of the rest of the brain, and there is paucity of data about the contribution of the specific cerebrocerebellar circuits to affective behavior in general and to swearing in particular. But the cerebellar limbic system has been identified (Manto 2013)  and future studies might reveal whether it contributes to swearing. Later I will discuss swearing as a form of aggression, in which the cerebellum is implicated. Psychobiologist Jaak Panksepp reflects: ‘Maybe just like the cerebral cortex, which tends to provide chronic inhibition over subcortical processes, the neocerebellar cortex exerts a similar effect on its deep nuclei’ (1998: 7532).

Swearing and the brain    125

7.4.4 Johann F.: Alzheimer’s disease Alzheimer’s disease (AD) was named after the German psychiatrist and neuropathologist Dr. Alois Alzheimer (1864–​1915) too soon. In 1907, he published a long report of his first demented patient Frau Auguste Deter, and the disease that he described was named after him by the influential German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin (1856–​1926). But not all forms of dementia are AD, and the postmortem microscopic study of Deter’s brain tissues showed her dementia to be caused by arteriosclerosis of the brain. It was not until 1911 that Alzheimer published another long report of his second demented patient, the fifty-​six-​year-​old laborer Johann F. In it he differentiated between vascular brain disease, like that of Deter, and plaques of the protein amyloid like those that showed in the postmortem analysis of Johann F.’s brain tissues. Today, the DSM-​5 main behavioral criterion for diagnosing AD is gradual progression of cognitive impairment, especially decline in memory and learning (APA 2013). But the decisive differentiation between AD and other forms of dementia can be determined only by postmortem histological analysis of the brain tissues. Therefore, the DSM-​5 does not speak about diagnosis but about possible or probable diagnosis. Johann F.’s postmortem analysis showed AD. He was admitted to the Psychiatric Hospital of the University of Munich on 12 November 1907. A detailed account of his case was published in 2000 (Möller and Graeber). Alzheimer reported his interview with the patient on the third day after his admission, and observed his cursing: ‘He does not speak spontaneously. When teased (e.g., by trying to take away a cloth, which he is uncoiling), he sometimes curses.’ The disease progressed and with signs of pneumonia, Johann F. died on 3 October 1910. Alzheimer’s report and others that followed did not elaborate further about the nature of Johann F.’s cursing. That he cursed in response to being teased is not too surprising. Most likely, the teasing aroused his anger. In that way, he reminds us of Gage’s rude behavior, which was interpreted by Dr. Harlow as expressing rage (Fleischman 2013), and the rage attacks of some TS patients, as summarized by Danielle Cath and Andrea Ludolph (2013). Also, while his case is not as extreme as that of Leborgne who lost all his language (Broca 1861), Leborgne’s Sacré nom de Dieu was his response to getting angry over not being understood; maybe like Johann F.’s anger triggered by being teased. Are there any biological commonalities too? In his report of the autopsy conducted on Johann F.’s brain, Alzheimer named the affected brain regions and also the underlying microscopic processes: The gyri of the frontal, parietal, and temporal lobes were considerably narrowed on both sides, and the sulci enlarged . . . [T]‌he central gyri did not appear particularly atrophic. There were no softened areas in cortex or white matter, nor were any other circumscribed alterations to be found anywhere. The rest of the autopsy findings were without importance.

126   Shlomit Ritz Finkelstein If we try to visualize Johann F.’s brain based on Alzheimer’s description, we see too-​deep valleys taking over tissues where ridges used to be. We see a degenerating brain with dying tissues. This was verified in Alzheimer’s microscopic investigation that include abnormal plaques of beta-​amyloid protein:14 [M]‌icroscopic investigation showed the cortex to be filled in varying degrees of Fischer’s plaques . . . 15 They were numerous in the frontal lobe, scarce in the central gyri, present in enormous numbers in the parietal and partly also in the temporal lobes, and again less numerous in the occipital lobe. There were no obvious differences between left and right sides. In the striatum, lentiform nucleus,16 and thalamus, they were also present in abundance. Within the cerebellum they occurred abundantly in individual lobuli, while they were completely absent in other large parts of the brain. Möller and Graeber 2000

Lesson VII: Studies of AD reinforce the role of the frontal cortex and the limbic system in swearing Johann F.’s swearing is mentioned only once and without further specific details. But many diagnosed with AD swear. The disease is growing rapidly. A  2014 epidemiology review (Reitz and Mayeux) reports that depending on geography, 4% to 6.4% of people over sixty years of age are afflicted with dementia, and most cases of dementia are AD. Like with aphasia and TS, swearing is not a diagnostic criterion for the illness. But the more people are diagnosed with AD, the more stories are told by friends and relatives about their swearing: ‘My normally loving but now slightly demented father is suddenly using the worst possible profanity;’ and, ‘My elderly father with Alzheimer’s sometimes yells profanities.’ (Retrieved from on 5 October 2017). Many of us can share similar observations of seniors with dementia. Some of the lesions of Johann F. remind us of Leborgne (Dronkers et al. 2007), of the TS coprolaliacs in the Worbe’s study (2010), and of Phineas Gage (Damasio et al. 1994). As summarized in Lesson II, the executive frontal cortex guards against swearing as it inhibits inappropriate social behavior. When it is lesioned the eruption of swearing has no guardians to stop it. Indeed, many of the changes in the brains of AD patients that were reported in 118 papers between 1990 and 2015 ‘were mostly associated with . . . the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the orbitofrontal cortex’ (Boublay et al. 2016: 1501). 14 

Today there are competing theories for the causes of AD, among them the Tau Hypothesis. There are also some genetic hypotheses. Their discussion is beyond our scope. 15  Fischer plaques are named after Oskar Fischer, a contemporary of Alzheimer, who reported beta-​ amyloid neuritic plaques in twelve cases of senile dementia. These were landmark findings in the history of research in dementia (Goedert 2009). 16 The lentiform nucleus is the name given collectively to the putamen and the globus pallidus, both of the basal ganglia. This nomenclature is rarely used today.

Swearing and the brain    127 While swearing has not been studied in the Boublay review, the neurophysiological findings in this review reinforce our previous lessons that the PFC and the ACC of the limbic system contribute to the behavioral deficiencies of AD, and most likely to its common swearing. But we have to be cautious. Much about AD is still not understood. In addition, no epidemiological study of swearing and its frequency in AD have been performed despite the widely-​shared impression that swearing is quite common among patients of AD (Zimmerman and Stern 2010).

7.5 Networks: neurotransmitters Discussions about the brain connectivity must consider the chemical messengers that bind pre-​and postsynaptic neurons, the neurotransmitters. The neurotransmitter system is intricate, and the interactions and balances within it are important. Depending on specific pathways and functionality, some neurotransmitters play more important roles than others in specific processes.

7.5.1 Swearing, dopamine, and serotonin The impulsive aggression of swearing depends heavily on the balance between dopamine and serotonin in certain circuits. Swearing and dopamine The brain includes several distinct dopamine pathways (Figure 7.9A). There is voluminous evidence that excess activity of dopamine pathways contributes to the motor and vocal tics of TS. Our scope prohibits the discussion of the various theories about what causes the dopaminergic excess—​whether it is due to oversensitive dopamine receptors, to denser than normal dopaminergic nerves in the striatum, to abnormal dopamine activity in the presynaptic neuron, or to excess of dopamine in the synaptic clefts—​the gaps between neurons. There is empirical evidence to support any of these theories (Singer 2013; Robertson 2000). But there seems to be no challenge to the centrality of excessive dopamine in the vocal and motor tics of TS (Singer 2013). The evidence is clinical. Many TS patients who are treated with dopamine-​inhibiting medications (antagonists) respond well and enjoy amelioration of all their signs.17 The first case that supported the understanding of TS as organic rather than psychogenic was published in 1962 by two Polish psychiatrists, Roman Dolmierski and Maria Kloss of Gdańsk. In an article entitled ‘De la Maladie de Gilles de la Tourette,’ they reported that two out of five patients were treated successfully with the dopamine antagonist 17 

There are sometimes adverse side effects to dopamine-​antagonist medications, like sedation, weight gain, and even newly acquired motor signs but the motor and vocal tics are often ameliorated.

128   Shlomit Ritz Finkelstein (a)

Dorsal Striatum Thalamus Putamen Hypothalamus Nucleus accumbens

Mesocortical pathway


Tuberoinfundibular pathway Pituitary

Mesolimbic pathway

Spinal cord

Nigrostriatal pathway

Substantia Nigra Ventral Tegmental Area


Thalamus Hypothalamus Raphe nuclei Cerebellum


Spinal c

Figure 7.9  Main dopamine (A) and serotonin (B) pathways. A: Retrieved from https://​​wiki/​Dopaminergic_​pathways (accessed 20th Oct 2017). By User:Slashme; Patrick J. Lynch; User:Fvasconcellos -​self-​made, re-​use File:Brain bulbar region.svg, GFDL. B: Retrieved from https://​​wiki/​Serotonin_​pathway (accessed 20th Oct 2017). By Brain_​bulbar_​region.svg: Image:Brain human sagittal section.svg by Patrick J. Lynch; Image:Brain bulbar region.PNG by DO11.10; present image by Fvasconcellos.derivative work: S. Jähnichen (talk) -​Brain_​bulbar_​region.svg, CC BY 2.5.

chlorpromazine.18 All the severe signs of a twelve-​year-​old boy with multiple motor tics, coprolalia, and echolalia were reduced to eyebrow movements, slight facial grimaces, and slight muscle movements of the shoulders and neck. The signs of a fifty-​five-​year-​ old woman with neck and shoulder tics, coprolalia, and obsessive symptoms were not 18  At the time, it was not understood how chlorpromazine worked. Today, though, we know that it is a dopamine antagonist.

Swearing and the brain    129 eliminated after taking the chlorpromazine but were controlled. In both cases, when the drug was withdrawn the tics reappeared (Meyer and Quenzer 2005). By contrast, TS patients who were treated with dopamine agonists often showed exacerbation of their motor and vocal tics. According to the medical records of the participants in a qualitative study of sixteen adults with TS, pharmacological treatments that inhibit dopamine reduced the frequency and severity of the signs and symptoms of the TS patients, including their coprolalia (Finkelstein 2009). Swearing and serotonin The brain also includes several distinct serotonin pathways (Figure 7.9B). The cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) in some TS patients show low 5-​HIAA, the main serotonin metabolite. In other studies of TS, 5-​HIAA is low in the BG (Singer 2013). A SPECT study of ten patients with TS and comorbid obsessive-​compulsive disorder (OCD), who displayed vocal tics of coprolalia and echolalia, were compared to sex-​and age-​matched healthy volunteers, and showed a significant negative correlation between vocal tics and serotonin transporter in the midbrain and the thalamus; the less serotonin transporter, the more vocal tics (Heinz et al. 1998). In a review paper of various forms of aggression, Emil F. Coccaro (2015) summarizes: low serotonin correlates with increased impulsive violence in depressed suicidal patients, and with male recruits who have a life history of aggression. And in a seminal review of emotion regulation, Davidson and colleagues (2000) cite studies that have found reduced serotonin in the CSF of aggressive psychiatric patients, and impulsive-​violent men. Interestingly, the concentration of 5-​HIAA has been found to predict aggression in the future of conduct-​ disordered boys two to three years before the emergence of the aggressive behavior.

Lesson VIII: The neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin play a role in swearing While recent research suggests that all the neurotransmitters that participate in the CSTC circuits might be involved in TS, the prominent role of dopamine in TS and the prominence of dopamine in coprophenomena are not challenged (Singer 2013). What matters most is the balance between serotonin and dopamine, as they interact with each other (Singer 2013; Kapur 1996). The serotonin system inhibits dopaminergic function. Simply said: the less serotonin, the more dopamine. In other words, the serotonin’s effect on behavior is not direct, it is secondary through its effect on dopamine. When serotonin that inhibits the dopamine is lowered, the dopaminergic system gets liberated from its inhibition in the striatum and the prefrontal cortex and causes tics and aggressive behavior, including swearing.

7.6  Swearing and emotions The neuroaffective literature suggests two models of emotions. The basic-​emotion model assumes a palette of universal emotions of anger, fear, sadness, disgust, happiness, and

130   Shlomit Ritz Finkelstein surprise that are innate, with specific physiological expressions, including facial expressions. This model was explored by Darwin (1872/​1965) and with time has accumulated much empirical support (Ekman 1992; Panksepp 1998). The dimensional model proposes that all emotions share two characteristics (dimensions)—​valence and arousal. Every emotion can be represented as a vector in a two-​dimensional vector-​space with one axis for arousal and one for valence. Valence is the pleasantness (positive) or unpleasantness (negative) of the experience. Arousal is the strength or intensity of an experience, represented by the response to stimuli. Responding to stimuli can be associated with changes in circulatory, respiratory, gastrointestinal, and endocrinological functions. The relative contributions of the cortical and the subcortical brain structures to arousal are still an area of active research (Hamann 2012; Panksepp 2004). As the two models of emotions are not mutually exclusive and rather present different perspectives of emotion, I use both their vocabularies, as needed.

7.6.1 Swearing and anger in the afflicted The basic-​emotion anger, when its arousal is high, becomes rage, often with aggression as its behavioral expression. While aggression is often motivated by anger, this is not always the case. It can be motivated by sexual competition, fighting enemies, or competing for food. It might include a component of anger, but it does not have to. It is difficult to rely merely on behavior to determine underlying emotions, but with information about the context, we often link behaviors with assumed underlying emotions and refer to the two interchangeably. With this caveat, we often link impulsive aggression with rage (Darwin 1872/​1965; Panksepp 1998). In a review of rage attacks in TS and its comorbidities, the authors describe the attacks as ‘sudden and unpredictable anger, irritability, temper outbursts, and also aggression up to marked verbal and physical violence’ (Cath and Ludolph 2013). They cite a 2000 epidemiological study by Budman and colleagues reporting that 23%–​40% of TS patients experience rage attacks. In video-​recorded interviews, three adults with TS described their rage attacks, of which one was verbal, one was physically violent, and one was non-​verbal vocalization. Stuart shared: ‘I [was] with a friend and we were driving on a lane in a parking lot, very crowded parking lot . . . there is no parking spaces; and we found a little parking space; and we try to pull in; a Black person just swarms in. I say the ‘n’ word and then I was so angry; and we got inside the restaurant; we met a couple of other friends.’ When asked how he felt when meeting his friends, he answered, ‘Some anger; a little embarrassment. It strained the friendship a little bit.’ (Finkelstein et al. 2007d). Nick’s rage turns sometimes into violence: ‘If I get mad . . . I’ve done stuff to release it sometimes . . . I’ve done stuff to release it . . . I used to break stuff . . . It’s crazy . . . I just sometimes squeeze it [a glass bottle] and sometimes I hold it too tight and I’ll break it.’ (Finkelstein et al. 2007b). Steven expressed his emotions with pure vocalization: ‘No one, no friends, no people have ever seen me to the highest degree [of screaming] as my mom or my dad.’ His

Swearing and the brain    131 screaming was so intense that Steven’s mother slept in the basement with ear plugs and two pillows over her head to block the sound that came from Steven’s bedroom on the fourth floor (Finkelstein et al. 2007c). Rage can take various forms, including swearing. Broca linked Leborgne’s swearing to anger, ‘When his [Leborgne’s] interlocutors did not comprehend his mime, he would easily become enraged, and then add to his vocabulary a great swearword.’ (Broca 1861), and Alzheimer reported that Johann F. ‘cursed’ when he was teased (Möller and Graeber 2000); we can assume that the teasing angered him. In a review, Davidson and colleagues (2000) focused on key structures in the circuitry underlying emotion regulation in the afflicted: They identified the orbitomedial region of the PFC as exerting control over anger and impulsive aggression, and when this structure is lesioned aggression is free to erupt. In their summary, they list the orbital prefrontal cortex, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the amygdala, and the anterior cingulate cortex. Their review highlights and reinforces the centrality of the PFC controlling anger-​motivated aggression, of which swearing is a form.

7.6.2 Swearing and anger in the population at large Swearing is not monopolized by the afflicted. Most people swear in particular situations. The discussion about aggression in the afflicted explored how aggression might express anger and be labeled ‘rage’. Aggression is a universal behavior and swearing is often a form of verbal aggression. Hughlings Jackson welcomed swearing as he speculated that it replaces physical aggression: ‘It has been said that he who was the first to abuse his fellow-​man [with swearing] instead of knocking out his brains without a word, laid thereby the basis of civilization.’ (Jackson 1958). While aggression and swearing are not synonymous, swearing is often aggressive. In a review of neurochemicals and aggression, Coccaro (1996) summarizes correlation studies implicating lower serotonin, higher dopamine, and higher vasopressin as correlated with aggression. Most of the studies he reviews, though, are either from the non-​human animal literature or from the afflicted, especially those with borderline personality disorders. But a study by Brown and colleagues (1979) found negative correlation of aggression and serotonin in twenty-​six age-​similar military men with no history of major psychiatric illness. As in the nonhuman animal studies and in the afflicted, the lower the serotonin the higher the aggression. These studies reinforce Lesson VIII about the implication of dopamine and serotonin in swearing. Reinforcing the report of Coccaro about vasopressin, H. E. Albers (2012) found that higher vasopressin increases aggression. His discussion adds complexity as it considers the social context too: vasopressin injected to the anterior hypothalamus in hamsters affected the animal’s aggression depending on the individual’s prior social experience. The vasopressin increased inter-​male aggression in hamsters that had been previously trained to fight other hamsters and in hamsters that had been socially isolated for at least four weeks, but not in hamsters that had been housed in social groups.

132   Shlomit Ritz Finkelstein

7.6.3 The swearing of males and females In Women After All, the biological anthropologist Melvin Konner identifies aggression as a leading difference between men and women (2016). Human males and males of other species (though not all) are more aggressive than females. The hormone testosterone is the cause for this difference. It is the big differentiator between the sexes and as it plays an important role in male aggression, it is relevant to our topic. Testosterone is a hormone which is regulated by endocrine signals and a feedback communication with the hypothalamus via the pituitary gland in the brain (Campbell 2013). The testosterone hormone is found in both sexes and is secreted mainly from the testicles in males and from the ovaries in females. It is much greater in adult males than in adult females, and different research groups found the serum testosterone in adult males between four and eight times greater than in adult women (e.g., Torjesen and Sandnes 2004). The hormone is important already in the womb, affecting the sexual development of the fetus (Hines 2011). Earlier we learned that three to four times more males than females are afflicted with Tourette syndrome (Tanner 2005). An obvious question arises: Are the epidemiological data and the implication of testosterone in swearing related in the case of TS? So far, ‘[t]‌here are insufficient data on the regulation of the hypothalamic-​pituitary-​gonadal axis in TS’ (Martino et al. 2013) to address this question.

Lesson IX: The hormones vasopressin and testosterone are involved in swearing Even though most of the studies related to aggression and hormones are from the nonhuman animal literature and their results depend on species and sex, there is much evidence that high vasopressin contribute to aggression. Observations of humans strongly suggest that high testosterone contributes to swearing. But culture matters too as Albers observed in hamsters and vasopressin, and as some human studies observed, women can swear like men, especially when they are among other women (e.g., Stapleton 2003; Risch 1987; Lakoff 1975; Campbell 2013). The emerging picture is complex and is beyond the scope of this chapter.

7.7  Swearing and pain Can swearing reduce pain?

7.7.1 Swearing and thermal pain A group of psychologists at Keele University investigated the question of whether swearing alters individual experience of pain (Stephens et al. 2009). Testing sixty-​seven students, the researchers compared pain tolerance and the perception of pain while immersing a hand in cold water (5°C, 41°F). The participants were instructed to utter certain words during the experiment. Some repeated swear words, others repeated

Swearing and the brain    133 neutral words. The researchers compared both an objective measurement for pain tolerance—​the duration of keeping the hand in the water—​and a subjective measure of the perception of the pain as reported by the participants. Significant differences were found in both the quantitative measure of pain tolerance and the qualitative perception of pain. Swearing increased the tolerance to thermal pain and decreased the subjective perception of pain significantly more than neutral words did.

7.7.2 Physical and social pain Does swearing affect only thermal pain? We are all familiar with uttering expletives in response to many kinds of sudden and sharp pain—​when cutting a finger while preparing a salad, when someone in the crowd steps on our foot, or when dropping a heavy box on our toes. Those who are present in a delivery room—​be it a medical practitioner or a significant other—​often have to listen to a well-​mannered woman welcoming her emerging new baby with a stream of expletives. The British-​ American anthropologist Ashley Montagu (1905–​ 99) cited the nineteenth-​ century philologist D.  W. Whitney, who suggested that the origin of swearing is a cry of pain or a growl of anger (Montagu 1968). We already examined the relationship between anger and swearing. As for pain—​this is an interesting word that stands in many languages for both emotional and physical experiences. Indeed, it has turned out to be more than just metaphorical. Several fMRI studies found that the anterior insula (Figure 7.7) and the anterior cingulate cortex (Figure 7.8), both of the limbic system, participate in physical and emotional pain; especially when the emotional pain is over social rejection or social loss (Damasio 2001; Damasio et al. 2000; Eisenberger et al. 2003; Eisenberger 2012; Panksepp 2003). Earlier we learned that increased activity in the ACC is linked to coprolalia (Lesson IV). Maybe, then, the coprolalia of the person afflicted with TS serves the purpose of decreasing the pain, physical or emotional, or both.

Lesson X: Swearing can reduce pain While most of what we know about swearing as analgesic is limited to episodic behavioral observations, there is the empirical study of Stephens and colleagues about the analgesic effect of swearing for thermal pain. And there are the correlations between activation of the ACC and social pain (Eisenberger et al. 2003) that might suggest that one role of coprolalia is to decrease pain.

7.8  Swearing and sociocultural inhibition Swearing is closely related to taboo (Allan and Burridge 2006), which it violates. The spoonerisms-​of-​laboratory-​induced-​predisposition (SLIP) experimental paradigm,

134   Shlomit Ritz Finkelstein induces verbal slips in laboratory studies, and has been used to identify inhibition to uttering expressions that are socioculturally prohibited.19 Severens and colleagues (2011) used an event-​related potential (ERP) paradigm, which uses electrodes located on the skull to measure brain electrical response to specific stimuli. Based on many past studies, certain ERP signals at around 600 milliseconds are interpreted as indicating an internal conflict. Applying the SLIP paradigm, the authors identified components indicating internal conflict following spoonerism that elicited taboo words, even when, thanks to the inhibiting mechanism, the words were not uttered. To identify the substrata of this inhibition, Severens and colleagues followed their original SLIP-​ERP study with a SLIP-​fMRI study (2012). Subjects had to do a SLIP task, which was designed to elicit taboo or neutral spoonerisms while being scanned. The authors found activation of the right inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) when inhibiting the utterance of the taboo words.

Lesson XI: Bilateral IFG collaboration is necessary for inhibiting swearing The Severens experimental association of the right IFG with social inhibition agrees with the finding of reduced volume of the right IFG found by Worbe in patients with coprolalia in Tourette syndrome (2010), as we expect that reduced volume of the right IFG would impair its ability to impose social inhibition. But how can we bridge this finding with the lessons from Leborgne and others, who, despite having intact right hemispheres, uttered swearing expressions correctly and violated the sociocultural inhibition on swearing? The possibility of necessary collaboration between the left and right IFGs to achieve social inhibition is strongly suggested in a review about the role of the right IFG in inhibition (Aron et al. 2004) and is marked by the authors as important for further future research. The possible necessity for bilateral collaboration can explain how inhibition would be impaired when either of the IFGs is lesioned. When the left IFG is lesioned, as in the case of Leborgne, the collaboration is impaired. According to this model, while the automatic expletive Sacré nom de Dieu was accessible to Leborgne thanks to his intact right hemisphere, the inhibition on uttering such an inappropriate expletive was impaired since no collaboration was possible with the lesioned left IFG.

7.9 Discussion This chapter focused on the producer of swearing and on expletives. It followed the historical progress of the science of brain and behavior, beginning with the erroneous but

19  In a SLIP experiment, participants silently read word pairs and are required to pronounce some of them after a cue. The phonological composition of the word pairs is such that they sometimes elicit exchanges of initial phonemes, e.g., tool kits gets replaced by cool tits. The verbal slip is interpreted by psycholinguists as violating the unconscious pre-​articulated editing that verifies the linguistic integrity of impending phoneme strings destined for articulation. The validity of the SLIP paradigm was verified by (Motley et al. 1981).

Swearing and the brain    135 ultimately important phrenological assumption about mapping behaviors to specific brain regions, and proceeded to the modern understanding of complex interactions between all behavior, and specifically swearing, with the brain—​a network assembled from subnetworks with regions, neuronal connections, and neurochemicals. We followed the stories of four individuals who lived in the second half of the nineteenth century and suffered from aphasia, Tourette syndrome, a brain injury, and Alzheimer’s disease, all accompanied by expletives. In some cases, expletives survive even though propositional language is lost as in Leborgne and in other aphasia patients, or propositional language deteriorates as in Johann F. and other AD patients. In other cases, propositional language is preserved as in Phineas Gage or in others like the Marquise de Dampierre and many more individuals afflicted with TS, but their swearing is unusually frequent and often appears to be involuntary. Following the threads generated by The Four, we examined other individual-​and population-​studies of swearing focusing only on right-​handed/​left-​brained people. Autopsies and in vivo structural imaging point to the labor distribution between the right and left hemispheres of both the cortex and the basal ganglia (Lessons I and III). Expletives, like other automatic language (e.g., counting numbers, intonation), rely on the right hemisphere, and therefore swearing can happen even when the left hemisphere, which is important for propositional language, is lesioned, as long as the right hemisphere is intact (Lesson I). Refraining from swearing, obeying the sociocultural inhibition on swearing, requires support of both hemispheres. Only a collaboration between them, and especially between their inferior frontal gyri, can prevent socially-​inappropriate swearing. If the left IFG is lesioned, the right hemisphere that can produce the swearing will not succeed inhibiting its utterance (Lessons II and XI). The prefrontal cortex, within which the IFG is included, is responsible for the executive functions and controls behavior through inhibitory mechanisms. It is an important guardian against swearing and when it is lesioned, involuntary expletives get uttered despite their social inappropriateness (Lessons II and VII). The responses to clinical implant of electrodes in the brain (DBS) inform us about the participation of the cortico-​striato-​thalamocortical (CSTC) circuits in swearing. Among the CSTC circuits, the limbic-​and the PFC-​ones are implicated in swearing. The basal ganglia, and in it especially the striatum, the globus pallidus, and the subthalamic nucleus are important contributors to swearing. So is the thalamus (Lesson V). The functionally connected elements of the limbic system, especially the insula and the anterior cingulate cortex showed activation during coprolalia. They also showed activation during pain caused by social rejection, which might be linked to swearing as reducing pain (Lessons IV and X). Responses of the afflicted to pharmacological treatments provide evidence that the neurotransmitters dopamine (high) and serotonin (low) contribute to swearing (Lesson VIII). Samples taken from the cerebrospinal fluid provide information about the contribution of the hormones vasopressin (high) and testosterone (high) to aggression, including the verbal aggression of swearing (Lesson IX).

136   Shlomit Ritz Finkelstein And finally, the cerebellum, not considered anymore as involved only in motor behavior, is directly connected to various regions in the cerebral cortex, the subcortex, and the brainstem, and has shown in various imaging studies that it is an active player in swearing (Lesson VI). The picture so far is rich and complex but far from being complete. Many questions are still open. Much future research is called for and based on the lessons accumulated in this chapter, I would like to propose two tentative and somewhat related hypotheses that suggest possible directions for future research.

7.9.1 Hypothesis I: Expletives compete with other behaviors The study of Stephens and colleagues (2009) demonstrates an interaction between thermal pain and swearing. Why? A possibility, still waiting for unambiguous empirical evidence, is that they share neural substrata. Indeed, the limbic system, the basal ganglia and its dopamine, and the cerebellum participate in both. But maybe more important is the periaqueductal gray (PAG). The periaqueductal gray is the gray matter that surrounds the cerebral aqueduct in the midbrain, which contains the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). PAG is well connected to some regions in the cortex and the hypothalamus and among its main functions are vocalization and transmission of ascending and descending pain signals (Behbehani 1995). Studies with cats, monkeys, and rats showed attenuation of pain in lesioned PAG. Reynolds (1969) and Mayer and colleagues (1971) reported abdominal surgeries in rats with only electrical, rather than chemical, analgesia in the PAG. While the mechanisms by which PAG stimulation produces analgesia are not completely understood, it is known that the area is rich in opiate receptors. In addition and importantly, vocalization can be triggered or muted by stimulating or lesioning specific regions in PAG. Studies with cats, rats, chimpanzees, and monkeys triggered vocalization by stimulating certain territories of PAG. But lesions to the dorsal parts of PAG in cats muted the animals. Much greater specificity is required before a claim of shared substrata between pain and vocalization in PAG can be made. As for aggression—​we cited Hughlings Jackson’s suggestion that swearing replaces physical aggression (1958). His suggestion is supported by observations of the vocalizations of nonhuman primates. In Our Inner Ape, the primatologist Frans de Waal describes how a group of female chimpanzees barked at an alpha male to prevent him from attacking another male. ‘Had [he] failed to stop, there would undoubtedly have been concerted action to end the disturbance’ (2005). The question of whether non-​ linguistic vocalization and swearing are related is an important one and I will address it in Hypothesis II, when considering the evolution of language. Maybe in aggression, as in pain, swearing ‘steals’ resources from physical violence and replaces them with symbolic, verbal, aggression or aggressive vocalization. The mechanisms involved in such competitions over resources might vary and can express a perceptual process or a cognitive process. There is the possibility that the distraction from

Swearing and the brain    137 pain is on the cognitive level, rather than on the reflexive level of PAG, and then it is the attention to swearing that takes away from the attention to pain and cortical regions are more likely to be involved. A similarly careful examination has to be applied to exploring the possibility that aggressive vocalization and verbalization replace physical violence.

7.9.2 Hypothesis II: Expletives might contribute to our understanding of the evolution of language Swearing often aims for, and achieves, outcomes similar to those of nonlinguistic vocalizations. In a study that follows a protocol much like that of Stephens and colleagues (2009), in which swearing decreased the perception of thermal pain and increased the tolerance to it, Swee and Schirmer (2015) tested the effect of screaming ‘Ow!’ on immersing one’s hand in cold water of 4° Celsius. They found that the nonlinguistic vocalization reduced the pain experience and increased pain tolerance. Swearing can be replaced by a nonlinguistic vocalization in Tourette syndrome: Steven, who suffers from TS, and whom we met earlier, uses vocalization to replace coprolalia. He uses grunts instead of fuck, shit, nigger, fucking slut, and ‘My cousin is a slut’ at her confirmation party: ‘I got rid of it [the coprolalia] by turning it all into grunts, all of it.’ The grunts satisfy Steve’s urge to swear without being offensive (Finkelstein et al. 2007c). Expletives seem to share much with nonlinguistic human utterances like laughter, crying, or screams. These utterances are often, even though not always, involuntary; they are automatic; and they express emotions (Panksepp 2005; Darwin 1871, 1872/​1965). Neurologically, they are under the dominant control of the right hemisphere (Panksepp 2005). And they are all culturally dependent. Do all these utterances resemble animal vocalizations? This is a question highly studied and fiercely debated. Specifically, (i) could swearing be better explained by understanding animal calls, and (ii) could considering both swearing and animal vocalization contribute to our understanding of the evolution of language? In the absence of fossil evidence, the search for the origin of language lacks empirical evidence. This lack led the Linguistic Society of Paris in 1866 to ban all publications about the origin of language (Hewes 1996). This ban did not stop Darwin from reflecting in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animal (1872/​1965) on the question of the origin of human language and conversing in his book with others who studied this question. One year before publishing The Expressions Darwin dedicated an entire section in The Descent of Man (1871: 55) to reflecting on the evolution of language. Today, with rich human–​nonhuman comparative research, new behavioral observations, new technologies, and the science of genetics, people have renewed their search for the origin of language. Considering Rizzolatti and Craighero’s discovery of mirror neurons (2004) and studies of sign languages, the neuro-​and computer-​scientist Michael Arbib hypothesizes that human protolanguage started with gesture (Arbib 2008). He proposes a trajectory in which ‘protolanguage evolved with gestural communication or protosign providing the scaffolding for protospeech by transforming the

138   Shlomit Ritz Finkelstein semantic openness of pantomime into a system of shared conventionalized symbols’ (Arbib 2012: x). According to this trajectory, the protosign has acquired a rich communicative power with ‘semantic openness’ before it provided scaffolding for protospeech. Unlike Arbib, Darwin suggested a multimodal evolution of ‘inarticulate cries . . . aided by gestures and the movements of the muscles of the face’ (1871: 55) as leading to human language. Today rich research about ‘inarticulate cries’ points to communicative cries within species. Famous are the studies of vervet monkeys that have distinct calls for leopards, eagles, and snakes—​each requires different escape strategy (Seyfarth et al. 1980). The debate around whether human language is a descendant of such calls considers (i) the different structures of the vocal apparatus in humans and other animals; (ii) the comparative studies of neural substrata in nonhuman primates, birds, and humans; and (iii) the relative roles of nature versus nurture in producing calls from birth, as with the vervet monkeys, versus learning songs, as in birds (for arguments concerning this debate see Ackermann et al. 2014; Fitch et al. 2016, 2017; Lieberman 2017; Owren et al. 2011). Expletives appear to be inbetween propositional language and calls. Behaviorally, (i) we recall Hughlings Jackson’s ‘We scarcely say anything when we swear, although we utter words’; (ii) we notice that the intonation of the very same word can turn it from a harsh and highly offensive utterance to a term of endearment (Dawson 2009); and (iii) we observe that in some cultures the insult is often only in the intonation of the word. Words that are emotionally neutral and completely appropriate culturally can turn into insult only by their intonation (Wajnryb 2005). Physiologically, responding to thermal pain with either an expletive or a cry can lead to similar results of diminishing the pain and increasing the tolerance to it. Neurophysiologically, swearing, like music and prosody, relies on the right hemisphere more than the left one. Keeping an evolutionary frame of mind (i) might lead to a better linguistic and neurophysiological understanding of swearing itself as being inbetween propositional language and nonlinguistic vocalization and (ii) might contribute to the debate about the evolution of language.

7.9.3 Future directions Many important topics in the young science of swearing and the brain were not discussed here, including, but not limited to: swearing and the brain of the hearer; developmental aspects of swearing in the young and the aging populations; the biological substrata that link swearing and culture; the fact that not all swearing is the same—​ aphasia swearing and TS swearing result from different lesions; swearing and genetics; and swearing and other forms of automatic, formulaic language. Another important and complex topic that is relevant here is the distinction between automatic, reflexive, and involuntary behaviors. Often people apply them interchangeably, but are they indeed the same? In discussing swearing in the afflicted this question becomes important. Should the automatic coprolalia of TS be considered involuntary

Swearing and the brain    139 when the person who swears experiences relief in the urge to swear and expects such a relief? This is still a debated question. My hypotheses were presented with trepidation. But they suggest possible paths for future research. The Talmudic sage Rabbi Tarfon of the first century said, ‘The day is short [and] the labor vast . . . You are not obliged to complete the work, but neither are you free to evade it’ (Avoth ii. 15). I doubt that by ‘labor’ Rabbi Tarfon meant the study of swearing, but we are invited to adopt his advice.

Acknowledgements I am deeply grateful to Aria R. Finkelstein, Melvin Konner, Lynne C. Nygaard, Jay W. Schwartz, and Kyle W.  Simmons for productive discussions and for their thorough readings of this chapter and their helpful suggestions.

Chapter 8

sticky: Tab o o topi c s in deaf c om mu ni t i e s jami n. fisher, gene mirus, and donna jo napoli

8.1 Introduction Talking about taboo in sign languages is tricky fun that can turn sticky fast.1 Many grammatical aspects of taboo language are of interest to linguists. We have dealt with several of these with respect to the analysis of American Sign Language (ASL) in two other works, focusing attention on the lexicon with regard to phonology and morphology (Mirus et al. 2012) and on syntax (Napoli et al. 2013). Our conclusion is that sign taboo offers a playground for linguistic creativity, just as it does in spoken languages (Napoli and Hoeksema 2009). In this way, taboo in sign languages belongs to a number of genres that promote and relish linguistic innovations, including humor, poetry, and storytelling (Sutton-​Spence and Napoli 2009; Sutton-​Spence and Kaneko 2016). Discussion of taboo in sign languages and deaf communities is also sticky—​hence the name of our paper—​and far from fun if one looks at what kinds of linguistic behaviors are taboo, including topics of conversation as well as particulars of signing in various contexts. Some taboo behavior involves interactions of deaf 2 with hearing. 1 

In this chapter, words that are written in small capitals indicate a gloss of the sign from American Sign Language. In this case, sticky is a sign used to suggest a touchy—​or taboo—​subject. 2  For decades, people in Deaf Studies and a large majority of members in deaf communities used a capital ‘D’ to indicate a sociological affiliation and a lower-​case ‘d’ to indicate audiological status only. The sociological affiliation is commonly—​and perhaps too loosely—​termed Deaf culture. To avoid misunderstanding, we do not use the term culture. Like some others in our field, we choose to break from the ‘d/​D’ convention to avoid being mired in identity politics and marginalization of deaf people who might not fit squarely into these arbitrary boundaries. Doing so is not a rejection or minimization of the sociocultural tendencies of those in what we refer to below as deaf communities, but rather, is meant to be inclusive of the various and individual ways of being deaf.

sticky: Taboo topics in deaf communities     141 Other taboo behavior and topics involve interactions among deaf. Talking about the latter to a non-​deaf audience can be like hanging out dirty laundry before a group that was never supposed to see such intimate things. The very discussion is, in a sense, taboo. Yet that is what we are going to do here: open conversations for the sake of inter-​and intra-​community awareness and parity. While the matters we discuss are pertinent to the past and the present situation of signers in a world where the majority is hearing and speaking, our observations and conclusions allow for analogies to other oppressed linguistic communities. As such, they may alert scholars to the possibilities of taboos beyond the usual—​and perhaps nearly universal—​ones involving religion, sex, bodily functions, and death. These less usual taboos are specific to the nature of the oppression the community experiences. Further, we will point out diversity within deaf communities, where the collective experience of navigating a predominantly hearing world is often central—​implicitly or explicitly—​to connecting with other community members. Intuitively, these connections center on the use of a sign language, but even those deaf who do not sign have commonalities with deaf people who do. People in deaf communities often seek each other out for social purposes but also for political ones. They rally around issues of sign language rights and against discrimination, working toward parity of access and respect for deaf people everywhere. More recently, deaf communities have become much more open to non-​signers, looking to find connections and alliances to further such common goals. All this is pertinent to linguists and the field of linguistics. Often linguists gather data from a small contingent of a community, where that contingent is educationally elite. Data from a different contingent might lead to (sometimes drastically) different results, with different impact on linguistic theory. Linguists tend to see those data in spoken languages as falling within the purview of sociolinguistics. But in deaf communities those data might be more representative of the majority of signers, so casting a light on the existence of signers other than the elite may help linguists do a better job in describing and analyzing sign languages. Thus, in the spirit of both respect for people and customs in deaf communities and service to our field, we cautiously but frankly mire ourselves in the following rudimentary and crude overview.

8.2  Overly simplified but necessary background People in deaf communities have highly varied linguistic experiences and abilities. Many spent years of frustration learning to vocalize while being denied sign. So sign is dear to them in a way hard for most hearing people to comprehend at first. If a hearing child grows up in a speaking or signing environment, that child will acquire language naturally—​without heroic efforts on anyone’s part. And if a deaf child grows up in a

142    Jami N. Fisher, Gene Mirus, and Donna Jo Napoli signing environment, that child will likewise acquire language naturally—​no heroes required. But 96% of deaf children in the USA are born into hearing families (Moores 2001; Mitchell and Karchmer 2004), and it takes heroic efforts for those children to acquire language. Most parents are not initially equipped to provide them accessible language from birth. Furthermore, most parents are not aware of—​nor are they provided with—​adequate resources for learning a sign language. Lastly, efforts to deter hearing parents from teaching their deaf children to sign are pervasive and coordinated (Mauldin 2016). In developed countries (such as the USA and Europe) the majority of deaf newborns are given a cochlear implant within the first two years of life. Most times hearing families choose to raise their implanted child orally, to the exclusion of signing, on the advice of medical professionals (Humphries et al. 2017). The majority of these children do not develop a firm foundation in language from only oral input, regardless of how diligent the family is in their rehabilitative exercises. That is, cochlear implants do not make a child hear; what they do is convert auditory input into electrical impulses that go directly to the cochlear nerve. But the human brain did not evolve to interpret such signals as language, so children with cochlear implants must be trained (for long hours, every day, for years) in order to have a chance at distinguishing language among those signals. Many do not succeed, despite excellent care and training. Once the family realizes and accepts that the child is not developing linguistically and cognitively as hoped, they turn to sign, often after the period when the child’s brain is most plastic and most ready to acquire language (Humphries et al. 2012 and many others). At this point, families learn to sign (to varying degrees) and, hopefully, bring their deaf children to events where they will have good signing models. The children are latecomers to language and, while they typically adopt signing as their most comfortable means of communication, their signing stands out as distinct from signers who learned during the first few years of life; further, there is evidence that the architecture of the brain is affected by early linguistic deprivation (Pénicaud et al. 2013). So, while for the vast majority of hearing people immediate language acquisition is a given, deaf people often have to struggle for the right to acquire a first language. In turn, most deaf people are aware that immediate and consistent exposure to a first sign language is a gift. It is within this framework that the varieties of taboos we address have arisen. Many, if not all, of these taboos center on one type of privilege or another.

8.3  Deaf in a hearing world Sticky matters arise between hearing and deaf people at the community and individual level. Topics here in Section 8.3 center on the interface of deaf and hearing people, with attention to the effects of power dynamics, including oppression and marginalization of deaf people by the hearing.

sticky: Taboo topics in deaf communities     143

8.3.1 Linguistic and cultural appropriation When a hearing person learns to speak a second language, such as an American English speaker learning Japanese, the situations in which they will use Japanese are generally limited; unless they find themselves talking with a Japanese speaker or go to Japan, they are unlikely to speak Japanese much outside the L2 classroom (although resourceful students might find some outlets, Benson and Reinders 2011). Even when language students go abroad to the country where the L2 is spoken, they often do not use it on a daily basis (Tanaka 2007). In particular, the chances of them becoming bold enough to assume the role of teaching Japanese to others are low to nil unless they explicitly train to do that. They might think of telling a Japanese person that the pronunciation of the word they had learned for a particular meaning was different from the one that the Japanese speaker was using, but they would never do it in a way that suggested the Japanese speaker might be wrong. And it is ludicrous to think that they might present themselves as an authority on Japanese haiku or the traditional Japanese Kabuki or Noh theater or even on contemporary Japanese rap without extensive study. Not so when a hearing person learns to sign. Students of sign languages often communicate to varying degrees in the sign language outside of the L2 classroom, and they do it in public. Signing has advantages that spoken languages lack—​such as being able to communicate without others noticing, across a room, in a quiet space such as a library, with taboo messages without fear of reprisal, and so on. This is an interesting linguistic situation. New signers often feel empowered quickly, even though, in fact, ASL students are only moderately good at assessing their own competence in signing (Stauffer 2012). That empowerment leads them to doing the very sorts of things mentioned above that they probably would not do when studying a spoken language, raising the hackles of deaf people. An ASL student teaching another hearing person how to sign something—​and incorrectly as often as correctly—​is commonplace. Often these ASL students do not hesitate to do this in front of deaf signers, sometimes even looking for congratulations on what amounts to garbled signing. If they do not know a sign, they might make one up. And, while, yes, signs are coined largely using iconicity (see Napoli 2017 for an overview), there are so many different factors in the sense of a lexical item that offer a jumping point for iconicity that the lexicons of different sign languages are neither predictable nor mutually intelligible. So these guesses are likely to be wrong. This kind of behavior can be taken as annoying disrespect for sign languages in general, since no one would simply make up a word in Japanese (or any other spoken language) if they didn’t know the correct word. But perhaps not as annoying as one of the most common taboos between hearing sign language learners and deaf signers: telling a deaf person, ‘That’s not how I was taught to make that sign,’ and then making the sign as if the deaf person should receive it with interest, if not gratitude. If you told a speaker from Tokyo that you pronounce the word arigato differently from how she pronounces it, she might write you off as a fool, but would probably not be offended. But doing the same to a deaf person is sharply offensive

144    Jami N. Fisher, Gene Mirus, and Donna Jo Napoli as it is an immediate reminder that a deaf person’s linguistic and social legitimacy and autonomy have historically been, and still are, regularly scrutinized, challenged, and suppressed by hearing people. But hearing people sometimes go beyond gaffes. They can become enamored of signing and of deaf communities. This is understandable; learning a second language can give the sense that one has a different identity, a different soul even, in that other language, and that can be thrilling (Wilson 2013). ASL students can fall in love with this new world and their new self in that world, and this can lead to people appropriating deaf-​community tendencies in a way that stings. As Zarrilli (2005: 91) observes when talking about acting: Experiencing an-​‘other’ can lead to a profound (re)consideration of one’s own paradigms and models of drama as well as performance practice; however, as Edward Said (1978) has shown, it can also lead to an equally profound and disturbing form of colonial appropriation of techniques and/​or misrepresentation of another culture.

This appropriation is common on the Internet today, where, for example, many hearing people have chosen to perform a sign version of a popular song. While some say they do it with the hopes of conveying the beauty of signing, they are missing the point that signing is not a form of performance art, but real language (Solomon and Miller 2014). They wouldn’t perform a song in Spanish before an audience unless they were fluent in Spanish, so why are they doing this in a sign language? They are misrepresenting and, at times, fetishizing the language, and the frustrating—​perhaps infuriating—​part is that their audience doesn’t know that. So while we might laugh at someone who sings a song in Spanish with a grating American accent (which we might detect even if we don’t know Spanish), we might admire and even mimic someone who signs a song in ASL with who-​knows-​what kind of pronunciation. What might be appropriate for people to do in their dorms behind closed doors is different from what is appropriate for people to do before an audience—​particularly the unlimited and unsuspecting audience one can reach on the Internet. Another case of linguistic and cultural appropriation is when a non-​fluent signer from outside deaf communities uses bits of signing for self-​promotion and profit. Such cases of cherry-​picking language and presenting oneself as a teacher-​expert of the language is taboo, particularly when that language is of an oppressed minority community and one is not a member of that community. The site known as Dirty Signs with Kristin, for example, teaches obscene signs that are often inaccurate, and can come off as derogatory and exploitative of deaf people and deaf community members (Powell 2012; TrueBizMe 2012). In 2012, the site’s creator, Kristin Henson, published a book of obscene signs, financially profiting from her inappropriate behavior. Widespread public outcry from deaf communities arose against her videos and the book, with assertions that they showed, at best, extreme cultural insensitivity while appropriating sign language and exploiting deaf people in the process (Permenter 2012; TrueBizMe 2012). In contrast to Henson’s site is a recent video of deaf people demonstrating and explaining

sticky: Taboo topics in deaf communities     145 various profanities (Taylor 2017). Some signers in this video carefully point out how English profanities aren’t necessarily open to verbatim translation (although at least one of the signs presented is more a joke sign than an everyday taboo sign: bullshit). This video is a particularly important contrast to Henson’s, as it features deaf signers giving their own perspectives on, and examples of, taboo signs that they see and use in everyday conversations. These authentic, deaf-​community insights reveal taboo without exploitation. There is a well-​known disinhibiting effect on the Internet, which has been pointed to as a factor in why people will reveal online intimate and often damaging information about themselves and others (Suler 2004). Further, language and topics that are taboo in one’s own linguistic community can seem less taboo in another language, as though the other language somehow disembodies us (Gawinkowska et al. 2013). Finally, interest in the obscenities of other languages is high (as any language teacher can verify; some promote discussing taboo language in the L2 classroom, see Mercury 1995). Nevertheless, when it comes to sign languages, something goes beyond this general tendency regarding the Internet and general interest in obscenities in L2. Perhaps the highly visual nature of sign languages creates an allure—​a voyeuristic relish in the graphic nature of sign taboo. This is where the offense comes in: dirty signs, like off-​color jokes and jokes that deal with a community’s prejudices, are in poor taste, and that poor taste belongs to the community, not to outsiders (Sutton-​Spence and Napoli 2009). Most, if not all, of us have things we would say to someone in our community that we would never dream of saying to someone outside; outsiders might not understand those things in the way we intend them. The Internet has been a tremendously useful tool for deaf communities. In fact, deaf communities have become more globally connected via the Internet. Individuals who never had a voice before can now exercise one to great extent and reach an audience of followers to gain momentum to effect significant change within and outside their respective groups. But the Internet has also been a tool of exposure and marginalization (Saunders 2016), where those with hearing privilege can appropriate sign languages and deaf-​community norms for personal gain or power at the expense of deaf people and communities, stomping further and harder on an oppressed minority.

8.3.2 Issues involving identity In a conversation involving deaf people it is important to reveal your auditory status right away. A hearing person who enters a sign conversation and is taken to be deaf but later is discovered to be hearing can engender a sense of violation among the deaf signers. That hearing person was putting herself in the position of potentially taking part in in-​group language and behavior—​thus taking part in matters critical to the identity of the deaf conversation participants (Tropp and Wright 2001). Further, a hearing person who allows herself to be taken as deaf can be perceived as taking unfair advantage of being able to sign—​she can pretend to be deaf, while a deaf person cannot pretend to be

146    Jami N. Fisher, Gene Mirus, and Donna Jo Napoli hearing. She assaults the identity of the deaf people she has fooled, an identity as part of an in-​group that is important to self-​esteem (see Bat-​Chava 1994). Signing and deaf-​community tendencies have become so popular in the past couple of decades that we now find deaf groupies and even deaf wannabes, with a website for group interaction (Deaf-​Wannabee, founded in 2000) and blogs by individual wannabes (such as that by Marie, started in 2007: http://​makemedeaf.blogspot.​search?updated-​max=2007-​11-​17T14:23:00Z). The interlopers are hearing people who adopt deaf ways of being and sometimes even mutilate their bodies so that they lose their hearing (for a discussion of one such person, see Veale 2006). The number of deaf wannabes has grown sharply; they are now recognized as having a pathology that the medical profession needs to find a coherent way to manage (Davey and Phillips 2013). The whole idea that hearing people would want to become deaf can be offensive to deaf communities. Deaf people, particularly those with hearing aids or cochlear implants, have to work hard in a hearing environment, straining to understand even a minimal amount. Other deaf people are simply left out in a hearing environment. Choosing to deafen oneself is tantamount to a slap in the face to deaf people, whose work in a hearing environment is not recognized and who would love to have the chance to simply relax, with the effortless access to speech hearing people have (Carter 2008). This is not to say that deaf people do not appreciate being deaf. Many do, particularly signers, and they explain to others the benefits of deafhood (as in videos, such as that by Ella Mae Lentz (2014) and others done for the Deafhood Foundation or independently). As I. King Jordan, former President of Gallaudet University, answered in 1990 when he was asked if he’d rather be hearing, ‘That’s almost like asking a black person if he would rather be white . . . I don’t think of myself as missing something or as incomplete . . . . It’s a common fallacy if you don’t know deaf people or deaf issues. You think it’s a limitation’ (Fine and Fine 1990). That said, there is still no sense in which the deaf proselytize for deafness among the hearing. Rather, the idea is that a healthy identity involves accepting oneself and embracing one’s experiences as a deaf person. Deaf groupies and wannabes do not ingratiate themselves with deaf communities. Further, there are hearing people new to the whole idea of deaf communities who police the boundaries of deaf identity more fiercely than deaf people do. They want to toe the line so much that they wind up excluding many deaf people based on arbitrary notions of deaf ideals. Another identity matter relevant to our discussion arises with the terms disability, disabled, handicap, and the like. Certainly, not all functional diversity is looked at the same way by everyone; even among communities of people who have been labeled ‘disabled’ there are significant differences in attitudes (Deal 2003, among many). Further, today people are moving away from a dysfunctional model toward a diversity model with respect to (nearly) everything previously gathered under the disability aegis. But that movement is old hat for members of deaf communities. For decades there have been those who said that deafness is not a disability, but simply an auditory status (Lane 2002). And in places where the incidence of deafness is high (as with village sign languages), being deaf or not is simply one more trait a person has, like hair color or

sticky: Taboo topics in deaf communities     147 height (Lane et al. 2000). Deaf cannot hear; beyond that, deaf can, a phrase used in deaf communities to indicate that deaf people’s hearing status is not a limitation. Deaf people are represented across the professions, where many are famous (e.g., see Start ASL 2008–​17). Many other deaf people have simply lived and are living without fame in satisfaction and success (see articles in Longmore and Umansky 2001). And the areas in which they find satisfaction and success can surprise hearing people. For example, deaf can produce music that enthrals, whether they were deafened in late childhood (as with Evelyn Glennie; Glennie 2003) or prelingually deaf (as with Sean Forbes; NPR staff 2010). Likewise, deaf can appreciate music (as with the fans of the Grateful Dead known as Deafheads, Jurgensen 2015). Deaf can dance with grace and rhythm (see Nyle & Peta’s freestyle to ‘The sounds of silence’ 2016), even if vision is cut off (as in Nyle & Peta’s tango to ‘Unsteady’ 2016). Nevertheless, deaf people are quick to note their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and to call for an interpreter when the situation requires one. Thus the label of disabled is not one deaf apply to themselves; but, in fact, deaf recognize that situations can effectively cut off their ability to communicate, thus situationally disabling them. This is one of those instances in which the purpose of using the label determines whether or not it is taboo. One issue of identity involves the signs that a signing hearing person knows. Let us use place names as an example. In an introductory ASL course, typically one learns the sign names for some countries and cities, but also for many towns and institutions in the local area. The local deaf school, for example, is of primary importance to the local deaf community. And cities where there are influential deaf schools and deaf institutions are as central to knowledge about deaf life in the USA as the sprawling cities of New York, Los Angeles, and Miami are to knowledge about hearing life in the USA. If you don’t learn these, and, worse, if you are an interpreter and you don’t learn these, you are showing disrespect to the community (Suggs 2012). Some hearing people who become hard-​of-​hearing refuse to wear a hearing aid and, instead, insist that everyone speak loudly with them or simply don’t understand the communication around them (although they might pretend to). This behavior can be taken as an affront to deaf people, as though being identified as deaf is so much to be avoided that it’s better not to be part of communication. Deaf people are not wrong to see such behavior as suspect; in the USA, only 14% of people over age fifty with hearing loss use a hearing aid—​due to a range of reasons, but one of them is that ‘hearing aids still carry a stigma’ (Seliger 2012). Hearing people often take months or even years of knowing each other before they reveal crucial parts of their history to each other. Deaf signers, instead, often learn a lot about each other at a first meeting—​including not just where they were born, raised, educated, and family situation, but whether this is their third marriage and how they feel about the new president. As Swinbourne (2013) says, ‘Why was your mother-​in-​law imprisoned in Cambodia on that family holiday? We need to know.’ The example is humorous, but there’s a truth behind it. When a deaf person opens up to a hearing person and there is no reciprocity, the very act of playing one’s cards close to the chest can feel like casting aspersions on the deaf way of relating, and thus on deaf identity.

148    Jami N. Fisher, Gene Mirus, and Donna Jo Napoli Another taboo offense is to make assumptions based solely on the fact that someone is deaf. Just as not all sign languages are the same, not all deaf people are—​intellectually, politically, or otherwise. And most of all, not all deaf people sign and not all deaf people want to help hearing people practice their signing. Just the same as it would be for hearing people, treating deaf people as a monolith is bound to result in mischaracterizations and, in turn, offense.

8.3.3 Hearing privilege Hearing privilege is vitally important to address when discussing taboo in deaf communities and deaf–​hearing interactions. Such privilege—​conscious or not, intentional or not—​is central to the continued oppression of deaf people. Inattention to this privilege, especially for those hearing who work with or otherwise participate in deaf-​community activities, is frowned upon; intentional use of this privilege is oppressive and obviously taboo. In any case, it is imperative to be self-​aware and deliberate in avoiding exerting hearing privilege in deaf–​hearing interactions and engaging with deaf communities. If you are in a sign conversation and a hearing person comes along, it is taboo to talk with that third person without finding a way to include the deaf person. Some deaf people find simultaneous communication (signing and speaking at the same time) an acceptable way to be included, though this method can still be limiting, for it is not really possible to equally represent spoken and sign languages simultaneously despite the fact that the different modalities physically allow for simultaneous articulation. This taboo is interesting linguistically because if an Italian friend of yours passed and you spoke Italian, you might turn away from a hearing person you were speaking English with to talk with your friend in Italian for a moment without bothering to translate the Italian into English. What makes the situation with a deaf person different is the role of privilege in such encounters. A  hearing person could, in principle, learn any spoken language. However, a deaf person is excluded from accessing a spoken language on the basis of biology. Thus, the hearing person in this scenario has a privilege—​and ultimately, power—​to choose to include or exclude the deaf person. But speaking any oral language is not automatically exclusive of other hearing people. Perhaps your hearing friend would consider you rude if you interrupted your communication with a quick exchange in Italian. In contrast, your deaf friend might wonder if you were truly friends. Another privilege that hearing people enjoy is incidental information in everyday contexts. Hearing people are bombarded with informative content via speech, whether or not it is directed at them and whether or not they put effort into listening to it. In contrast, deaf people are typically not bombarded with information via sign. Instead, deaf people frequently find themselves in contexts where the norm is oral–​aural communication. In such environments, following one stream of information without a

sticky: Taboo topics in deaf communities     149 sign language mediator expends significant effort and is quickly tiring with little informational reward. Attending to multiple streams is disorienting and likely counter-​ productive. Hearing people have the privilege of skipping from conversation stream to conversation stream at their own whim; instead, deaf people in a hearing context would need a non-​verbal cue that another conversation might be of interest to attend to. This goes for signing deaf people as well as deaf people with cochlear implants; too much spoken information overloads the interlocutor and minimizes information access. In fact, turn taking and attention to visual cues is deeply ingrained into the conversational habits of deaf communities; each person has an equal opportunity to contribute and attend to the immediate conversation. Even in a signing environment, deaf people must actively attend in order to pick up information. A hearing person can turn their back on a speaker or shut their eyes and still get information; a deaf person cannot. In fact, doing so is a serious affront to the other participant(s) in the conversation (Centre for Deaf Studies University of Bristol 1997). This difference in types of attention is well recognized in the literature on educating deaf children (such as Gregory 1998 on mathematics and Winston 1994 more generally), and on the quotidian medical knowledge that adults have (such as Job 2004 on sexually transmitted diseases and Allen et al. 2002 on end-​of-​life matters). When a deaf person misses out on some event everyone else knew about but for which the information was passed in some way that left the deaf person out, it is, at best, frustrating; it’s another example in which hearing privilege and speech being the exclusive means for information dissemination adversely affect deaf people. If this happens once, it might be oversight or insensitivity; if a hearing person does this to a deaf friend repeatedly, that could cause the end of the friendship. Correcting a deaf person’s pronunciation of a word they have voiced can also be taboo. If the deaf person hasn’t asked for such feedback, it shouldn’t be given, as it suggests that perfect speech and hearing are more important than the content of the message. It also sends a signal that the hearing person has more power and spoken language has more value in the conversational dyad. As mentioned above, breaking eye contact while talking to a deaf person, whether speaking or signing, is rude. It’s not just part of deaf interaction to make eye contact during conversation (except when the eyes are drawn elsewhere for grammatical reasons, such as following a classifier predicate), it’s crucial to a deaf person’s understanding of the conversation. If one person in the conversation—​deaf or hearing—​looks away or closes their eyes, that action indicates a usurpation of conversational power. If a person actually turns their head away, that cuts off intelligibility; it’s a halt to communication and a signal to the other participant that their co-​equal footing has been taken away. These conversational norms are, again, engrained in deaf communities. Hearing people, however, often have the privilege or cultural expectation not to maintain eye contact during a conversation, so it can be difficult to remember to maintain eye contact when conversing with deaf. However, it is imperative to try, in order to avoid confusion, distraction, or insult.

150    Jami N. Fisher, Gene Mirus, and Donna Jo Napoli

8.3.4 Exploitation In Section 8.3.1 we mentioned the website Dirty Signs with Kristen as a recent example of exploitation of deaf people and sign language. However, there is—​most unfortunately—​ a long history of exploitation of deaf people for hearing benefit. Repeated and continued incidences of exploitation have resulted in a particular sensitivity and heightened awareness of hearing people’s motivations for becoming involved with deaf people. This subsection gives common scenarios in which hearing people engage deaf people and communities for professional ends. We highlight these scenarios to bring awareness to the inherent—​and often uneven—​power dynamics between two constituent groups who are most typically represented as hearing professionals working in and with deaf individuals or community groups. While we do not suggest that all hearing people working in deaf communities are exploitative, we raise the issue of working with deaf communities to show that the risk for exploitation of deaf people for personal (hearing) benefit is high unless deaf people are included in the consultation and development of all aspects of the professional endeavor at hand. Many hearing people interact with deaf communities to give services that result in their own financial and/​or professional advantage. These include audiologists, interpreters, linguists, and teachers for the deaf. The relationship between deaf communities and hearing members of these aforementioned groups is complex. On the one hand, they may rely on them—​particularly interpreters and teachers. On the other hand, they may resent feeling under their control or power. For example, when interpreters try to make up signs or impose their own ways of rendering a deaf person’s message, deaf can feel oppressed by the very people who are supposed to be serving them (Baker-​Shenk 1986). Further, when interpreters get the spotlight or earn money based on their creative presentation of sign language instead of the deaf people from whom the signs originated, the ire of deaf communities is raised, and for good reason (Zola 2015). And, of course, there may be further resentment or even distrust at the fact that these other groups financially or professionally benefit from their association with deaf communities. Certainly, coming in to study the community, then walking away with some article or book that promotes your career and never returning to that community because you’ve already gotten your benefit smacks of exploitation and is taboo. Since our readers are (probably) mostly linguists, it’s important to realize that there are a number of deaf-​friendly behaviors that should be adopted in doing linguistic analysis of sign languages and deaf communities (Singleton et al. 2015). Not adopting these behaviors is unethical and increasingly recognized as taboo behavior by deaf communities. For one, deaf communities should be regarded as hosts, and, appropriately, involved in every aspect of the project (Harris et al. 2009). Deaf participants in the research should be fully informed of their rights. Full informed consent here means researchers should use the participants’ preferred method of communication, usually sign language, rather than asking them to read a consent form (Singleton et al. 2014). Researchers should be aware of the potential insecurities (linguistic and otherwise) of their deaf consultants and be careful to put consultants at ease and not enter into a

sticky: Taboo topics in deaf communities     151 power relationship fed by those insecurities. Researchers should give back to the community via disseminating their results in linguistically accessible materials—​in sign as well as print. All participants should be appropriately acknowledged and remunerated in the work itself. There are many other guidelines one should follow in order to help assure gathering of correct data; here we have touched on only those that have an ethical aspect to them.

8.3.5 Sensitivity to taboos among hearing people In general, sign interactions can come across as more forthright about sexual matters and bodily functions than spoken interactions because of the visually explicit nature of signing. But this is only apparent. In fact, the range of attitudes toward sexual matters and the sense of privacy about bodily functions vary among deaf as among hearing. So hearing people can sometimes feel they have closer intimacy with a deaf person than, in fact, they do—​simply based on the visual clarity of signs—​and they can, in turn, behave inappropriately. Where we do find differences between what is politically correct among hearing and what is politically correct among deaf is in labeling. While hearing people frequently change the socially acceptable term for referring to something (such as an ethnic group) and the whole matter can be rife with emotion, deaf communities have been slower to adopt this kind of censorship—​although college-​educated deaf are more likely to adopt such taboos than undereducated deaf.

8.4  Deaf within deaf communities Taboos within deaf communities largely involve social hierarchies. In general, the larger deaf community is characterized by a strong feeling of camaraderie, not surprisingly since many deaf find in deaf communities important things denied them at home; this community is a kind of surrogate family (Lane 2005). In fact, about 90% of deaf marry other deaf (Schein 1989). Deaf communities typically present themselves to outsiders (hearing) as inclusive communities that welcome all deaf—​a united front. That means that discussing hierarchy within these communities is walking in a minefield—​taboo territory. We repeat: we do not intend this as a gratuitous assault. We do this with respect for the communities and with an eye toward furthering knowledge of taboo in general and toward improving (by expansion) the corpora that linguists consider when analyzing sign languages. Deaf communities are complex from auditory, linguistic, and cultural points of view (Leigh 2009). The prevalence of cochlear implants has confounded the situation. Additionally, this complexity is exaggerated by the fact that sometimes deafness is

152    Jami N. Fisher, Gene Mirus, and Donna Jo Napoli coupled with blindness and sometimes deafness is part of a larger syndrome that affects cognitive reasoning and/​or emotional abilities. This heterogeneity means that the possibilities for offending are multiple. And it means that an article like ours cannot hope to be comprehensive. We do the best we can here and hope that others will follow up with refinements.

8.4.1 Auditory status, facility with signing, and cochlear implants Some deaf children are born into deaf families and begin acquiring sign language from birth. But deaf parents can have hearing children, as well, who also begin acquiring sign language from birth. 90% of children born to deaf parents are hearing (Schein 1989). And often, a deaf child in a hearing family can have a younger sibling who is hearing. That younger sibling might acquire both a spoken language and a sign language from birth. Thus there are native signers who are deaf and native signers who are hearing. As we said in Section 8.1, however, nearly all deaf children are the only deaf people in their family. They might have well-​informed parents who immediately start learning a sign language and bring them into contact with signing deaf people. Or they might not. So some of these deaf people learn to sign early and some learn later. If a child receives a cochlear implant and is in a family following a zero-​tolerance-​to-​alternative-​ approaches protocol (thus excluding sign), that child might not be introduced to sign until much later—​as an adolescent or adult. This mixed situation raises interesting issues for linguists when gathering data from signers, and the standards used are relevant to our discussion here because they tie in to some of the stickiest taboos in deaf communities. Some have taken the position that someone must be at least a second-​generation, deaf-​of-​deaf signer in order to serve as a linguistic consultant (Neville et al. 1997; Petitto et al. 2000; MacSweeney et al. 2002). Generally this is the position taken by those doing studies of the architecture of the brain with respect to language. Others, particularly those more interested in grammar, have taken the position that (1) exposure to sign by the age of three, (2) ability to judge a sentence’s grammaticality with ease, and (3) daily contact with the deaf community for more than ten years, together assure a consultant’s reliability (Mathur and Rathmann 2006). Still others have loosened the requirements because there simply aren’t enough deaf signers who meet such strict requirements to do reliable studies on a given linguistic community. So a researcher might gather data from all signers, noting such characteristics as hearing status, family hearing status, age when first exposed to a sign language, and length of exposure to a sign language, and then see whether those with certain characteristics turn out to give different data from the others, allowing one or more of these characteristics to be singled out as relevant for defining competence with respect to the particular matters investigated (Costello et al. 2006). In studies that are more about usage of language, particularly in creative endeavors, even that list of

sticky: Taboo topics in deaf communities     153 characteristics might not play a role. Rather, deaf for whom signing is their primary and preferred mode of communication might serve perfectly well (as in Napoli and Mirus 2015). All of this ties into our discussion of taboo because the questions linguists ask about language exposure when they gather data raise, once more, the specter of not being an adequate signer—​and, therefore, often of not being linguistically adequate in any language. The questions themselves can shake a deaf person’s confidence in their identity, so the way in which they are posed needs to be culturally sensitive.

8.4.2 Hierarchies and tension within deaf communities Identity politics within deaf communities is, likewise, largely, but not entirely, a matter of a linguistic model being superimposed from the outside (Davis 2002). Though we do not wish to referee the boundaries and hierarchies within the larger deaf community, we examine these identity politics here because they are rarely discussed explicitly. We offer a broad overview of some of the more salient social groups among deaf communities and highlight some of the tensions among and within these groups. As early as 1976 a detailed study of the communication network among deaf in the USA concluded ‘not only that the deaf are increasingly leading and managing their own affairs but also that those deaf from birth or infancy, those with deaf parents, and those who began signing with others early in life are emerging as leaders in this society (Stokoe et al. 1976: 208). This makes perfect sense in that the celebration of sign language is an affirmation of the deaf identity as distinct in a hearing world (Lane 2005); these deaf leaders are those with the most confirmed deaf identities. The deaf elite are, by and large, deaf-​of-​deaf, relatively well-​educated (college degree), hold middle-​class or better jobs, and actively participate in local and national associations for deaf advocacy and outreach (Holcomb 2013). They are distinguished from others—​whether they be oral deaf, deaf who did not have a chance to learn to sign (well), or what is termed grassroots deaf (Burdiss 2016)—​all of whom occupy a different social stratum and wield significantly less power within deaf communities. The deaf elite have demonstrated power politically and are afforded privilege within deaf communities. They were the leaders of the successful Deaf President Now! Movement of 1988 that led to I. King Jordan being appointed as the first deaf president of Gallaudet University (Kensicki 2001). Within Gallaudet, an institution that draws deaf (and some hearing) people of various backgrounds, educational experiences, and sign language experience, members of the deaf elite can be found at all levels of the institution, including fraternities that tacitly accept only members of their own elite status. Historically, employment also gave a deaf person stature, as though being seen as valuable by hearing people was confirmation of one’s worth. Those deaf who begged were decried by organizations such as the National Fraternal Society for the Deaf as being vagrants; the elite deaf urged police to arrest them (Burch 2004).

154    Jami N. Fisher, Gene Mirus, and Donna Jo Napoli Interestingly these demarcations of a deaf elite seem to be a relatively new and, perhaps, American phenomenon. We hypothesize that the parameters for being part of the deaf elite come from linguistic research priorities that infiltrated the ethos of deaf communities. More specifically, over the past fifty years in sign language linguistics, researchers have prioritized deaf-​of-​deaf experiences for linguistic authenticity. Such priorities may have created a notion of preference or even superiority of the deaf-​of-​deaf experience within deaf communities. The reality that the deaf-​of-​deaf are statistically fewer than five percent of the deaf community makes the possibility of being part of this elite rare and likely reinforces the elite status. The hierarchy of—​and power dynamics within—​deaf communities beyond the deaf elite is far too complicated to delineate here. Furthermore, we wish not to valorize such hierarchies, though we do simultaneously recognize their unstated effect on inner-​ community dynamics. In turn, we now touch on a few of the subgroups that comprise deaf communities. While we deliberately intend to be inclusive of as many groups as we are able, particularly groups that have been hitherto marginalized by those with power within deaf communities, we recognize that with so many varied and individual deaf experiences, it is not possible to account for the exact experience of all deaf people, so we focus on those that are linguistically based. Again, we raise these issues and discuss these group dynamics in order to contextualize the historically taboo nature of power structures internal to deaf communities. The most obviously marginalized group within deaf communities is oral deaf. They are sometimes accused of being hearing wannabes and then, at the same time, deaf wannabes (Horejes 2012). They are sometimes rural deaf who never had the opportunity to learn sign due to lack of sign models or they are born to families who actively choose—​ often at the insistence of physicians and other therapists—​not to expose their children to sign languages so they could integrate as much as possible into the hearing world. Though sentiments within deaf communities are changing to become more accepting of them, historically, non-​signing deaf have been pushed to the periphery of deaf communities, sometimes mocked and often excluded. One example demonstrates this point: the name sign for the Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech (preferred for the oral deaf) is an insult sign that pokes fun at the entirely oral philosophy of the school and its students. Perhaps even more marked within deaf communities are oral deaf with cochlear implants; they not only do not use sign, they are visually identified by surgery scars that those with hearing aids do not have (Hollins 2000). There are extremely diverse representations of hearing levels within deaf communities, and ability to sign is often crucial to their acceptance. For example, hard-​of-​hearing who sign have a better chance of being accepted somewhat (Davis 2002), while hard-​of-​ hearing who do not sign are often treated as outsiders. Carly Rush reports the following interview with an oral hard-​of-​hearing Gallaudet student: You’re a stranger in a strange land. You’re either Deaf or Hearing, and when you’re in the middle ground it’s like either being black or white, or mixed, you don’t really have an identity. There is no point in coming here [Gallaudet] when you’re kind of

sticky: Taboo topics in deaf communities     155 an unwanted here. Like all the hearing kids, ‘Oh you’re hearing, you’re an interpreting major; or you’re Deaf, you’re a legacy. Oh you’re Hard-​of-​Hearing? Well why are you here?’ ‘Well, I play football.’ ‘Oh of course you’re here to play football, you’re here to play basketball, you’re here to do something.’ It’s just like you kind of . . . just [SHRUGS SHOULDERS]. We’re the labor force. Like you have X amount of Deaf people, and you have X amount of Hearing people, you got to have something that fills the void. You have to put Hard-​of-​Hearing kids in the middle, and when you do that it gives you someone to hate, I guess. I don’t know. You know what I mean? Everyone needs a scapegoat, every community has a scapegoat. Rush 2014—​transcription hers

These sentiments reveal tensions on identity and community acceptance; with sign ability as an indicator of being in or out, being inbetween can ostensibly amount to being stuck between two worlds with neither place an exact and comfortable fit. Alison Aubrecht, a mental health counselor at Michigan School for the Deaf, was raised in a hearing family and mainstreamed throughout primary and secondary school. In an interview (Eckhardt 2002) Aubrecht talks about the sense she had growing up that she didn’t belong anywhere and how difficult it was for her to be deemed an outsider by deaf people she met. She offers outreach videos on the Internet for people who feel like she used to; one addresses isolation and the need for love and family during stressful times (Aubrecht 2017). Aubrecht’s testimonies witness the anguish many have felt and still feel, caused by language access and matters of fluency. Yet this whole seemingly linguistically-​based hierarchy is clouded by the fact that CODAs, hearing Children Of Deaf Adults, have access to, but are not among the elite even though they are commonly linguistically as competent as deaf-​of-​deaf and often self-​identify as part of deaf communities (Miller 2004; see also Todesco 2012; Patterson 2015; and multiple others on the Internet, as well as many interviewed in Preston 1994). This may seem puzzling unless one recognizes that language and auditory status factor into the social hierarchy of deaf communities. CODAs are intimate viewers of deaf communities, but they have not suffered the same oppression that deaf have suffered directly. Furthermore, they enjoy the hearing privilege that deaf are not afforded. These two factors combine in the eyes of some to preclude their identity as firmly fixed in deaf (Davis 2007) and relegates their membership as peripheral within deaf communities despite typically having sign languages as their first languages and immersion in deaf-​ centered households (Bull 1998; Bishop and Hicks 2005; and others). Being insiders and outsiders at the same time (Singleton and Tittle 2000), CODAs have unique needs that are not fully met by all-​hearing or all-​deaf groups and communities. Indeed, they have had their own international organization since 1983 (Children of Deaf Adults, Inc.; Brother 2017) that serves as a forum for sharing common CODA experiences. They are linguistically complex and often at least bilingual—​using a sign language natively, the ambient spoken language natively (although some experience a bumpy start), and even commonly a blend of the two in CODA-​talk (Preston 1994, among many) that is only fully conceptually (and maybe linguistically) accessible by CODAs themselves. But they

156    Jami N. Fisher, Gene Mirus, and Donna Jo Napoli are of-​deaf not deaf-​of-​deaf, which makes their ultimate position within deaf communities less central than they may personally feel considering they’ve been a part of this world from birth. Nevertheless—​and at odds with this whole picture—​there are ways in which elitism within deaf communities is defined in terms of being more like hearing people: that is, there is audism (Humphries 1977), a term indicating a belief that hearing ways of being are superior to deaf. Education, particularly English-​language literacy, has been an important factor in attaining elite status within deaf communities since the beginnings of American deaf communities (Robinson 2010). The notion of spoken language superiority was so deeply internalized that historically even deaf-​of-​deaf believed that signing with an English influence was more refined than the use of ASL (see Benjamin Bahan’s anecdote in the film ‘Through Deaf Eyes’ in Hott and Garey 2007, 59:09–​1:00:24). One of the authors of this work recalls her hearing grandmother tell a story about visiting Gallaudet with her deaf son; (hearing) administrators assured the parents they would be using high sign language in instruction, that is, sign language that had significant influence from spoken English, rather than the low sign language known currently as ASL. From the time that hearing educators dictated that education of deaf people must follow an oralist methodology in Milan, Italy in 1880, spoken language and its derivative manually encoded forms emerged in educational settings. One example of manually encoded forms of English used for the purposes of instruction was the Rochester Method, wherein deaf students were educated through the fingerspelled alphabet on the grounds that this would promote print literacy; other signing was disallowed (Musselman 2000). Perhaps because of the Rochester method, or perhaps because of similar alignments of fingerspelling with print literacy, ASL today has a high rate of fingerspelling compared with many other sign languages (Morford and MacFarlane 2003). Certainly, print literacy opens opportunities in mainstream society and allows sociological and economic opportunities; at earlier points in history, the lack of print literacy exposed one to accusations of being mentally feeble (Burch and Joyner 2007). However, education via fingerspelling letter-​by-​letter is maddeningly slow and inefficient in instruction; as such, the Rochester Method amounted to little more than a philosophical edict on deaf people’s assimilation into hearing-​ness and hearing society. As we mentioned earlier, within deaf communities there are members known as grassroots deaf. They often have not had an opportunity to go to or finish college and perhaps do not travel as much as more advantaged deaf people might do. In some communities, grassroots and elite deaf are integrated and socialize together, and in others, they are not (Holcomb 2013). Some deaf claim that grassroots deaf are the ‘true carriers of ASL’ (Krieger 2007). Grassroots deaf network amongst one another and tend to be close-​knit (Holcomb 2013; Krieger 2007). Interaction between grassroots and elite can be minimal. A similar grassroots versus elite situation for users of British Sign Language was described by Ladd (2003). Recently, grassroots deaf have joined together to gain greater visibility in fighting discrimination, improving their economic potential, and improving communication access. They marched on state capitals in May 2016 to bring awareness on the state legislative level of the needs of some community members

sticky: Taboo topics in deaf communities     157 (Burdiss 2016), though the continued action and legislative follow-​up to these marches have not been, at present writing, actualized.

8.4.3 Gender and race diversity within deaf communities While deaf-​of-​deaf and fluently signing deaf are presumed to be the elite within deaf communities, this status is truer for white males than for others (Robinson 2010, 2012). As Burch and Sutherland (2006: 141) say, ‘Since its origin, America’s deaf communities have presented as a highly unified society, bonded through a common language, but also sharing common cultural values. Closer study, however, shows that, among many factors, race, class, gender, and disability caused considerable fissures within the Deaf-​ World’ (see also Lane 2005). We raise these topics here not because it is taboo to be a member of these subcommunities within the larger deaf community, but because until recently, the specific lived experiences of these groups have been overshadowed by white male deaf experiences seemingly without challenge and discussion. Yet, these subgroups within deaf communities have, of course, always existed. In the spirit of working toward inclusive Deaf Studies, we take this opportunity to briefly highlight individuals and subgroups of the larger deaf community that have, until rather recently, been marginalized from within. More recently, intersectionality (Crenshaw 1989)—​that is to say, how overlapping identities interface with social systems to inform a person’s sense of self—​has come into sharp focus and deaf people are not excluded from these introspective explorations. Such discussions reveal that despite a purported primacy of deafness in identity formation, deaf people’s individual identities are as much about the many groups with which one can be affiliated—​whether it be gender, race, locality, and so on—​as they are about being deaf. The interface of all these allegiances informs the nuanced identities of deaf individuals as they relate to one another as well as society at large (e.g., Johnson 2015). Thus, while we focus here on specific subgroups within the larger deaf community, the reality is that deaf people do not experience life in such discrete terms; every deaf person’s identity is uniquely informed by their own personal journey. In the past, ultraconservative attitudes toward women led to appreciation of them as physical but not intellectual beings (Brueggemann and Burch 2006), resulting in their not rising to high status within the larger deaf community. Deaf women’s social and economic statuses lag behind that of deaf men (Sheridan 2001), but outreach organizations such as Deaf Women United (Deaf Women United 2016) work to mitigate such disparities through increasing accessibility and awareness of opportunities for deaf women in the USA. Black deaf communities have been documented by linguistic as well as educational terms for decades. Racial segregation in the south led to black deaf schools (Aramburo 1994), with black varieties of ASL (McCaskill et al. 2011), some of which were not mutually intelligible with white ASL (such as Raleigh Signs, see Burch and Joyner 2007). Black varieties of ASL, along with their signers, were looked down on by white deaf. Racially

158    Jami N. Fisher, Gene Mirus, and Donna Jo Napoli segregated deaf clubs persisted for years (Padden and Humphries 1988), which meant little social interaction between black and white, though the decline of deaf clubs may make the issue moot today (Padden 2008). In a 1996 survey, 78% of the deaf African Americans identified themselves as black before identifying themselves as deaf (Lane et al. 1996). A more recent study put the figure at 87% (Mindess 2006). These are remarkable findings, given the centrality of language in defining identity (Joseph 2004), and they might suggest that the differences between black and white ASL along with the history of racism in America overshadowed the fact that the people involved were all deaf. Black deaf report feeling discriminated against by both hearing blacks and deaf whites (Valentine 1996). Academic studies of diverse racial groups within deaf communities beyond black and white are only relatively recently being explored. (For a list of some studies, see Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center 2015, as well as Foster and Kinuthia 2003.) This work dispels the lingering myth that there is one deaf community made of people who discard all identities beyond their deafness. Just as there are resonances of audism in deaf society hierarchy, there are resonances of ableism (Robinson 2010). At one point in history the deaf fought to have deaf schools renamed, so that none would be called asylums—​avoiding any possibility of deaf being associated with mentally or physically disabled (Fox 1880). This attitude ‘shaped deaf activism throughout the twentieth century’ (Robinson 2010: 17–​18). While many deaf children who have multiple disabilities are educated in the mainstream classroom, the interaction between them and other deaf children is minimal. Today even among adults, those whose deafness is part of a larger syndrome are often considered inferior—​or, at best, are overlooked—​by the majority of able-​bodied deaf. DeafBlind and DeafDisabled, or those who are sometimes referred to from within deaf communities as deaf-​plus, have historically been cast aside and, at times, intentionally excluded as a rhetorical strategy to challenge social constructions of deafness as disability, as part of the longtime rhetoric from the mainstream deaf that they are not disabled. The definition of the mainstream in deaf communities as being deaf, but otherwise just like hearing, marginalized deaf people with other functional diversities and precluded them from what would be seen as normal deaf experiences. Furthermore, choosing only one aspect—​deafness—​of a complex, interconnected functionally diverse identity serves to minimize and even erase what is essential to individual deaf experiences. Meredith Burke, a former Gallaudet graduate student sums up the effects of feeling forced to choose between equally integral aspects of her identity: [Am I] Deaf or Disabled, Deaf and Disabled, or DeafDisabled? Ever since I came to Gallaudet it has been a struggle because people at Gallaudet, especially those who are culturally Deaf, made and still make me feel that I have to choose between Deaf or Disabled. I cannot do that. My disability is and always will be part of me . . . As I  am approaching graduation with my Masters in Deaf Cultural Studies, I  have won the championship game by reclaiming my identity as Meredith Burke who is DeafDisabled. Both identities go hand-​in-​hand, together and equal. Burke 2013

sticky: Taboo topics in deaf communities     159 More recently, there is a deliberate effort to be inclusive of the needs of deaf people from all backgrounds and with a range of functional diversities (Bauman 2009), though the reality that there is a fully united deaf community is still far from realized.

8.5 Conclusion Taboo topics in deaf communities include the full gamut of taboo topics among hearing people. However, there are special topics particular to the experience of being deaf, some of which center on infelicitous exchanges between deaf and hearing and some centering on clashes among deaf fueled by power, privilege, and cultural differences. Recognizing that these latter taboos exist can be of benefit to linguists, as they give depth to and contextualize the environment in which sign languages are used and proliferate. Communities of hearing people that are oppressed or marginalized, and of which only a small, privileged group interacts with the majority culture, may well have analogous taboos that are yet unstudied or understudied. Further, the very act of studying some particular linguistic group to the exclusion of others (in fact, the majority) may act to elevate that group’s status within the community and engender tensions, certainly an ethically undesirable result. Instead, studying the variation in language within deaf communities can broaden linguists’ insight into the scope of variation in language in general. The repercussions and importance of studying a wider range of data on any language, offered by a more diverse group of linguistic informants is, of course, beneficial. Overall, we believe the sign language and deaf community taboos discussed here broaden our academic understanding of the tendencies of some deaf communities, which ultimately contributes to a more informed discussion of languages and language communities as a whole.

Chapter 9

Tab o o terms a nd their gr a mma r jack hoeksema

9.1 Introduction Taboo terms have a vast and growing set of grammatical uses in western languages such as English, German, or Dutch. To what extent this remarkable syntactic versatility is shared by languages associated by non-​western cultures remains to be investigated. This chapter focuses on the well-​researched languages of Western Europe, in the hope that linguists working on non-​European languages will find it useful for making a comparative study. I will discuss the various grammatical constructions in which taboo expressions are used, above and beyond those in which they would normally be expected to appear. For instance, in the following examples, the taboo word shit is used in a variety of ways: (1)  a. You need to remove the shit that your dog left on the carpet. b.  We’re in deep shit. c. I want you to take your shit and go live somewhere else. d. I don’t want to listen to that shit anymore. e. Yes, I’m talking to you, you piece of shit. f. Do bears shit in the woods? g. Are you shitting me? h. Shit! My credit card is maxed out. i. Eat shit, you moron. j. What the shit is going on? k. I don’t give a shit what you think I should say. l. The cops haven’t told me shit. m. It will cost a shitload of money. n. You’re a shitty father. o. We will beat the living shit out of you.

Taboo terms and their grammar    161 The list could be continued ad nauseam. The point of these examples is to show the many ways in which taboo words such as shit (cf. McEnery 2006; Napoli and Hoeksema 2009) are employed, including the literal use in (a), a metaphorical use in (b), and a variety of other uses in (c–​o). In some cases, the word has a strong negative connotation (e.g., d, e), in others it is neutral in connotation (e.g., your shit in (1c) need not be viewed as negative: it means roughly your stuff, and can be used in positively evaluated contexts as well: you have some fancy shit in your gun rack: respect!) Besides giving something a negative connotation, a swear word may also be used to provide the speaker (or writer) with a certain macho or tough-​sounding style. For example, (c) is not a negative evaluation of the stuff referred to, but it is certainly more colloquial, less salonfähig (socially acceptable), than the otherwise similar (2) I want you to take your things and go live somewhere else. What some of the examples have in common is an expressive meaning component (Potts 2007), which serves not so much to describe various aspects of external reality, but rather a subjective emotional response, on the part of the speaker (e.g., e, h, i). While it is usually their literal meaning that gives expressions such as shit their taboo status, they are typically not to be interpreted literally in the constructions reviewed in this chapter. We will look at cases where taboo words provide spice to the conversation, and may provide a window on the emotional state of the speaker. Most of the discussion will focus on English and Dutch. The latter language is of some special interest because it makes heavy use of disease names as taboo terms, besides the more common sexual, scatological, and religious taboo expressions. While many (perhaps all) languages make use of taboo words for various purposes, there is considerable variation with regard to which taboo word is used to what end. In a study of curses and swear words, Nübling and Vogel (2004) found considerable differences even among three Germanic languages. In Table 9.1, I reproduce their main findings (Nübling and Vogel 2004: 20). Three pluses indicate high frequency and productivity, a minus absence, and [+]‌ means attested but rare. As we will see below, these differences even hold outside the area of cursing and name-​calling, as there are many constructions that employ taboo terms.

Table 9.1 Domains of taboo terms in swearing and cursing Domain→ Language↓














+++ +

++ +++

–​ –​

162   Jack Hoeksema

9.2  Strong utterances 9.2.1 Curses For the purposes of this chapter, I  reserve the word curse for short utterances of an emotional, usually negative, nature, such as Damn! or Shit!, and use the word malediction for negative wishes. Curses in this sense tend to be short, and involve religious, sexual, or scatological notions (cf. Hughes 2006). Other terms are profanity (especially when religious notions are involved) or swear word. Typically, a curse is an exclamative. Being exclamatives, they cannot be said to be true or false, but express an emotion, usually anger or frustration, and in the case of weaker curses also amazement and even pleasure: Damn, what a nice cup of coffee! It is very common for curses to have phonological variants that serve as euphemistic counterparts (Allan and Burridge 1991; Allan 2012), e.g., Darn!, Gosh!, Shoot!, or the early modern English Zounds! (from God’s wounds). Next to Oh my God (which uses the name of the Lord in vain) there is Oh my goodness! or the clipped version Oh my! There are subtle differences in conditions of use between Damn! and Oh my God! both in terms of users and situations of use (the latter is more typical of teenagers, especially girls (Murphy 2010), and expresses more often amazement or excitement than anger). Since our focus is on grammar, we will ignore such matters in this chapter. Curses may be embroidered upon in various ways, by reduplication, vowel lengthening, and addition of extra material, e.g., fuckety-​fuck fuck instead of plain fuck. The character Clay Davis (a corrupt state senator) from the HBO series The Wire became known for his extensive vowel lengthening in the expletive shiiiit. For a morphosyntactic analysis of curse expressions in Dutch, including their more elaborate variants, see van Sterkenburg and van Sterkenburg (2001) and Corver (2014).

9.2.2 Maledictions Maledictions are evil ‘wishes’, typically the result of anger or frustration at someone, such as Drop dead!, Go to hell!, Eat shit! Note that these evil wishes are typically not interpreted as wishes, but as hostile acts, reflecting anger or other negative emotions. The person toward whom this anger or frustration is directed may be indicated by a vocative expression: Drop dead, you commies! As these examples show, they often involve taboo terms, relating to death, hell and damnation, or bodily excretions (cf. Sanders and Tempelaars 1998; Ljung 2011). Imperative maledictions are directed at the hearer, who is the object of anger or frustration. Another type of malediction takes the form of a declarative clause with a modal verb in it. This type can be used to indicate anger at a third person, or, again, the hearer: you can go to hell for all I care; Donald Trump can take his

Taboo terms and their grammar    163 wall and shove it up his you know what. Somewhat old fashioned are maledictions with sentence-​initial may: May you all go to hell. The expressions found in maledictions are often stereotypical and hyperbolical. Typically, they are positive polarity items, since they cannot be negated (Ljung 2011: 19; Hoeksema 2018) without losing their ordinary maledictory interpretation. While (3a) is a standard malediction, (3b) is at best a warning not to do something unsavory, but never a malediction (nor, for that matter, much of a benediction). The same is true when words such as please are added (3c): (3)

a. Eat shit! b.  Don’t eat shit. c. Please eat shit.

The fixed expression why don’t you, while superficially negative, is used to make positive adhortations (Green 1975), and may therefore embed maledictory expressions without loss of maledictory force: (4) Why don’t you go fuck yourself. The formulaic character of maledictions is clear from the observation in Ljung (2011: 19), that while fuck you and screw you are standard maledictions, potential variants involving synonyms such as *shag you or *bonk you are not.

9.2.3 Other exclamations Short exclamations such as Bollocks! Bullshit! Poppycock! are used to indicate a difference of opinion between the speaker and the hearer. They all mean nonsense, but in a fairly rude way. They can all be used as predicate nominals in full sentences, as well as in other grammatical functions, such as direct objects: (5) a. That is absolute bollocks. b. Go peddle your poppycock elsewhere. Sometimes what would count as a curse in one language is a disagreement exclamation in another. Compare the following Dutch and English examples: (6) A: We hebben onze trein gemist! [Dutch] B: Klote! [= Damn!]

A: We missed our train! B: Bollocks!

The Dutch word kloten (‘testicles’) means the same as bollocks, but in exclamations, it serves as an expression of frustration, whereas its English counterpart is an exclamation of disagreement.

164   Jack Hoeksema

9.2.4 Name-​calling Name-​calling frequently makes use of taboo terms. For example, son-​of-​a-​bitch, motherfucker, asshole, bastard, dickhead, piece of shit, turd, cunt, jerk, tosser, etc. may all be used to refer to people in a denigrating way. As with curses, the origin and severity of these derogatory names may vary. In a study of abusive terms in verbal aggression in eleven cultures (Spain, Germany, France, Italy, Croatia, Poland, Great Britain, USA, Norway, Greece, and the Netherlands), Van den Oudenhoven et al. (2008) found that taboos relating to sex, excrements, mental retardation, as well as social shortcomings, including rural background, dirtiness, animals etc. were most popular. One country, Norway, had words for the devil as the most prominent category in name-​calling, in the other cultures words for the devil were not found to be prominent (but see Table 9.1 above for Swedish, a language not covered in their study). These terms of abuse may appear in full clauses, as well as short utterances: (7) a. Fritz is a bastard. b. You bastard. For the latter type of utterance in a variety of Germanic languages, see Corver (2007) and Julien (2016). Corver notes that only evaluative nouns (both negative and positive) are acceptable in the short utterances, which he calls evaluative vocatives, cf. the difference between piece of shit (evaluative) and dentist (non-​evaluative): (8) a. Fritz is a piece of shit/​dentist. b. You piece of shit/​*dentist. Note that evaluative nouns may be modified by such a: (9) You are such a bastard/​dickhead/​worm/​doll/​*dentist/​*biped While positive evaluative nouns such as doll are acceptable in a You X! type utterance, it turns out that this construction is mostly used for name-​calling. A search of the most common nouns in the Corpus of Contemporary American (COCA, cf. Davies 2011) for utterances that fit the pattern you+NOUN+exclamation mark, yielded bastard (106 times, including cases of the plural you bastards), idiot (83), asshole (41), moron (20), fucker (17), fool (17), motherfucker (15), son-​of-​a-​bitch (12), liar (10), coward (10), monster (9), loser (8), devil (7), and coward (7). Positive ones such as you smart aleck are only found in the tail of the list, as single occurrences.1 1  Sometimes, name-​calling may be done in jest, without any kind of slur intended. This usage seems especially common with some evaluative nouns, e.g., You dirty dog! can be said in admiration of a modern-​day Casanova, much like You devil!

Taboo terms and their grammar    165 In Dutch, pejorative affixoids derived (mostly) from taboo terms can be added to nouns to express contempt or dislike on the part of the speaker (Booij 2005). For example rotschool ‘rotten/​shitty school’, kutboek ‘cunt book = lousy book’, klotefiets ‘bollocks bicycle  =  lousy bike’, kankerlaptop ‘cancer laptop  =  shitty laptop’, teringherrie ‘phthisis noise = awful noise’, klerebuurt ‘cholera neighborhood = shitty neighborhood’. Words so adorned tend to prefer the distal demonstratives as determiners over the proximal ones (this is what Lyons 1977 has called empathetic deixis). In German, sau-​ ‘sow, female pig’, and scheiß-​‘shit’ are prefixoids with a pejorative function (Finkbeiner, Meibauer, and Wiese 2016).

9.2.5 Rude imperatives Rude imperatives, such as Fuck off!, are akin to maledictions. Instead of wishing the hearer harm, they tell him (or her) to go elsewhere, to stop talking, etc. in a rude way. Like maledictions, they cannot be negated without losing their idiomatic meaning. For instance, Get lost! is a rude invitation to leave, but Don’t get lost! is an admonition to stay safe. (10)  a. b. c. d. e. f. g.

Fuck off! Get the hell off my property! Get lost! Tell him to bugger off. Shut the fuck up. Leave her the hell alone. Piss off, will you?

Cases like get the hell out of here look a lot like beat the hell out of him, but differ in important ways (Hoeksema and Napoli 2008; Haïk 2012). Cases with get out and other intransitive verbs of motion are typically found in directive sentences (imperatives, sentences embedded under I want you to, etc.), a class I refer to here as ‘rude imperatives’, unlike cases such as beat the hell out of. The two constructions also differ in which taboo words they employ. For example, one can threaten to beat/​kick/​smack the bejesus out of someone, but it sounds odd to demand: Get the bejesus out of here! or Shut the bejesus up! (However, such differences are pretty fluid, and may rapidly change.) Verbs such as fuck off, piss off appear to be mostly restricted to directive clauses as well. Of the 129 cases of fuck off in the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA, cf. Davies 2012), only two were in nondirective sentences. In Dutch, taboo words show up as the stems of particle verbs in rude invitations to leave. (All the examples in (11) have the same meaning as Fuck off.)

166   Jack Hoeksema (11)

a. Rot op! b.  Sodemieter op! c. Flikker op! d. Pleur op! e. Donder op! f. Lazer op! g. Duvel op!

[Dutch rot = to rot] [sodemieter = sodomite] [flikker = faggot] [pleur < pleuris ‘pleurisy’] [donder = thunder] [lazer < lazarus ‘leper’] [duvel = devil]

German uses a prefix, rather than a particle, to turn a taboo word into a verb intended for rude commands: (12)  Verpiss    dich! pref.piss refl ‘Piss off!’

9.3  Verbal constructions Many of the Dutch verbs in (11) above also have a transitive counterpart, without the particle op, meaning ‘to throw in a rough and careless manner’. While the cases with op in (11) are restricted to directive clauses, like their English counterparts, the transitive cases are not: (13)

a. Ze    flikkerden de   boeken weg. they faggoted    the books  away ‘They tossed the books away’ b. Betsy lazerde haar schoenen onder  het bed. Betsy lepered her    shoes   under the bed ‘Betsy tossed her shoes under the bed’

There are also anticausative uses of these verbs: (14)

a. Piet flikkerde van de    trap. Piet faggoted   of   the stairs ‘Piet fell down the stairs’ b. Betsy lazerde van het podium. Betsy lepered off    the podium ‘Betsy fell off the podium’

In Dutch, a subset of the stems in (11) may also be combined with a prefix, be-​, to express the meaning ‘to deceive’: bedonderen, besodemieteren, belazeren, beduvelen ‘to deceive’.

Taboo terms and their grammar    167 In English, the verb toss also has some taboo-​related uses, e.g., toss off ‘masturbate’ or toss up ‘throw up, vomit’. Yet another Dutch construction uses the same stems as in (14) to denote beating (or metaphorical beating, as in a verbal dressing down): op zijn lazer/​flikker/​donder/​duvel/​ sodemieter geven/​krijgen. Literally, they mean to give or to get on one’s X, where X is a derogatory term for body. This means either to beat (with geven) or to get beaten (with krijgen). The Germanic verbal prefix ver-​, which is very productive in Dutch and German, has among its many uses a number which are negative in nature. Sometimes, the interpretation of ver-​X is ‘to destroy by Xing’, or ‘to X in a wrong or bad way’. For example, Dutch zich verlopen (from lopen ‘to walk’) means ‘to walk in the wrong direction, to get lost while walking’, and verdrinken means, apart from ‘to drown’, ‘to destroy by drinking’. Taboo verbs are a natural host for this prefix, compare Dutch verneuken ‘ver-​fuck = to fool’, verkloten ‘ver-​bollocks = to destroy by messing around, to fuck up’. German examples of this kind are versauen ‘ver-​sow = to mess up’, verarschen ‘ver-​ass = to mess with, to take the piss out of ’.

9.4 Emphatic wh-​questions Wh-​questions can be reinforced with various taboo words (Pesetsky 1987; Den Dikken and Giannakidou 2002). English used to do this with words referring to the devil, later hell, and now a variety of taboo terms: (15) a. b. c. d.

What the devil are you afraid of? Who the hell is Professor Smith? Where the fuck are you? Where the bloody hell are the police?

The English construction is apparently a calque from French, which had reinforced questions as early as the thirteenth century, according to the OED s.v. devil. Middle English had wh+devil (without the article), like French qui diable etc.: (16) What devel have I with the knyfe to doo?2 Similar questions can be found in early modern Dutch, but these are now obsolete: (17) Wat    duivel is dat   voor een klant?3 what devil  is  that for   a    customer ‘What the hell kind of customer is that?’ 2 Chaucer, The legend of good women. 3 

Het Leeskabinet, magazine, 1840.

168   Jack Hoeksema Italian and other Romance languages also have emphatic questions involving a word for devil. Instead of the devil or hell, there is another type of reinforcement involving God, heaven, etc. + name: (18)

What in heaven’s name are you talking about?

Unlike the devil and its ilk, these appear to be more loosely connected to the wh-​word. They can be fronted, or extraposed: (19)

a. In heaven’s name/​*the hell, what are you talking about? b. What are you talking about, in heaven’s name?

Dutch has similar expressions: (20) Wat    heb    je    in  godsnaam   met   je    haar   gedaan? what have you in God’s name with your hair done ‘What in God’s name did you do to your hair?’ Note that these expressions are not restricted to wh-​questions. They also show up in imperatives: (21)

In God’s name don’t torture me!4

Besides God and heaven, hell and the devil may also be used in this construction, as well as other taboo expressions: (22)


What in hell’s name are all these people doing here? [Elizabeth George, A Suitable Vengeance, Bantam Books, London etc., 1992, p. 143]


What in fuck’s name have you done to my dog? [Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-​time, Vintage Books, New York, 2003, p. 4]

When the strengthened wh-​question is embedded, the type of matrix predicate is relevant. Factive verbs such as know are not good hosts, unless they themselves are part of a nonveridical context (Den Dikken and Giannakidou 2002). In (23b) the matrix clause is veridical, in the sense that I know X is stated as a fact, whereas in (23a) it is nonveridical. My knowing X is not stated as a fact, but rather as a desirable outcome. In the theory of Giannakidou (1998), nonveridicality is a central property of negative polarity items. 4 

Mark 5, verse 7.

Taboo terms and their grammar    169 (23) a. I would like to know what the hell you are up to. b. ?I know what the hell you are up to. A similar restriction pertains to the in X’s name construction, illustrated in (24) for Dutch: (24) a. Ik vroeg me af   waarom je    in godsnaam    meedoet. I  asked me off why      you in God’s name with-​ do ‘I wondered why in God’s name you cooperate’ b. *Ik weet   waarom je   in godsnaam  meedoet. I   know why     you in God’s name with-​ do ‘I know why in the name of God you cooperate’

9.5  Negative and positive polarity items The use of taboo terms in negative polarity idioms is pervasive and well-​known. The function of a taboo word in negative sentences is typically to make the negation more emphatic, less neutral. We can already see this in comparing the negative answer No with its emphatic counterpart Hell no! In English there is the prolific pattern of give an X, e.g., give a damn, give a shit, give a toss, give a fuck, give a flying fuck, give a hoot in hell, etc. In combination with negation, these expressions serve to express indifference on the part of the subject of the predicate. As is commonly the case with taboo terms, we may also find a variety of euphemistic substitutions, e.g., give a darn, or my favorite, to give a tinker’s malediction, a variant of to give a tinker’s damn: (25) Mr. Lewis does not give a tinker’s malediction whether he is on any committee.5 In questions, these expressions make the question rhetorical, with negative import: (26) a. b.

Who gives a fuck what you want? Why should I give a fuck?

Some taboo terms (Horn 2001: 185ff. calls them squatitives) may be used as mass nouns in negative contexts, and can be paraphrased in such contexts as anything: 5 

The Ogden Standard-​Examiner, 6 November 1945.

170   Jack Hoeksema (27)

a. b. c.

You haven’t told me shit. They didn’t do dick. You don’t mean fuck all to me.

After a change in meaning which is typical of the so-​called Jespersen Cycle, these expressions can also be interpreted as nothing, in which case an overt negation is not needed (Horn 2001; Hoeksema 2009a). The uses as inherently negative expression, and as negative polarity item are currently both accepted, and can be found side by side in the work of a single author: (28)

a. He doesn’t know sod all.6 [= anything] b. I’m hearing sod bloody all from you7 [= nothing]

Similar variation can be seen in German, regarding the expression einen Dreck ‘a shit’ (cf. Richter and Sailer 2006), but here the change is clearly further along: keinen Dreck ‘no shit = not anything’ is far less common than einen Dreck ‘a shit = nothing’. A search in Cosmas II (corpus W3, part of DeReKo, the German reference corpus made available by the IDS in Mannheim) yielded forty hits for einen Dreck angehen ‘to concern a shit’ versus one for keinen Dreck angehen ‘to concern no shit’). An example from this corpus is given in (29) below: (29) Das geht euch einen Dreck an!8 that goes you    a      shit   on ‘That concerns you a shit = that does not concern you in any way’ Minimizers in Dutch frequently have a taboo origin (Hoeksema 2002), e.g.: (30) a. Hij deed geen flikker. he   did    no    faggot ‘He did nothing/​fuck all’ b. Het  kost    geen  drol. it      costs  no    turd ‘It costs nothing’ c. Het interesseert me geen reet. it      interests     me no    asshole ‘It does not interest me at all’ d. Hij weet    er     geen bal    van. he    knows there no    testicle of ‘He knows shit about it’ 6 

Elizabeth George, Playing for the Ashes, Bantam Books, New York etc., 1995: 336. Elizabeth George, Deception on his mind, Bantam Books, New York etc., 1998: 632. 8  Neue Kronen-​Zeitung, 22 February 2003. 7 

Taboo terms and their grammar    171 e. Ik begrijp      er     geen bliksem  van. I      understand  there  no    lightning   of ‘I don’t understand a thing (of it)’ f. Het kan hem  geen tering schelen. it     can   him   no    phtisis  concern ‘It does not matter one bit to him’ Taboo words used in Dutch minimizers are words for thunder and lightning, various deadly diseases, words for excrements, for reproductive organs, and words denoting homosexuals. As noted in Postma (2001), the determiner geen ‘no’ in the examples above may be replaced by the complex geen ene ‘no one’ in taboo minimizers, but usually not in non-​taboo minimizers. This is evidence that taboo status may be syntactically relevant as well. Strong negation of the hell no kind can also be found in sentences where negation itself is implicit. English has a number of ways to express negation merely by using expletives (Drozd (2001) calls this phenomenon ‘exclamative sentence negation’). In (31) below I give a couple of examples. Cases such as (31d, sub B), with a peculiar inversion, are discussed in Sailor (2017) and appear to be found solely on the British Isles. North America, Australia, and other English-​speaking areas appear to lack it entirely. In all of these examples, B strongly disagrees with A or gives a negative answer to a question: (31) a. A: The party seems to be over. B: The hell it is. b. A: Will you help me? B: Like hell I will. c. A: It is cold outside. B: Bullshit it is cold. d. A: John is a nice guy. B: Is he fuck/​hell/​bugger—​he stabbed my cousin. Positive polarity items, just like negative polarity items, may have a taboo background. For example, Dutch het verdommen ‘to damn it = to refuse to do something’ (and its euphemistic counterpart het vertikken) are inherently negative, but cannot be negated themselves: (32) Ik  verdom    het   (*niet)  om  naar mijn  werk    te  gaan I damn it (*not) for   to my work to go ‘I refuse to go to work’ English has a similar (in terms of meaning and components) expression, involving a conditional: I’ll be damned if I go to work. This too, cannot be negated without losing its idiomatic interpretation.

172   Jack Hoeksema A few more positive polarity items with taboo background are given in (33): (33)

a. Zuid-​ Afrikanen hebben schijt aan de    wet.9 [Dutch] South Africans  have    shit   on  the law ‘South Africans don’t give a shit about the law’ b. Man ging,   man sprach, man schlief   mit       dem oder der,  die  einem  gefielen, one  went, one  talked,  one  slept    with  whomever      that one      liked ‘People went, talked, slept with who they liked, . . .’ und kümmerte sich sieben Teufel um   die andern.10 [German] and  cared      refl  seven   devils    about  the  others ‘and cared sod all about other people’ c. If we don’t catch that train, we’re screwed.

As we saw above, idiomatic maledictions (drop dead, go to hell) are commonly positive polarity items, as well as some other types of rude commands, like get the hell out of here.

9.6  Degree expressions 9.6.1 Degree modifiers Degree expressions from a variety of domains may originate from taboo words. To indicate a high degree on a temperature scale, one might use phrases such as very warm, or exceedingly hot, but also damned hot, hot as hell, hellishly hot, and so on. Both words for God and the devil may be used to indicate a degree: godawful = very awful, fiendishly clever = very clever, devilishly complicated = very complicated, ungodly hot = very hot, etc. Adverbs of degree with a taboo background are boosters, never diminishers (to use Bolinger’s 1972 terms) such as a little, somewhat, a tad, slightly, etc. The same is true in German and Dutch: compare German verdammt gut ‘damned good = very good’, scheißegal ‘shit-​indifferent = completely indifferent’, and Dutch donders goed ‘thunderly good = very good’, verdomde lekker ‘damned tasty’. Compare also the use of dead/​dood as a booster: (34)




Finding your house turned out to be dead simple.


Het was doodeenvoudig om je huis te   vinden.  [Dutch] it   was dead simple   for your house to find ‘It was very simple to find your house’

De Groene Amsterdammer, 3 May 2012, page 11. Stefan Zweig, Die Welt von gestern. Stockholm: Fischer Verlag, 1942.

Taboo terms and their grammar    173 Some nominal expressions, namely the ones that are inherently gradable, may also be modified by degree words (Morzycki 2009, 2012). These come in two types: adjectives and PPs. Degree adjectives include big, immense, and enormous in English. Cars may be big only in a literal (= physical size) sense, but a big mistake or a big liar typically denote things or persons that are high on a scale of error or mendacity, respectively. Morzycki (2009: 181) notes the following generalization: The Bigness Generalization: Adjectives that predicate bigness systematically license degree readings. Adjectives that predicate smallness do not.

For example, a big liar lies a lot or is a liar with a big body, whereas a small liar can only be a liar with a small body. I believe this generalization follows from a bigger generalization, namely that there are a lot more linguistic resources, in any language, for intensification than for de-​intensification. We can see this by noting the following generalization, which I will term the badass generalization: (35) Badass generalization Taboo terms typically strengthen, rather than weaken, an utterance. They may be high degree adverbs (boosters) or high degree adjectives, not low degree adverbs (diminishers) or adjectives. Taboo terms found in this domain include the English construction a hell of a: that was a hell of a problem = that was a very big/​serious problem. Note that a hell of a not only has a degree reading (with gradable nouns), but also a quality reading, meaning ‘very good’: Mary is a hell of a teacher (= a very good teacher). Note the contrast with the equally evaluative, but entirely negative Mary is a teacher from hell. Dutch hels ‘hellish’ is an intensifying adjective for nouns meaning noise, pain, or task/​job. For example, een hels karwei ‘a hellish job’ is a taxing job. With other gradable nouns, there is no intensifying reading associated with hels, but only qualitative readings, including ‘furious’. Compare the following example, where both fan and lawaai ‘noise’ are gradable. Note that someone who is physically diminutive may nonetheless be a huge fan. (36) De helse  fans maakten een hels lawaai. the   furious  fans   made a      hellish  noise ‘The furious fans made a hell of a noise’ What is important to note is that the degree reading associated with huge fans or big fans is absent in (36), unlike the degree reading for lawaai ‘noise’. This implies that the use of degree adjectives with degree nouns is lexically restricted, much as it is with degree adverbs. To illustrate this point with an English example, the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA) provides only the following adjectives as being modified

174   Jack Hoeksema more than once in the entire corpus by the modifier fiendishly: clever (11 times), hot (7), difficult (5), complicated (4), complex (2), and hard (2). The adjectives come from two domains: heat, and intellectual difficulty (if clever can be related to difficult, otherwise three domains). For devilishly, we find much the same set of modified elements, plus a few newcomers, such as handsome. Presumably analogy plays a role here, since we also speak of a handsome devil (in a completely non-​derogatory way), but not a handsome fiend. Comparisons such as cold as hell should be seen as complex degree expressions. They express a high degree without invoking any kind of actual comparison. In English, such quasi-​comparatives with a taboo term as object of comparison form a minor paradigm, illustrated in (37) with examples from the internet: (37)

a. These guys rocked HARD, and were heavy as hell. b. Beyonce is stupid as fuck to have two more children with a man who cheated on her. c. So Daenerys returns happy as shit from annihilating the Lannister army.

9.6.2 Degree resultatives English sometimes uses resultatives to express a high degree (Capelle 2014). Compare e.g.: (38)

a. We were scared stiff/​shitless/​witless/​to death. b. You were bored stiff/​silly/​out of your skull. c. They were worried sick/​half to death.

In the above examples, the predicates do not straightforwardly denote a state resulting from the action described by the verb (as in: the table was scrubbed clean), but rather indicate a high degree of fear, boredom, and worry, respectively. Dutch has similar resultatives (Gyselinck and Colleman 2016): (39)

a. Ik schaam me  dood. I shame refl dead ‘I am ashamed to death’ b. Ik  lach     me  rot. I  laugh refl rotten ‘I am laughing my head off ’ c. Ik  erger    me  kapot. I   annoy  refl   kaput ‘I am annoyed out of my skull’

In many cases, such predicates have a taboo origin (death, in particular, but also diseases (in Dutch), dismemberment, and the like). Compare:

Taboo terms and their grammar    175 (40) a. The inmates were freezing their balls off. b.  The girl was twerking her ass off. c. The dog was barking his head off. Such constructions are common only in languages which employ regular resultatives as well, such as English and other Germanic languages. Romance languages, which largely lack resultatives, by and large do not have them. (But see Arrizabalaga 2014 for a recent innovation (hasta la muerta and a muerta) under influence of English to death.) Transitive verbs may also be intensified by resultatives with taboo origins: (41) a. We will beat the crap out of your team. b. The soldiers scared the living shit out of their prisoners. c. This class annoys the hell out of their teachers. In Dutch:11 (42) a. We  slaan  jullie    tot  moes.  [Dutch] We hit to   pulp ‘We will beat you to a pulp’ b. De sergeant schold  hem verrot. the  sergeant scolded him  rotten ‘The sergeant gave him a severe dressing-​down.’ c. Ze  hebben  die       rothond    de  moeder   getrapt.12 they   have that  rotten-​dog   the   mother    kicked ‘They have kicked the mother [= the shit] out of that damn dog’ Disease names show up here as well: (43) a. Hij  werkte    zich  de    tyfus. he    worked  refl    the  typhoid fever ‘He worked his tail off ’


b. We schrokken ons de  pleuris. we   startled    refl  the  pleuritis ‘We were scared out of our minds’ c. Trump liegt zich de    tering. Trump lies  refl   the phthisis ‘Trump is lying his head off ’ 11 

I will use the term resultative in a broad sense, including ditransitive constructions such as the ones in (42c) and (43). 12  The use of de moeder ‘the mother’ as an intensifier is quite new, but robustly attested on the Internet. Ljung’s (2011: 41) claim that ‘the mother theme is conspicuously absent from the Germanic languages, being found neither in Danish, Dutch, German, Icelandic, Norwegian, nor Swedish’ must now be qualified somewhat for Dutch.

176   Jack Hoeksema

9.6.3 Speed and intensity expressions In the case of motion verbs, intensity and high speed—​two otherwise entirely distinct notions—​come together. In the following examples, comparatives involving like are used to intensify various verbs (examples are from the Cambridge Online Dictionary). (44) a. We ran like hell. b.  We worked like hell. c. It hurt like hell. Whereas the as hell modifiers (see Section 9.6.1) prefer adjectives, like hell prefers verbs. In the case of run, the intensified verb denotes high speed. Other motion verbs can be similarly modified by like+expletive (the following examples are all from the internet): (45)

a. b. c. d.

Swimmer’s advice if he sees a shark: ‘Swim like hell’. Keep calm and drive like hell. Cyclists pedal like hell to escape psycho ostriches. Be like a duck—​above the surface look composed and unruffled, below the surface, paddle like hell!

Besides like hell, there are various other expletives in current use to intensify verbs: (46) a. b. c. d. e. f.

The puma would run like a motherfucker. It hurts like a motherfucker. My back hurts like a bitch. The engine runs like a son of a bitch. Darn, my leg hurts like tarnation. Run like fuck and hope for the best.

Dutch speed expressions such as als de donder ‘like the thunder’ differ from their English counterparts in a number of ways. They are strictly for motion predicates (hence 47d is out of the question), and require a goal or source expression: (47) a. Ga  als     de     donder *(naar huis) go   like the thunder  to   home ‘Go home like greased lightning’ b. De  poema  rende  als     de    bliksem *(naar ons toe) the puma  ran    like the lightning toward us to ‘The puma ran toward us like a blue streak’ c. Rijd als de sodemieter  terug. Drive   like  the   sodomite    back ‘Drive back like a bat out of hell’

Taboo terms and their grammar    177 d. *Ze   werkten  als    de   sodemieter. they worked  like the sodomite ‘They worked like hell’ e. Ga  als    de    duvel  terug. go like the devil  back ‘Get the hell back’ Expressions such as als de weerga ‘like the counterpart’ do not make much sense, but play on the sound of als de weerlicht ‘like the lightning’, comparable to like heck as a substitute for like hell.

9.6.4 High degree readings of taboo verbs Vardi (2015) has called attention to a small group of predicates in modern Hebrew that express high levels of adoration or love, including verbs meaning to die, be sick, be crazy. One of her examples is given in (48): (48) Lehaka madhima, ani met aleiha. band amazing, I die on-​it ‘The band is amazing, I am mad about them’ In English, you can express the same thing in almost the same way: The band is great—​ they kill me. In a similar vein, you can be sick with love, love someone to death, or love someone madly, be crazy/​nuts about someone. The Dutch verb sterven ‘to die’ can be used to indicate a high degree as well, but not of love. Compare: (49) Het sterft hier van de  kwallen. it dies here   of      the  jellyfish ‘The place is crawling with jellyfish’ Here, the verb indicates a high density of some kind of objects covering an area, a reading which is typical for the so-​called swarm-​alternation (Salkoff 1983; Dowty 2000; Hoeksema 2009b). A few other negative verbs can be used here as well: (50) Amsterdam is vergeven van de    toeristen. Amsterdam is  poisoned   of   the  tourists ‘Amsterdam is lousy with tourists’ Note that the participle vergeven merely indicates large amounts of tourists, and not that the place is poisoned or suffocating. Just like the English expression lousy

178   Jack Hoeksema in the translation, it has a constructional meaning that is far removed from its literal meaning.

9.6.5 Amalgams So-​called amalgams (Lakoff 1974; Kehayov 2009; Kluck 2010, 2011) may contain taboo words. Often, but not necessarily, these are of religious origin: (51)

a. b. c. d. e.

My husband has been having sex with God knows how many women.13 The entities as a whole are devil knows how many orders of magnitude above that.14 I had read that trite phrase Lord knows how many times in Lord knows how many thrillers, and taken it for a figure of speech.15 I used reasoned argument on you for fuck knows how many years.16 The last bridge cost $30 million, and goodness knows how much a new one will cost.17

Such amalgams probably originate from another type (I don’t know how many), denoting an indefinite quantity. If the speaker does not know the quantity, then perhaps only God does (by virtue of being omniscient). From God to the devil is then a small step. Finally, the taboo word for God or devil is replaced by the omnipresent and extremely versatile expletive fuck. (Similar substitutions can be found in constructions such as in the name of fuck, stop it, or I am your wife, for fuck’s sake.) As is common, the taboo term may be replaced by something more innocent-​sounding, such as goodness. Dutch has similar examples with God, as well as the proper name Joost ‘Just’: (52)

Ze hebben Joost mag weten hoe  vaak   gebeld. they have Joost may  know how often called ‘They have called God knows how many times’

According to the Dutch dictionary WNT (De Vries and Te Winkel 1926), joos was a Javanese name for a (Chinese) deity, itself a loan from Portuguese deos. Dutch colonials used it to refer to the devil, but nowadays the expression is an opaque idiom. Note that the intended interpretation involves a shift from ‘to a degree unknown to the speaker’, the literal interpretation of I don’t know how much/​many, to the actual

13  http://​​whisper/​054c90124e192d3e18feaf755c3b249c3b568d/​ My-​husband-​has-​been-​having-​sex-​with-​God-​knows-​how-​many-​women-​I-​thought. 14  https://​​threads/​the-​culture-​vs-​the-​entities-​worm.342208/​. 15  Elizabeth Peters, Night Train to Memphis. New York: Warner Books, 1994. 16  Al Ewing, The fictional man. Oxford: Solaris, 2013. 17  http://​​dictionary/​goodness-​only-​knows.

Taboo terms and their grammar    179 reading ‘to a very high degree’. This is the reason why amalgams are treated in the section on intensifiers. Kehayov (2009) mentions cases from Polish, attributed to Robert Bielecki, where the subject of know is not God, but a taboo term: (53) a. On  myśl-​i,    źe jest diabl-​i wiedz-​ą jak    mądry. he    think-​ 3sg that be.3sg devil-​pl know-​ 3pl how smart ‘He thinks he is devils know how smart.’


b. On  myśl-​i,    źe       jest    chuj  wie         jak   mądry. he       think-​3sg that be.3sg dick  know.3sg how  smart ‘He thinks he is so smart’ (lit. ‘He thinks he is dick knows how smart’). c. On  myśl-​i,    źe     jest   cholera wie       jak     mądry. he    think-​3sg that be.3sg cholera  know.3sg  how  smart ‘He thinks he is so smart (lit. ‘He thinks he is cholera knows how smart’). In Estonian, some of these amalgams have turned into negative polarity items (Kehayov 2009).

9.7 Conclusion Besides the cases mentioned above, a great number of others could be mentioned. Space limitations prevent me from attempting a fuller coverage. While the use of expletives for purposes of swearing and name-​calling is likely to be universal, many of the constructions described here are relatively new and unlikely to have counterparts in languages unrelated to English. What counts as an expletive, and how it may be used, also varies somewhat. For instance, English uses faggot as a derogatory term for homosexuals, but does not employ it in negative polarity constructions, degree expressions or rude commands, unlike Dutch in the case of sodemieter and flikker. Dutch, on the other hand, entirely lacks the English expletive infixation phenomenon (fan-​fucking-​tastic, abso-​bloody-​lutely—​cf. McCarthy 1982). By and large, the purpose of taboo-​related expletives appears to be (a) to sound rough or angry (for a fuller discussion, see Jay (this volume)), (b) to make expressions more emphatic, by boosting the degree of a gradable predicate, or (c) to add a negative (pejorative) connotation.

Chapter 10

Tab o o as a dri v e r of l anguag e   c ha ng e kate burridge and réka benczes

10.1  ‘Raising Gooseflesh’—​the power of taboo words There is something very terrible in an oath torn from its proper home and suddenly implanted in the wrong social atmosphere. In these circumstances the alien form is endowed by the hearers with mysterious and uncanny meanings; it chills the blood and raises gooseflesh. Henry Cecil Wyld A History of Modern Colloquial English 1920: 387

As a number of chapters in this volume illustrate, taboo areas of the lexicon are emotionally arousing. More generally the belief in the potency of expressions has been dubbed the ‘naturalist hypothesis’. As Allan (2001) describes, the disturbing nature of taboo words arises from strong naturalist beliefs in the community that transfer to the expressions the distaste of the taboo concepts they represent. Speakers make a link here between sound and sense, as if the form of the expression somehow communicates the essential nature of what it represents. It is the reason taboo words are branded with the label ‘dirty’ and why they are so often described as unpleasant or ugly sounding (cunt is ‘an utterly grotesque word [. . .] it’s just a guttural, ghastly, nasty word’; Woods 2007). It is this perceived relationship between sound and meaning that forms the very basis for the distinction between an unmentionable taboo word (cunt) on the one hand, and its mentionable orthophemistic alternative (vagina) on the other. These words are felt to be intrinsically nasty and this is why they can be so powerful and so disruptive. Over the years psycholinguistic and neurological research has been providing scientific evidence for the arousing, shocking, memorable, and evocative nature of taboo words. A number of researchers have investigated the mental processes that support

Taboo as a driver of language change    181 the contrasting emotional response to taboo words and their euphemisms, some using experiments that measure the impact of words via techniques such as electrodermal monitoring (e.g. Bowers and Pleydell-​Pearce 2011). There has also been considerable investigation of the effects of arousal on memory (e.g. MacWhinney et al. 1982; MacKay et al. 2004; Jay et al. 2008); findings reveal that taboo words are always more stimulating than non-​taboo words and people remember them better than neutral words. The results for bilingual speakers provide an additional perspective. Research going back to Gonzalez-​Regiosa (1976), Anooshian and Hertel (1994), and more recently Harris et al. (2003) all corroborate that the greatest emotional reactivity is to taboo words in both languages, but stimuli will elicit greater emotional arousal (and better recall) in the first language; in fact, subjects often report feeling nothing when they hear or utter taboo words and phrases in their second language. Children pick up on the emotive components of the meaning of taboo words very early in their lives (Jay 1992, Chapter 6 of this volume). These expressions acquire the cultural imprint of the forbidden, and though as yet there are no laboratory or neuroimaging studies that have conclusively identified the exact neuroanatomical sites where tabooed expressions are stored or that have evaluated specifically the processing of obscenities (Chapter 7 of this volume), the evidence seems overwhelming—​taboo words have a different neurological representation from other language stimuli and this is established early in childhood. Thus language learned later in life will not elicit the same strong physiological responses. The linguistic evidence is also compelling. Clang association is a kind of distance assimilation that shifts the meaning of words because of associations picked up from other words connected in sound (fortuitous is in process of shifting its meaning from ‘by chance’ to ‘lucky’ clearly on account of its proximity to fortunate). Words that clash with taboo words are particularly prone to change, as English titivate and titillate illustrate. Originally meaning ‘to tidy up’, titivate is currently colliding with similar-​sounding titillate ‘to excite pleasantly (with strong association to lust)’; most dictionaries now give the additional meaning ‘tickle, excite agreeably’ (usually branded with labels such as ‘erroneous’). The fact that the first syllable of titivate collides with tit undoubtedly plays a role. A different illustration is provided by liaison, a cooking term that entered English from French in the seventeenth century; it referred to a binding agent for thickening sauces. By the early 1800s, the word had broadened to embrace any type of close bond or connection, and by this stage it was dripping with sexual innuendo. Its general meaning had made it an ideal evasive and inoffensive expression for any secret sexual relationship, and ‘illicit sexual association’ soon became its dominant meaning. Assisting this shift was certainly the association of wantonness conveyed by the initial liquid consonant of liaison (compare words such as licentious, lascivious, loose, lubricious, lecherous, libidinous, lustful, lickerish, lewd, or the relatively recent -​licious suffix that now creates words like babelicious and bootylicious). The same sound association probably assisted the shift of lusty and lustful ‘full of sexual desire’ from the early sense of ‘joyful, merry’ (compare a lust for life which preserves the idea of enthusiasm).

182    Kate Burridge and Réka Benczes Taboo senses have a saliency that dominates and will typically quash the other senses of any language expression recruited as euphemism. Existing vocabulary is abandoned as speakers create new expressions, or find new meanings for old expressions. The attention-​grabbing nature of these words can have the effect of eliminating even unrelated expressions because of their phonetic proximity (e.g. the demise of monosyllabic words in English like feck ‘efficiency’; the disappearance of niggardly from American English). This force can extend across languages; some bilingual Thais are reportedly uneasy about using Thai words like fuk ‘gourd, pumpkin’; in the Nuu-​ chah-​nulth language of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, the English word such so closely resembles the Nuu-​chah-​nulth word meaning ‘cunt’ that teachers find it very difficult to convince their students to utter the English word in class; Allan and Burridge (2006: 46). Speakers today share with their ancestors a profound awareness of the close relationship here between word and meaning and this remains a powerful motive for language change. It is also true that much of the instability and innovation of the taboo lexicon is about humour and language play. Speakers can use the levity as a means of disarming anxiety and discomfort by downgrading what it is they cannot cope with. As Freud theorized, ‘The ego [. . .] insists that it cannot be affected by the traumas of the external world; it shows, in fact, that such traumas are no more than occasions for it to gain pleasure’ (Freud 1927: 163). These days humour serves as a societal safety valve by providing a ritual context for taboo violation. Using their own form of black humour, Adams and Newell (1994) in the preface to their collection of jokes liken the relieving aspect of laughter to electroconvulsive therapy: ‘Laughter does to the brain what a good sneeze does to the nasal passages. If you read this entire volume in one sitting, it will be the equivalent of ten years in psychoanalysis’ (p. 12). Jokes . . . are appalling. Almost without exception they deal in bigotry, sexism, racism, ageism, and all the other politically incorrect isms. They clearly help people deal with their deep distaste for their own sexuality, their excremental functions, their foreign neighbours, their political masters, and an infinite variety of things that go bump in the night. Adams and Newell 1994: 12

Taboo areas such as death and disease provide startling illustrations of gallows humour (see Chapter 4 of this volume). Workers in the Australian death industry (privately) use terms like soup ‘a badly decomposing body’, or floater ‘one that has been fished out of water’; for those having to deal with the dying and with death everyday, this seeming irreverence for human life makes the work easier to bear. But it is also the case that speakers mutate tabooed words and play with them for the sheer pleasure of it. David Crystal (1998) demonstrates the ubiquity and creativity of language play among ordinary language users, and points out that ‘when children arrive in school, their linguistic life has been one willingly given over to language play’ (Crystal 1998: 183). This continues throughout their lives—​and taboo delivers rich fodder for the humour.

Taboo as a driver of language change    183

10.2  ‘The A-​b omb of the English language’—​a case study of change THINGSTABLE. Mr. Thingstable; Mr. Constable:  a ludicrous affectation of delicacy in avoiding the pronunciation of the first syllable in the title of that officer, which in sound has some similarity to an indecent monosyllable. Captain Francis Grose Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue 1783

To demonstrate the volatile nature of the vocabulary surrounding taboos, we set the scene with a case study of cunt, ‘the A-​bomb of the English language’, as it has been characterized (Kirn 2005: 136)—​and ‘the most seriously taboo word in English for centuries, remaining so for the vast majority of users’ (Hughes 2006: 110). The career span of this contentious word graphically illustrates the nature of taboo and the powerful effect a taboo word can exert on the general lexicon of a language. It’s not for nothing that it has been stamped with the descriptive euphemism ‘strong language’. The etymology of cunt links it to cognates such as Old Norse kunta, Old Frisian and Middle Low German kunte, and Middle Dutch conte; yet remarkably, it is not attested in Old English, with the exception of place names such as cuntan heale (lit. ‘cunt hollow’). As Partridge (1984) outlines, etymologists have been reluctant to connect it with classical Latin cunnus ‘vulva’ (cp. French con), however, because of its final [t]‌(this a puzzling reluctance, given that the well-​attested phonological process excrescence is responsible for many an erroneous final [t] in English words; e.g. against, peasant, truant, parchment, and many more). By Middle English the word is making regular public appearances, and without any shock value it seems. Early medical texts have descriptions like ‘wymmen the necke of the bladdre is schort, & is maad fast to the cunte’ (Lanfranc’s Science of Cirurgie, ca 1400). The word also has a role in the formation of medieval place names, probably the most well-​known being Gropecuntlane (found in around twenty localities, although sometimes disguised as Gropelane). It even appears in personal names (Clevecunt, Wydecunthe, Cruskunt, Cunteles, Fillecunt, Twychecunt, and Sittebid’cunte) and plant names (cuntehoare ‘fumitory’, countewort, and counteminte ‘catmint’). Since taboo words are a general feature in early naming practices, there is no reason to doubt these examples, besides which they have been well researched (Briggs 2009). For modern readers, the dropping of ‘the A-​bomb of the English language’ into such conventional contexts produces an arresting stylistic discord. True, some anxieties appear to be shared by most, if not all human societies (accounts provided in Korn, Radice, and Hawes 2001 suggest that the most robust taboo of all is that people should not be turned into food). Yet, as Allan describes in Chapter 1 of this volume, taboo is also dynamic. In the course of the Middle English period, the notion of what is obscene shifts squarely onto sex and other natural bodily functions, and the fall

184    Kate Burridge and Réka Benczes from grace of the orthophemism cunt is striking. Given that taboos furnish languages with their swearwords, not surprisingly a physically-​and sexually-​based idiom emerges as the norm for swearing patterns in English (Hughes 2006). Cunt appears regularly in early literary flyting, the ancestor of the modern insult-​trading rap battles and other games of dissing (e.g. in a Scottish flyting match in 1585, ‘Kis þe cunt of ane kow’ is how the poet Montgomerie begins his assault on rival poet Polward). However, unless euphemized (e.g. as queynte/​quainte or coun from French con ‘cunny, cunt’), or punned upon (Hamlet’s ‘country matters’), the word cunt has otherwise no presence in works of literature, even those of Chaucer or Shakespeare, writers not known for their prudery. Even though the transition is well underway from the religious to the secular in patterns of swearing, it takes some time for risqué body parts and bodily functions to be used as personal insults aimed at a second person (You cunt/​prick!) or said of a third person (The cunt/​prick stole my pen). Though cunt is among the earliest of such terms to be used as a general epithet for both sexes (Hughes 2006: 112), this doesn’t happen until the second half of the nineteenth century. According to the entries in the Oxford English Dictionary, M. E. Neely’s 1860 Abraham Lincoln Encyclopaedia is the first recorded use of cunt as an insult to a person: ‘And when they got to Charleston, they had to, as is wont Look around to find a chairman, and so they took a Cunt’ (Neely 1982). Here it is relevant to highlight the difference in potency between the epithet cunt and the epithets prick and dick when these are applied to humans (or animals): cunt (also twat, prat) is primarily used to ascribe nastiness or maliciousness, and is applicable to both males and females; prick (also dick), on the other hand, means ‘stupid, contemptible’ and is mostly applied to males and almost never to females (see Allan and Burridge 1991: §6.7.5 for an account of the sexist asymmetry in the vocabulary of abuse invoking male and female sex organs). The changed status of cunt is clearly reflected in the dictionary-​making conventions of different eras, in particular with respect to the pressures on lexicographers (self-​ imposed injunctions or later institutionalized censorship) to alter definitions or even omit entries entirely. The earliest dictionaries to include cunt are specialist dictionaries, such as Stephen Skinner’s Etymologicon Linguae Anglicanae (1671); it offers scholarly accounts of many full-​blown obscenities, but as the collection is in Latin, it is therefore uninterpretable to those unschooled in the classics. Even when dictionaries become more ‘dictionaryish’ by today’s standards, Latin remained for some time a euphemistic smokescreen for risqué entries; in Nathan Bailey’s An Universal Etymological English Dictionary (1724), for example, cunt is defined as ‘Pudendum Muliebre’. And so cunt becomes the invisible word, unprintable unless rendered with asterisks and dashes. Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755) has no entry for cunt, which is significant (Musgrave and Burridge 2014). Johnson did not shirk from full-​blown obscenity in his own language, and many of his critics condemned his dictionary precisely because it did include vulgar language (which he often justified on the authority of Shakespeare).1 And while cunt does appear among the 4,000 vulgarisms in Captain Frances Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785), it is camouflaged by 1  In a letter to David Ramsay, the puritanical Noah Webster roundly criticized Johnson for including ‘vulgar words and offensive ribaldry’ (Letters, 286–​7, edited by Warfel).

Taboo as a driver of language change    185 asterisks as c**t, and has the telling definition ‘a nasty word for a nasty thing’. It isn’t until the 1960s that cunt has an ordinary entry in general dictionaries. There is one remarkable exception, however—​John Ash’s New and Complete Dictionary of the English Language (1775). The Baptist Minister Ash goes down in linguistic history as the only dictionary-​maker of this time to use neither modest abbreviations nor Latin for his entries of cunnus, cunny, and cunt. Now banished to the ‘ “Dark Continent” of the World of Words’ (lexicographer John Stephen Farmer’s description; Farmer and Henley 1890–​1904/​1970: viii), cunt takes clean-​ living vocabulary down with it. As Hughes (2006: 111) plausibly speculates, taboo association is probably behind the disappearance of the French title count—​its embarrassing proximity to cunt (both would have shared the short [ʊ] of modern pud) makes the English title earl a more attractive option for speakers. An earlier word for ‘rabbit’ coney/​cunny (rhyming with honey) drops out of use also on account of its unseemly anatomical significance (played on in early colloquialisms such as cunny-​warren ‘brothel’ and cunny-​hunter ‘whoremonger’). Undoubtedly, taboo association has some role to play in the eventual adoption of the name King Canute in place of King Cnut—​English speakers could transpose the letters of Cnut as easily as speakers today transpose the letters of FCUK.2

10.2.1 The ‘female pudendum’ and other euphemisms Very different values attach to female and male sexuality, and there is no doubt that there have always been more taboos on the body and effluvia of women than on the body and effluvia of men. As Allan and Burridge (1991) demonstrate, the severity of these taboos has led to a flourishing of X-​phemistic terms, and they argue the degree of synonymy in the vocabulary for female genitalia has no parallel elsewhere in the English lexicon—​ except in the terms for ‘promiscuous woman’ (Allan and Burridge 1991: 98). There are reportedly well over 1,200 terms for ‘vagina’ and more than 2,000 for ‘promiscuous woman’ (cf. Farmer and Henley 1890–​1904; Fryer 1963; Healey 1980).3 Much has already been written on the linguistic creativity surrounding taboo topics and in particular on the different linguistic strategies that are used in the creation of euphemism.4 Here we will give just some of the many examples of euphemisms for


Other triggers included the difficulty of the [kn] cluster for English speakers (simplification of these clusters began during the seventeenth century), and the fact that the disyllabic forms of the name already existed as a romanization of Cnut (Porck and Mann 2014 uncovered eleventh-​century Norman or French forms: Canotus, Canoc, and Chunutus—​the [kn] cluster would have also posed problems for these speakers). 3  Note, however, that lexicographer Jonathon Green (1993: 153) describes drink, drinking, and drunkenness as dominating the slang lexicon, citing a massive collection of some 2,500 terms. 4  Warren (1992) and Linfoot-​Ham (2005), for example, provide a taxonomy of the linguistic strategies; Pfaff et al. (1997) and Crespo-​Fernández (2011b) focus on the role of metaphor; papers in volume 7 of Lexis also focus on aspects of X-​phemism and word-​formation.

186    Kate Burridge and Réka Benczes ‘female genitalia’ to illustrate the most significant of these creative processes, those that figure strongly in taboo avoidance across the languages of the world. Our focus will be on the volatility of this vocabulary. True, the lexicon of any language changes all the time. Words disappear; new ones are created (or borrowed); meanings too are in a constant state of flux. But taboo words and their meanings are culturally potent, and this makes them prone to rapid and unpredictable changes. Most languages have some euphemisms based on words or morphs that have been borrowed from other languages, and a number of euphemisms for ‘vagina’ have their origins in expressions borrowed into English. Many follow on from the practice of using Latin in early dictionaries; for example pudendum lit. ‘that of which one ought to be ashamed’ (compare English private parts which is normally restricted to the genitals—​cp. older the privy member—​as are its counterparts in other languages, e.g. Dutch schaamdelen ‘shameful parts’, Indonesian kemaluan ‘shame, embarrassment’). Orthophemisms like vagina, vulva, and (female) genitalia are the learned or technical terms from medical jargon that come into ordinary language via a kind of internal borrowing. Specialist terms from prestigious subvarieties, such as Medicalese, provide ready-​made euphemisms, a strategy lexicographer John Ayto aptly dubs the ‘blind-​ them-​with-​science school of euphemism’ (Ayto 2000). The facts of anatomy have never got in the way of a good euphemism, and with time ordinary usage can take these words a long way from their original specialized senses. The word vagina is nowadays polysemous: its earlier meaning, ‘the passage between the vulva and the cervix’, has been semantically extended in lay usage to include the vulva, giving rise to what is currently the primary everyday meaning.5 Other linguistic processes draw on the resources from within the language itself, and one common strategy is to mask the taboo topic by modifying the offensive expression in some way. A number of euphemisms take the form of phonetic disguises and these include shortenings; pudendum continues in English in the clipped form pud (with additional support from pud ‘pudding’; as we discuss below, the food metaphor has prevailed for some time and pudding has been slang for sex organs since the 1600s). The words can also be remodelled—​a subtle vowel change in Coney [kouni] Island, or an altered consonant as in bunny transforms cunny ‘cunt’ (or ‘rabbit’) into something acceptable and that can be spoken out loud (though there are probably additional influences here too; see Allan and Burridge 1991: §5.8.6). Even the orthophemism vagina is undergoing comparable transformations. As discussions on the internet attest, the phonetic similarity of regina ‘queen’ pronounced [rədʒaɪnə] means the word is either avoided or rendered with the earlier penultimate vowel sound [rədʒinə], Mumsnet, a forum on

5  Compare how ordinary usage has transformed the meaning of stomach from ‘the internal organ contained within the belly’ to ‘that part of the body between the diaphragm and groin, as well as the organ of digestion within it’. Polite society during the Victorian era had problems with any body part near the belt or below it, and in the public arena words like belly were expunged from texts, replaced by stomach, chest, embryo, and even viscera (it now only exists in a handful of compound expressions such as belly-​dancing, belly button, belly-​up, and occasionally belly laugh; cf. Burridge 2005).

Taboo as a driver of language change    187 parenting, discusses the pronunciation of the female name Regina. The general advice is to avoid the name; as one parent writes, ‘[e]‌ven if you insist on one pronunciation, it will be linked to vagina at some point in her life’ (emphasis original).6 Another shortening strategy is to simply take the initial letter of the forbidden word, as in the ‘C’ word. In writing, these might be fleshed out with non-​lexical expressions such as asterisks (c**t), a long dash (c—​t), suspension points or other symbols (c . . ., c*!@). Abbreviations like the ‘C’ word and the monosyllable take the definite article the and are as much proper names as something like The Rockies, immediately recognizable to the normal speaker of English even though there are thousands of monosyllables and thousands of words beginning with c-​. Speakers will of course have no trouble recognizing c—​t, c**t, or even c*!@. The inbuilt redundancy of English spelling means people can usually read words when vowels are left out or letters are transposed, and in these examples the symbols and unconventional spellings seem more to highlight the obscenity than obscure it. The expressions are anyway such attention-​grabbers, a fact not lost on NT Unofficial, who in November 2016 sought to promote travel awareness to the Northern Territory (Australia) with T-​shirts and souvenirs emblazoned with the logo:7 This is a strategy that provides much potential for language play, more advertisement than camouflage (as Danny Lim’s jocular sandwich board pun shows; see Section 10.2.3). The antithetical disguise has always been circumlocution, and the more words the more effective the cover: the miraculous pitcher, that holds water with the mouth downwards (an entry found in Grose’s eighteenth-​century Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, and defined as ‘a woman’s commodity’) is a flamboyant expression that illustrates a number of different linguistic strategies, being long-​winded, metaphorical, and hyperbolic. The process of circumlocution often involves a kind of rudimentary componential analysis; the senses of taboo terms are unpacked and each of the meaning components is listed. The resulting periphrasis functions as a euphemism: the female organ of generation; a part of the woman’s body starting with c. and so on. Distortions also appear in the form of Cockney rhyming (slang) such as grumble and grunt, Joe Hunt, bargain hunt, John Hunt, Treasure Hunt, Berkeley Hunt and many more. These are often end-​clipped and abbreviated to grumble, Joey, Charlie, bargain, and berk for example, providing another layer of disguise (as an insult, the current meaning of berk is mild compared with the meaning of the insult cunt, undoubtedly because berk is not widely recognized to be an end-​clipping of Berkeley Hunt). Backslang renders cunt as tenuc/​teenuc and in Pig Latin it becomes untcay (see http://​ for more examples). Finally, the majority of euphemisms are figurative and have been—​or are being—​ the cause of semantic change. As expected, metaphor is the most common process (see also Chapter 4 of this volume for a discussion on the metaphorical language of illness and death); for example, both the store or source of wealth metaphor (e.g. 6 

https://​​Talk/​baby_​names/​926571-​Regina-​how-​do-​you-​pronounce-​it. http://​​business/​media/​marketing/​cu-​in-​the-​nt-​campaign-​slogan-​ obscene-​says-​advertising-​watchdog/​news-​story/​42fa51c273b53e88d204992a9ccaca60. 7 

188    Kate Burridge and Réka Benczes breadwinner, commodity, cornucopia, jewel, honeypot, exchequer, treasury, (prick) purse, kitty, money-​box, money) and the food metaphor (e.g. meat muffin, mustard pot, pecan pattie, sticky bun, sugar basin, twat waffle, tuna taco, whisker biscuit, yum-​yum)8 are among the oldest figurative expressions in English. But, as Allan and Burridge describe (2006: Chapter 4), every imaginable aspect of the appearance, location, functions, and effects of the body part has been drawn upon as bases for metaphor from the gross fuckhole to the highly creative the miraculous pitcher, that holds water with the mouth downwards just mentioned. A number of these expressions are whole-​for-​part metonymies (as in nether regions, down there, front bottom, and so on), often involving a high level of abstraction. Very general words like crotch or groin provide the cover—​their imprecise location makes them a kind of all-​purpose euphemism for anything unmentionable in the general vicinity. Over time, these words narrow their meanings, and in different speech communities they can specialize in different ways. Hence the ambiguity of slang terms like prat and tail, which at different stages in their history and in different dialects have referred to ‘buttocks’, ‘female genitalia’, and in the case of tail, also ‘male genitalia’. The term fanny is notoriously ambiguous in modern English—​in British English it widely acceptable as a euphemism for a woman’s vagina and in American English it denotes her buttocks roughly equivalent to, say, bottom or bum (compare twat which has the same ambiguity). Linguist Paul Benedict has dubbed this phenomenon ‘genital flipflop’ to capture the semantic switching between the meanings ‘penis’ and ‘vulva’ for words in a number of Asian languages; for some languages (e.g. Karen, a Sino-​Tibetan language) it is probably more a case of a semantic reversal from ‘penis’ to ‘vulva’ (or vice versa) rather than the result of semantic specialization (from the protoform ‘genitalia’ to either ‘penis’ or ‘vulva’ or (Benedict 1979, 1981; Carr 1985).

10.2.2 The X-​phemism  mill As just shown, there are internal forces at work in language change to ensure the majority of euphemistic expressions are short-​lived. It has long been established that words are more likely to take on negative overtones than they are favourable ones—​a kind of Gresham’s Law of Semantic Change: Bad connotations drive out good.9 In 1957, Osgood 8  The metaphorical conceptualization of the vagina as food draws on the sex is eating metaphor (see Crespo-​Fernández  2008). 9  The expression ‘Gresham’s law’ is named after Sir Thomas Gresham, a sixteenth-​century English financier who worked for King Edward VI. The law dates back to the 1850s when it was first used by economist Henry Dunning Macleod to refer to the tendency (when there is more than one form of money in circulation) for bad money to drive out good money. The application of Gresham’s Law to language is not recent and the linguistic law should more properly be labelled Bernstein’s Law. Theodore Menline Bernstein, journalist and former editor of The New York Times, outlined his second law of language (based on Gresham’s Law): ‘Bad words tend to drive out good ones, and when they do, the good ones never appreciate in value, sometimes maintain their value, but most often lose in value, whereas the bad words may remain bad or get better’ (Bernstein 1965: 70).

Taboo as a driver of language change    189 et al. provided psycholinguistic support for this law. Using a technique (the ‘semantic differential’) for systematically (though subjectively) quantifying connotative meaning, the research confirms that there is a general tendency for derogatory or unfavourable denotations or connotations to dominate. And so it is that euphemistic expressions become sullied by the disagreeable concepts they designate. As the negative associations reassert themselves, they undermine the euphemistic quality of the word, and the next generation of speakers grows up learning the word either as the direct term (orthophemism) or an offensive term (dysphemism). Vagina, for example, quickly narrowed in ordinary usage to the direct term for ‘female genitalia’ (or more usually ‘vulva’ as described above), and for many people would now be among the obscenities; the original metaphorical links to Latin vāgīna ‘sheath, scabbard’ are now well and truly severed. McWhorter (2016) describes it this way: ‘Thought will always catch up with the word’. Perennial pejoration and narrowing of meaning promotes an ever-​changing chain of vocabulary replacements for words denoting taboo concepts—​Pinker’s (2002) ‘euphemistic treadmill’ or Allan and Burridge’s (2006) ‘X-​phemism mill’. Spectacular examples of the fallout of this (tread)mill occur in words for sexual activity, and we now widen the discussion to sexual vocabulary more broadly. Speakers do not want to give the wrong impression by appearing to use an improper word when none was intended, and once pressed into euphemistic service, general words will typically narrow. For example, when ejaculate/​ejaculation first appeared in English in the 1600s, it was with the broad meaning of ‘sudden ejection or emission’, often used to describe short emotional utterances (Samuel Pepys wrote in a diary entry: ‘I could not but with hearty thanks to Almighty God ejaculate my thanks to Him’). These days, all senses of ejaculation have been smothered by the sense of ‘discharging sperm’.10 (Compare the fate of words such as rape, consummation, erection, copulation, intimacy, orgasm, intercourse, climax.) And even though sex and bodily functions aren’t as strongly tabooed as in the past, more recent euphemism recruits like interfere (originally ‘to strike, collide’) and liaison (as earlier described, originally a binding agent in cooking) are following a similar trajectory. There is another force driving the euphemism (tread)mill—​a form of routinization. Some euphemisms are simply so fleeting that they never linger long enough to become unfit for use. Many of the euphemistic substitutions for vagina that we’ve just seen, dropped by the wayside well before they ever had a chance to narrow and deteriorate. Novel metaphorical expressions such as the eighteenth-​century commodity (store or source of wealth metaphor) simply didn’t endure; the conceptual metaphor has lived on, however, and continues to generate new and more vibrant expressions such as the hairy chequebook.11 With attention seeking euphemisms such as these, speakers 10  The linguistic term ejaculation for ‘short emotional utterance’ continued in grammar books for some time; a specialized content can encourage a more rigid style that then preserves forms and meanings long since ousted from ordinary usage (cp. vagina which lasted into the late 1800s as a botanical expression for sheathing). 11  An ABC television program called Nobody’s Children (Melbourne, Australia, 17 May 1989) included an interview with an eighteen-​year-​old street-​kid who claimed that in order to travel, girls like her either

190    Kate Burridge and Réka Benczes or writers are typically doing something clever or humorous with the language. It is unlikely that the eighteenth-​century expression the miraculous pitcher, that holds water with the mouth downwards mentioned earlier was ever anything but a bit of creative fun. Clearly such euphemisms are part of slang, and the mark of slanguage is that it quickly dates.12 That which is slang for one generation either drops by the wayside or stops being fashionable by intruding into neutral style and becoming standard usage. The majority of the slang terms for ‘vagina’ in Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue are outdated, and few are part of people’s active vocabulary. In the life cycle of a euphemism, wear and tear sees metaphorical ties cut, imagery buried, and expressions stripped of their force; time pushes these expressions below the level of consciousness. This is good news for the face-​saving euphemisms that seek to maintain a low profile and slip through the discourse unobserved; there it’s all about obscuring and disguising disagreeable reality with avoidance language and evasive expression. But this is not the case for those euphemisms created for amusement (though as just described, the humour can itself be an effective coping mechanism). This observation holds for other types of the more showy euphemism that we haven’t considered here. In their ability to place whatever it is they designate in a favourable light, many euphemisms are simply positive expressions with no real tabooed counterparts, and their purpose can be very different: euphemisms can enhance whatever is being referred to, as in the upgrade of potholes to pavement deficiencies (Allan and Burridge 1991); artful euphemisms (from Shakespeare’s low comedy to modern street slang) are meant to be revealing, and they can be exploited by satirists such as Swift or Orwell to publically expound taboo topics (Allan 2012). Valentine (1998) and Burridge (2006) also describe how ‘PC’-​inspired euphemism aims not to disguise or conceal unpleasant reality, but rather to compel speakers to go beyond the simple content of the message and challenge the prejudices embodied in their language. These expressions will not want to take the back seat reserved for the face-​saving euphemism, and the frequent vocabulary renewal here is not because time has blown the euphemistic cover necessarily, but because the imposition of routine and associated semantic-​pragmatic loss has rendered the expression inconspicuous and unremarkable—​it is the same tug-​of-​war between routinization

had to walk, or else accept a lift and ‘pull out the hairy chequebook [pause] screw’. Note also that the store or source of wealth metaphor is related to the sex is work metaphor, which is manifested in expressions such as do the business, work on, or do the job (all meaning ‘to copulate’). This metaphor, similarly to the conceptualization of the vagina as a source of wealth, can degrade the sexual act by reducing men’s sexuality to ‘work, business, and an economic exchange’ (Crespo-​Fernández 2008: 104) and thus depicting women as inferior. 12  Slang tramps a similar treadmill and intensifiers offer a good example: nineteenth-​century cool has made a comeback, yet prime, plummy, and rum (from the same period) are well and truly obsolete. More recent far out and ace have been replaced by awesome and other new arrivals (e.g. amazeballs, awesomesauce, and phat) are already ‘old-​hat’. A study of student slang at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill showed that over a fifteen-​year period fewer than 10% of the expressions had survived (McArthur 1992: 940).

Taboo as a driver of language change    191 (or idiomatization) and expressivity (or creativity) that drives many linguistic innovations (see Hopper and Traugott 2003 on grammaticalization). This is all well and good, but we also have to acknowledge that occasionally there are expressions that do not tramp the same euphemism treadmill for either reason of contamination or routinization. Coleman (1992), for example, identifies patterns of euphemistic use in Old English that overlap closely with Modern English usage—​some euphemisms (such as to sleep with ‘have sexual intercourse’) have not only have escaped contamination and survived, but still provide effective camouflage. In offering a different take on the life cycle of euphemisms, McGlone, Beck, and Pfiester (2006) argue that familiarity and ubiquity confer ‘pragmatic stealth and mindlessness-​inducing qualities’ (McGlone et al. 2006: 279) on a euphemism. In contradiction to the contamination (‘treadmill’ argument), they claim that conventionality will enhance, not diminish, the face-​saving capacity of a euphemism. Unquestionably it is the case that conventionality enables expressions to be processed in a mechanical fashion; words of high frequency are easier to access for speakers and hearers and they require less cognitive effort (this is precisely why frequent and highly irregular forms such as go-​went escape the powerful regularizing forces of analogy; see Bybee 2006 on the effects of repetition). As we’ve just described, time will strip away the novelty and vividness that invite the interpretation of an expression, and without doubt some familiar euphemisms remain polite over long periods precisely because they come to offer routine and unexciting ways of indirectly mentioning taboo topics. Remarkably durable euphemisms such as to lose ‘be deprived (of someone) by death’ (in use since the twelfth century), pass away/​pass (in use since the fourteenth century), deceased, departed, and no longer with us ‘dead’ (in use since the fifteenth century) have in common that they allude to taboo topics in a very remote way; their association lacks precision, allowing them to remain unobtrusive and sneak through the discourse unscathed.13 Yet familiarity effects cannot provide the whole story here, since expressions have to survive in the first place in order to become routine, and it remains a fact of linguistic life that the majority of euphemistic expressions deteriorate, and often spectacularly. McGlone et al. (2006) look to changes in the concept itself to account for the euphemism treadmill; for example, the trigger behind the shift in expressions for ‘the facility for disposing body waste’ (water closet > latrine > toilet > bathroom . . .) has been transformations to the fixture itself (e.g. increase in the size and composition): ‘When technological or scientific advancement alters the way society conceives of such a topic, conceptual innovation is the engine of euphemism turnover, not familiarity’ (McGlone et al. 2006: 278). Certainly innovations in science and technology have repercussions for the lexicon, but a problem for McGlone et al.’s explanation here is that changes in a referent typically do not render its expression obsolete. The advent of motorization has brought with it remarkable changes for words such as car, tyre, lorry, and truck; yet the


See Benczes et al. (2017) on the generality of terms for ‘old age’ such as older and elderly, which continue to throw up smoke by providing the effective hedge of ‘somewhat aged’.

192    Kate Burridge and Réka Benczes terms remain. Clearly, the world changes, but unless taboo is involved, the expressions will typically adapt by extending or shifting their meaning (a process known as ‘subreption’). Conceptual change in science and technology cannot be responsible for the displacement of euphemisms.14 It is possible that these longer-​living euphemisms drop out of circulation to again be put back to euphemistic work at a later date. The Google Ngram Viewer allows us to track changes in the use of these words over time, and while admittedly a blunt instrument, and one that cannot distinguish literal and figurative meanings of expressions (like pass [away] or sleep with), the Google Ngram charts for these successful euphemisms do suggest that they have been in continuous use in the language.15 The longevity of these face-​saving euphemisms remains an anomaly, as does the longevity of those atypical slang euphemisms that not only survive but manage to retain their original energy, sometimes over centuries (e.g. the rich copulatory lexicon of Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue contains a handful of expressions that have not only endured, but remain slangy and up-​to-​date, among them shag and screw ‘to copulate’). Certain turns of phrase seem to capture people’s imagination and manage to survive, but the puzzle is still how they retain their effectiveness over so many years. The shelf life of these durable ‘-​phemisms’ remains a mystery.

10.2.3 A final note—​‘the A-​bomb’  today In March 2014, the inclusion in the Oxford English Dictionary of derived forms cunty, cuntish both meaning ‘highly unpleasant’, cunted ‘extremely drunk’, and the intensifier cunting ‘very much’ (compare fucking) barely raised an eyebrow. The potency of the profanity relating to sexual and bodily functions is now well and truly diminished, and with this shift comes also the diminishing of the power of cunt to offend. Emotional expressions will anyway lose their sting with frequent use, but it is also clear that sex and bodily functions are no longer tabooed as they were in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (see also Ruiz 2015 on the euphemistic and dysphemistic language used in the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy). Free-​to-​air television now frequently includes cunt, and its acceptance explains why magistrates no longer see the word as inherently criminal. Laws against sexual obscenity have been well and truly relaxed; however ‘–​IST’ taboos have stepped up to make sexist, racist, ageist, religionist, etc. language not only contextually dysphemistic, but legally so. In Australia, only when use of cunt is deemed an act of public racism will the language have legal consequences; for example, ‘Go back to your own country, you cunt’ is reasoned to be offensive language because of the 14 

In social, cultural, and political domains, however, it might well have a place, in particular if the euphemisms are deliberately provocative. PC-​driven changes, for instance, are a form of natural linguistic evolution in the face of more general sociocultural change. 15  See Zhang (2015) on problems that come from the optical character recognition and the skewed corpus of Google English language books.

Taboo as a driver of language change    193 underlying motivation of hatred towards the person on the basis of race (see discussion in the Law Report, ABC Radio 5 September 2017).16 Similarly, sports players (and sporting crowds) are now only ever charged with foul language when it involves race discrimination or vilification. The incident that triggered tighter controls of racial abuse on and off the sporting oval occurred in 1995 when an Aboriginal footballer Michael Long was called ‘black cunt’ by another player during a match; the uproar that followed pressured the Australian Football League to create a new code of conduct (Rule 35) based on race (Scutt 2002).17 Notable is that none of the reports of the incident made reference to any offence caused by the use of the word cunt. True, there are still those in Australia who might complain about hearing such words as cunt in public, but obscene language charges are now typically dismissed in courts around the country. In Danny Lim vs. Regina [2017] NSWDC 231 (29 August 2017), Judge Scotting concluded: Whilst the conduct was inappropriate and in poor taste, I am not satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that it was offensive, or so offensive as to be considered in the high end of the range of what would be considered to be offensive.

In reference to then prime minister Tony Abbott, Lim had worn a sign saying ‘PEACE, LOVE, HAPPINESS. PEOPLE CAN CHANGE. TONY, YOU C∀N’T ‘. Interestingly, not one of the many newspaper articles reporting on this case dared quote the offensive expression in full. Courts may well be ruling that cunt is no longer obscene, but it seems the word maintains its ‘shock-​and-​horror capacity’ in the print media; as Wajnryb notes ‘[m]‌ost print media still baulk at printing CUNT, resorting to the rather quaint convention of asterisk substitution’ (Wajnryb 2004: 50). Electronic media, however, may not show the same prudishness. When reporting the new additions cunty, cuntish, cunted, and cunting to the Oxford English Dictionary, for example, few online news stories resorted to coy abbreviations in their accounts.

10.3  Taboo and the historical method Taboo undermines the two important principles that laid the foundations of the Neogrammarian historical methodology in the late nineteenth century and which 16 

As an illustration of the evolving sensitivities, take the various permutations of the expression pot calling black arse > pot calling kettle black > pot calling kettle (used to claim that someone is guilty of that which they accuse another). Societal queasiness around the Victorian era saw arse drop from the end of the phrase, while more recent times have seen further euphemistic omission with the occasional removal of black; the internet has much discussion on the racist nature of the idiom (e.g. Goldberg 2011). 17  In 2012 the AFL introduced a new Vilification and Discrimination Policy that brought in tighter controls for crowd abuse towards players based on race, religion, gender, sexual preference, orientation, or identity (http://​​index.php?id=1785).

194    Kate Burridge and Réka Benczes have remained firmly entrenched in modern linguistic thinking. One is the ‘regularity hypothesis’, the notion that the sound system of any language, as it develops through time, is subject to the operation of Lautgesetze (sound laws). These are regular in their operation, except under the influences of non-​phonetic factors such as analogy (where words deviate from the ‘proper’ patterns, as in grine changing to groin on analogy with loin). The orderliness of sound change has become a cornerstone of the comparative method, giving scholars license to compare languages and to reconstruct their ancestral forms. Another cornerstone is the symbolic nature of words. Excluding sound symbolic expressions (like English cockadoodledoo, German kikeriki, and Japanese kokekokko), the Saussurean paradigm states that there is no natural or necessary connection between the shape of a word and its meaning. This means we can rule out the possibility that any patterned regularities are fortuitous (occasional coincidental similarities aside, such as unrelated English day and Latin dies). Because speakers of different languages are unlikely to arrive independently at the same or similar sound patterns to represent the same object or concept, it follows that when lexical cognates are discovered across languages they must be the result of shared history—​a time of common development when the cognates in question represented one lexical item in the shared parent language. And the relatedness between cognate items is preserved, sometimes despite extreme sound change, because sound laws are purely mechanical physiological processes. Word taboo operates like a linguistic wild card, working against the operation of regular predictable change; arbitrariness also falls away because speakers create very real connections between the sound of a taboo word and what it refers to, thus questioning the overall pervasiveness of the symbolic thesis.18 We have already seen how irregularities can occur when speakers distort the pronunciation of words for reasons of taboo (e.g. cunny [kʌni] to coney [koʊni]). Another simple example is the vowel sound in ass ‘donkey’, which didn’t change to [a]‌, as it did in words such as grass, because (in R-​less dialects) it would have then clashed with the risqué body part arse [a:s]. We have also seen plenty of linguistic evidence for the emotional quality of the literal descriptors of taboo topics. Even across languages, these words are able contaminate others, bringing down unconnected words that just happen to sound similar. The word for ‘tongue’ in Indo-​European languages offers an interesting illustration of taboo at work. As Hock points out (1991: 303–​5), we assume a word for this body part would have existed in the protolanguage, and yet it is not possible to reconstruct one, or at least we cannot reconstruct the shape of it. All Indo-​European languages have a word for ‘tongue’, but there are no regular similarities between these words and the systematic sound correspondences that are required to reconstruct lost forms are simply not there, especially in the initial consonants (typically the most stable sounds and the most 18  In fact speakers are generally on the lookout for some sort of meaningful connection between sounds and the outside world, and while words might start off as arbitrary, over time the arbitrariness can break down (see Benczes forthcoming on the pervasiveness of form–​meaning motivational processes in English word-​formation).

Taboo as a driver of language change    195 reconstructable when it comes to recreating lost Indo-​European forms). So why is it not possible to reproduce the word for ‘tongue’? Many of the apparent cognate words in the daughter languages have undergone irregular sound changes, such as metathetical changes (rearrangements of sounds) and contaminatory changes (e.g. assimilation to the sounds in the semantically related verb lingō’ ‘lick’). And the reason for these sporadic changes lies in the forces of taboo. As Hock points out (1991: 305), as the organ of speech, the tongue is imbued with magical powers—​‘speech made it possible to name things or people and by naming them to have power over them’. The word was therefore subject to the same kind of restrictions as placed on words for the supernatural and other fearsome phenomena (e.g. speakers alter the name ‘Christ’ to cripes, crust, crumbs, crikey; they disguise ‘hell’ as heck). ‘Tabooistic distortion’ (Hock’s label) allows speakers to refer to the tongue without actually saying the word.

10.3.1 Names and ‘the naturalist hypothesis’ [T]‌he link between a name and the person or thing denominated by it is not a mere arbitrary and ideal association, but a real and substantial bond which unites the two. Frazer 1911: 318

In order to avoid conflict with the spirit world, people observe naming taboos when they undertake hazardous pursuits such as mining, hunting, and fishing (see accounts of many of these prohibitions in Frazer 1911; Allan and Burridge 2006; and Blake 2010). These practices are motivated by fears comparable with those on death and disease (Chapter 4 of this volume)—​the dread of being haunted by spirits of the dead is extended to the spirits of game, particularly dangerous game, and people use similar strategies to avoid calling down malfeasance upon themselves. Consider the Ukrainian proverb Pro vovka pomovka a vovk u khatu ‘One speaks of the wolf and it runs into the house’ [lit. ‘about wolf talk and wolf into house’] and the comparable English proverb speak of the devil and he comes running). Hudson and Richards (1978: 15) give the following extract from a Walmatjari story from central Australia: The child said, ‘How come people say that cattle are always goring people? They didn’t gore us. Why do they say that?’ The child talked on persistently, ‘Do they say that cattle are always goring people? How do they talk about cattle? They say they always gore people but they didn’t gore us this time.’ The man answered the child. ‘Don’t talk like that! The cattle might hear us, and attack and kill us.’

There are many European folktales that attest to the supernatural powers of names. In the popular fairy story Rumplestiltskin, the miller’s daughter discovers the name of the evil character and thus destroys his power. Versions of the same tale occur in many

196    Kate Burridge and Réka Benczes cultures, only the villain’s name varies: Terry Top (Cornwall), Tom Tit Tot (Suffolk), Trit-​a-​trot (Ireland), Whuppity Stoorie (Scotland), Gilitrutt (Iceland), Ricdin-​Ricdon (France), Pancimanci (Hungary). Compare how in Ancient Egyptian mythology, Isis gained power over the sun god Ra because she persuaded him to divulge his name. As an illustration of this power, personal names have been or still are taboo among peoples in many parts of the world (Allan and Burridge 2006). Names are so closely associated with their name-​bearers as to be a proper part of them, not just a symbol but the verbal expression of their personality. So in many languages, a name is an inalienable possession—​like body parts (and other properties of personal representation such as mind, spirit, soul, shadow), names don’t exist apart from the possessor (so are different from, say, a person’s shoes or house; see Chappell and McGregor 1996 on the grammar of inalienability). In Mali (spoken on the island of New Britain in Papua New Guinea) names are treated in the same way as body parts and close kin (Stebbins 2011). These words must always carry a possessive pronoun even when they are not used to refer to the name/​body part/​close kin of anyone in particular. Compare (a), (b), and (c), with (d). (a) (c)

angēt-​thēp-​ki 3n.poss=name-​ ‘(someone’s) name’ angēt=nanēk-​ki 3n.poss=mother-​ ‘(someone’s) mother’

(b) (d)

angēt=keng-​ki 3n.poss=tooth-​ ‘(someone’s) tooth’ urat-​ki basket-​ ‘basket’

In some societies there are strict taboos preventing two living persons from going by the same name. Furthermore, true names are often secret, so that substitution names are necessary for public naming and addressing. In many places, names of the dead are (or until recently were) taboo. Sometimes the ban extends to those personal names that the dead person may have given to others, or the names of places where ancestors lost their lives or are buried. Even those communities that do not have such taboos display a host of euphemisms for the topic of death and the dead (Chapter 4 of this volume). Many Papuans, Austronesians, and Aboriginal Australians traditionally taboo names for certain kinsfolk, especially in-​laws (an especially fraught relationship in many societies). In Mali, for example, there is a taboo on referring to in-​laws by name—​not only should the speaker not say the name, but also the name of an in-​law should not be said in the hearing of that person. In father-​and son-​in-​law relations, the taboo extends to a range of behaviours when the two are in each others’ presence; e.g. the son-​in-​law may not eat or drink in front of the father-​in-​law and is expected to avoid dialogue and direct eye contact. There is a rich vocabulary for in-​laws arising from these taboos (Stebbins pers. com.). In those societies where personal names derive from ordinary vocabulary, name taboos can extend to common words (sometimes even phonetically similar words). Lynch et  al. (2011) describe how in Austronesian languages there are strong taboos against

Taboo as a driver of language change    197 saying the name of one’s in-​laws, and those objects in-​laws are named after. The effects on the lexicon of these languages can be spectacular. In this context even basic vocabulary cannot be relied on to remain stable. Simons (1982), for example, describes how of a sample of fifty Austronesian languages which are known to have some sort of naming taboo, twenty-​five of these have a name taboo that extends into common word taboo. A further eighteen have a taboo whereby words even resembling the tabooed names are taboo themselves. He reports (1982: 158), for example, that on Santa Cruz Island (part of the Solomons), where there is a taboo against using the name of certain affines, names consist of a common word, normally with a gender marking prefix. Thus if a man’s mother-​in-​law is called ikio (i-​ ‘prefix to female’s name’, kio ‘bird’), he cannot use the common word kio to refer to birds. Simons writes ‘this means that 46% of the basic vocabulary is potentially taboo for some people on the island’ (on Malaita, this figure is as high as 59%). Euphemisms are thus created via the methods touched on earlier; for example, semantic shifts of existing words, circumlocution, borrowing from another language, and spontaneous irregular sound changes. Such changes have serious repercussions for the comparative method, and linguists working on these languages have long noted the difficulty of identifying regular sound correspondences between cognate Austronesian forms (cf. discussion in Dyen 1963; Ray 1926; Wurm 1970). False impressions of long divergences are created, and in some cases even genetic connections are hidden (Keesing and Fifiʔi 1969: 155). Holzknecht (1988) also demonstrates irregular sound correspondences in the Markham languages of Papua New Guinea—​‘funny-​looking words’ as she describes them. One dialect’s word for ‘woman’ is kasat, while in all other dialects it is sagat; other expressions similarly indicate that metathesis of syllables was once a common phenomenon, in all likelihood to modify taboo words. As earlier emphasized, taboos and attitudes towards taboo violation do change over time, and some of the naming taboos we have been describing here may no longer hold. Knipe and Bromley (1984), for example, document the demise of verbal taboos associated with hunting and fishing as the catch becomes more predictable and the occupations safer. Certainly, societies like those in Australasia and the Pacific are also not closed to innovation, and they are not closed either to importing cultural elements from outside. Many old taboos have been affected by the spread of Western ideas and are now disappearing.

10.4 Conclusion All population groups, past and present, experience things that are frightening, embarrassing, or that are for some reason simply difficult to endure. They include the facts of human life to do with ‘private’ body parts and their functions, sexuality, incest, social status, bigotry, hate, dishonesty, insanity, disease, death, deity, the supernatural—​a diverse and changing array of things that go bump in the night, to paraphrase Adams and

198    Kate Burridge and Réka Benczes Newell (1994: 12). Such themes have always inspired taboos and inhibitions, and the impact on languages can be considerable. And yet it has been only relatively recently that the effects of taboo on language development have made an appearance in the mainstream linguistics literature—​similar to the scholarly squeamishness found in the early anthropological accounts of taboo, focus has been very much on primitive word magic and the customs of primal hunting societies (social anthropologist Franz Steiner is famous for his criticism of this approach, memorably describing Victorian society as ‘one of the most taboo-​minded and taboo-​ ridden societies on record’; 1967: 51). Discussions of taboo, even within historical linguistic textbooks, focused on remote examples involving ancient naming rituals and taboos on dangerous animals. Mention of more recent western obscenities was only ever in coy reference to the indelicate connotations of words such as leg, thigh, and breast and the nineteenth-​century preference for descriptions such as dark meat and white meat (for chicken, turkey, etc.); students were left with the impression that taboo had little to do with modern times, and was more about ancient naming bans on wolves, weasels, and brown bears and the Victorian moral code surrounding references to cooked fowl. However, historical linguists can learn much about continuity and change in language by delving into the unmentionable, whether this involves people naming dangerous animals, creating modest metonymies at the dinner table, or uttering ‘Anglo-​Saxon four letter’ words. Taboo and the attendant restrictions on language, from the proscriptions of the early Austronesians (who gave us the word tabu) to the social taste constraints of modern-​day societies, are emotive triggers for change. Via word creation and external borrowing, meaning shift of terms already in the language (metaphor, metonymy, and so on), word loss or deliberate phonological modification of existing terms, word tabooing practices act as a kind of linguistic wild card that militates against the operation of what are otherwise fairly regular and predictable processes of change.

Chapter 11

Problem s tra nsl at i ng tab o oed word s from sou rce to ta rg et l anguag e pedro j. chamizo domínguez

11.1 Introduction If the translator’s job is always difficult, translating tabooed words is particularly problematic in that one has to take into consideration not only the usual problems that the translation of any text poses—​even scientifically aseptic ones, if such things exist—​ but also other particular considerations that affect tabooed expressions. Especially interesting is the fact that a given word or expression can be considered tabooed in the cultural context in which these words have been pronounced and not in the targeted cultural context, or vice versa (Burgen 1996; Crisafulli 1997; Sidiropoulou 1998; Stolt 2010). Following other authors (Roberts 2008), I will speak of ‘cultural context’ instead of ‘language’ because (i) a given word can be considered tabooed or not depending on the dialect, sociolect, or social class in which the word in question is pronounced; (ii) a given word can be used as an insult, and ipso facto, becomes tabooed in spite of the fact the word in question is not usually considered tabooed in the given language. On the other hand, tabooed words can be divided into two different groups: lexicalized tabooed words and occasional tabooed words. For the purposes of this paper a given word can be considered ‘tabooed’ when the community of the speakers of a particular language tacitly agree in considering that the word in question must be avoided in all circumstances, as well as in the fact that its salient sense is its tabooed sense. An

200   Pedro J. Chamizo Domínguez ‘occasional tabooed word’ is one which in a given context should be avoided because it is offensive or insulting, but whose salient sense can be considered axiologically neutral or orthophemistic in other contexts. The translation of the words pertaining to the first group does not pose particular problems—​or, to be precise, does not pose problems which differ from the problems the translator finds when translating non-​tabooed words. For instance, translating the tabooed English noun cock into Spanish polla, French bite/​bitte, or German Schwanz does not pose particular problems because, when the context is clear, all of them can be used as tabooed words and they also mean rooster, young hen, bollard, and tail, respectively. In fact, it is highly probable that all these tabooed nouns pose less of a translation problem when used as taboos than translating the French noun château or the German noun Schloss into English or Spanish, since French château and German Schloss have to be translated either as castle (castillo, in Spanish) or as palace (palacio, in Spanish) depending on the context. By contrast, the translation of occasional tabooed words poses particular problems since their tabooed connotations do not depend on the usage and/​or tacit agreement in the community of the speakers of a given language, but on their contextual and cultural connotations. For instance, nowadays the Spanish noun caudillo can be considered a quasi-​tabooed word in Spain since General Franco (military dictator from 1939 to 1975) used this noun to refer to himself and, consequently, caudillo can be derogatorily used for calling someone a dictator. In fact, the third sense of the noun caudillo recorded in the Diccionario de la Lengua Española (DLE 2017, hereafter) is just ‘dictador político’ (political dictator) and, according to this sense, the noun in question is invectively used very frequently. However, this noun has not the same connotations in South American Spanish speaking countries, where it has neutral or favourable connotations as proven by the following headlines: ‘Insulza: Hugo Chávez fue “caudillo” no “dictador” ’ ([José Miguel] Insulza: Hugo Chávez was a ‘(political or military) leader’, not a ‘dictator’) (http://​​insulzachavez2.htm. Accessed 16 March 2017). As a result of this, it is highly probable that the translation of caudillo into English is more problematic than the translation of a word which is clearly considered a tabooed one. Since the translation (dubbing or subtitling) of patent tabooed words in which two languages are concerned has been frequently studied (Lie 2013; Díaz-​Cintas and Remael 2014; Torres Cuenca 2016), this contribution will mainly focus on analysing three aspects of the translations of tabooed words which have been less studied: (i) the translation of a given text into one or more languages by different translators in order to show how a particular problem has been differently solved; (ii) the translation of words and phrases that are not tabooed prima facie, and, consequently, are not marked as such in dictionaries, but that become tabooed when used as invectives or derogations; and (iii) the resulting texts and their cognitive connotations when a tabooed term of a source language (SL, hereafter) is—​consciously or unconsciously—​censored in the target language (TL, hereafter).

Problems translating tabooed words    201

11.2  When the translator intends to be creative: from voyeur to sissy When the literal translation of a term that is an insult or a tabooed word is inadvisable because the result in the target culture could be unintelligible or misunderstood, the translator has to opt for what might be called ‘a creative translation’. This creative translation basically consists in looking for a word or expression that works as an insult, knowing full well that the literal meaning of the word in the SL does not coincide with the literal meaning of the word in the TL. This is particularly convenient when social sensibilities and susceptibilities have changed with the passing of time or from one contemporary society to another. In other words, the fact that a given conduct or attitude can be considered inappropriate or censurable in a given time or society and not in another time or society, requires the translator to be particularly creative in his/​her job. In order to present this phenomenon I am going to resort to the analysis of seven different versions of the same verse from The Iliad by Homer. It is line 385 of the Book XI, where Diomedes tries to stir up Paris’s anger with the aim of starting a hand-​to-​hand combat. In order to achieve his purpose, Diomedes addresses Paris with the following invective hexameter: (1)

Τοξότα, λωβητὴρ κέρᾳ ἀγλαὲ, παρθενοπῖπα (Homer 2016).

In (1) Diomedes, in his eagerness to insult Paris, resorts to two terms which stress Paris’s cowardice: τοξότα (nominative, τοξότης), whose literal meaning is archer or bowman, and παρθενοπῖπα (nominative, *παρθενοπῖπης), whose literal meaning is ogler/​watcher of maidens, or, as Christensen (2015: 33) translates, girl-​watcher. With regard to τοξότης, since archers did not engage in hand-​to-​hand combat, they were considered less valiant than infantrymen (hoplites) were in Ancient Greece (Christensen 2015: 33–​4) and, consequently, the noun τοξότης works in this context as an insult. Considered in isolation or in any other context, the noun τοξότης is neither an insult nor a tabooed word, but in the context of (1) this noun become a derogatory word precisely because it is used as an insult. As far as the noun παρθενοπῖπης is concerned, it deserves ampler comment since it can be considered a tabooed word and its translations into different languages have been extremely varied. To start with, παρθενοπῖπης is a hapax legomenon, what makes its translation susceptible to several interpretations and, consequently, translations: all of them equally defensible and reasonable in principle. The etymology of this noun is clear. It derives from the noun παρθένος (‘maiden, girl, virgin’) and the verb όπιπ(τ)εύω (‘to look around at, gaze curiously at’). It is reasonable to think that, in the context this noun appears, παρθενοπῖπης is not being used in accordance with its referential meaning as a mere description, but with some derogatory flavour as an insult. Basically, we are dealing with an insult which consists of accusing Paris of effeminacy

202   Pedro J. Chamizo Domínguez because of his excessive relationships with women that make Paris do things women typically do. It is possible that the strength of παρθενοπῖπης as an insult—​and consequently as a tabooed term—​is analogous and even worse than the adjective γυναιμανὲς (Homer 2016), which is how his brother Hector derogatorily addresses Paris. This latter insult has also been interpreted—​and consequently translated—​very variously. Thus, for instance: mujeriego (‘womanizer’) (Homero 1927, 1989), woman-​mad (Homer 1999), efféminé (‘effeminate’) (Homère 1866), or mulherengo (‘womanizer and/​or effeminate’) (Homero 2008). The two last translations are particularly interesting for my purposes since both point to Paris’s affectation. In other words, Paris is not only being reproached for being exceedingly fond of women, but for his effeminate manners. Surprisingly, the Portuguese adjective mulherengo means both: (1) ‘Que ou aquele que é muito afeiçoado a mulheres’ (someone who is very fond of women), and (2) ‘[Depreciativo] Diz-​se de ou homem considerado efeminado’ ([Derogatory] said of a man who is considered effeminate) (Dicionário Priberam da Língua Portuguesa, DPLP 2017, hereafter). Among the myriads of translations of the Homeric poem into different languages and genres (prose, verse, attempts to reproduce the Greek hexameter in languages where there is no functional distinction between long and short vowels), I am going to focus my analysis on seven different translations. I have divided them into four groups that are illustrative of many other translations. A: (2) ‘¡Flechero, insolente, experto sólo en manejar el arco, mirón de doncellas!’ (Bowman, insolent, expert only in using the bow, ogler of maidens!) (Homero 1927. My emphasis and literal translation). (3) ‘You archer–​braggart, hair-​curled dandy, ogler of girls’ (Homer 2011a. My emphasis). B: (4) ‘Archer, you who without your bow are nothing, slanderer and seducer’ (Homer 1999. My emphasis). (5) ‘Misérable archer, aussi vain de tes cheveux que de ton arc, séducteur de vierges!’ (Miserable archer, as conceited of your hairstyle as of your bow, seducer of virgins!) (Homère 1866. My emphasis and literal translation). C: (6) ‘Arquero, fanfarrón, presuntuoso por tus trenzas, corruptor de doncellas’ (Archer, boaster, (who are) conceited of your plaits, corrupter of maidens) (Homero 1989. My emphasis and literal translation). (7) ‘Insolente, só bom no corno e rufião de moças’ (Insolent fellow, only good with your horn and pimp of girls) (Homero 2008. My emphasis and literal translation). D: (8) ‘You weakling, girl-​crazed seducer, you perfumed sissy’ (Homer 2011b. My emphasis). Note that (2) and (3) opt for translating the Greek noun παρθενοπῖπης according to a high degree of literality, at the same time managing to communicate to the Spanish

Problems translating tabooed words    203 and English reader, respectively, some pejorative connotations. Indeed, one sense of the Spanish noun mirón is ‘voyerista’ (DLE 2017), which is defined by the DLE itself as ‘Persona que disfruta contemplando actitudes íntimas o eróticas de otras personas’ (A person who enjoys watching other people’s intimate or erotic postures), i.e. voyeur. For its part, the English noun ogler derives from the verb to ogle, whose meaning is ‘to look at (someone) amorously or lustfully’ (Collins English Dictionary, Collins 2017, hereafter). So, the noun used in (2), just like in (3), can be understood as an insult, since both entail some disapproval of Paris’s behaviour. In addition, both nouns describe Paris’s behaviour as being merely passive. In other words the Trojan prince limited himself to looking at the girls lustfully, but his lustfulness does not go beyond mere gaze. In (4) and (5), describing Paris as a seducer, is an additional step compared to (2) and (3). These texts allude to actions of Paris towards girls. In (5) the sexual connotation hints at paedophilia, making Paris’s behaviour particularly censurable and tabooed; in (4) Paris’s seduction is not necessarily sexual. Given that the noun seducer is connected to slanderer, which does not necessarily have sexual connotations, the noun seducer has the sense of ‘A person who entices someone to do or believe something inadvisable or foolhardy’ and not necessarily ‘A person who entices someone into sexual activity’ (Oxford Living Dictionary, Oxford 2017, hereafter). In any case, if one rejects any reasonable doubt about the fact that seducer alludes to the forbidden and lustful purposes of Paris when he acts as a seducer (explicit in séducteur de vierges), both terms could be considered nowadays as flirtatious remarks or compliments instead of being considered insults, at least by people who are proud of being seducers, whether male or female. After all, Don Juan was proud not only of seducing maidens, but also of seducing female novices. (6) and (7) entail a further step in this escalation by means of intruding a more aggressive insult than the previous translations. Indeed, now Paris is not accused of being a mere voyeur or a vulgar seducer, although he ogled or seduced maidens; he is now accused of being guilty of the crime of corruption, which—​if we assume that it is likely that the maidens are underage—​would be corruption of minors.1 And, whereas, in (6), it is not completely clear which kind of crime Paris’s corruption consists of, since the translator is not explicit, (7) clearly names a sexual crime. And so, because the salient meanings of the Portuguese noun rufião are: (i) ‘Indivíduo que vive à custa do que uma prostituta ganha’ (An individual who lives off a prostitute’s earnings); (ii) ‘Todo o indivíduo que vive à custa de qualquer mulher’ (Any individual who lives off a woman); and (iii) ‘Pessoa que serve de intermediário em relações amorosas ou matrimoniais’ (A person who serves as an intermediary in [arranging] love or marriage relationships) (DPLP 2017). In short, Paris is described as acting as a go-​between or, what would be worse, as a pimp. 1  It should be remembered that Paris was celebrated as a seducer because he abducted Helen of Sparta, who, according to our knowledge of Greek mythology, was neither a virgin nor a young girl. In fact, she was married to Menelaus of Sparta and had a son whose name was Pleisthenes.

204   Pedro J. Chamizo Domínguez Finally, there are three reasons that make (8) especially notable. Firstly, because this version diverges from usual translations of (1) which—​as is clear from the six previous examples—​do not allude to Paris’s effeminacy, but rather to his gifts as a seducer, perhaps a seducer of minors. This is the achievement of what I previously called ‘a creative translation’. Secondly, because, in my opinion, it shows precisely the sense (although not the letter) of what Diomedes intended to say when addressing Paris, i.e. that he was both effeminate and a coward. And the noun sissy has just these connotations: ‘A person regarded as effeminate or cowardly’ (Oxford 2017).2 And, thirdly, because this option, in spite of the fact it perhaps translates quite accurately the spirit of Diomedes’s insult, could be misinterpreted as well, since homosexuality was not disapproved of in the Homeric world, as is evident from the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. A modern reader of (8) could think that Paris’s homosexuality is reproved in this line, when, in fact, what is reproved is his excessive affectation arising from his exceedingly close relations with women.

11.3  When and how a Madonna becomes a virgin 'Allo 'Allo! is a British TV sitcom whose plot develops in German-​occupied France during World War II and which has been dubbed into several languages. The plot of several episodes revolves around a painting by Van Klomp, an imaginary Flemish Old Master. The painting in question, which is never shown on screen, has been stolen from a French museum and its possession is desired by all the characters that take part of the story, i.e. British servicemen, German Army, German Gestapo, French Résistance, and even Adolf Hitler himself. The title of the painting is: (9) ‘The Fallen Madonna with the Big Boobies’. This apparently simple title involves several interpretation levels which make problematic its translation into other languages. Let us firstly analyse some interpretation problems involved in (9) and, secondly, how these problems have been understood (and solved) in its translations into three different languages, namely, Spanish, French, and German. In order to accurately understand (9) one has to take into account that: (i) no image of the painting is ever shown; and (ii) consequently, the hearer cannot resort to an image that might help him/​her to choose from the several possible options for interpreting what s/​he is hearing. Probably, the only assumption the hearer can make for sure is that (9) is a humorous and irreverent title. From that point on, the interpreter steps into 2 

Other dictionaries make it clear that sissy is an insulting word, but provide a slightly different definition. For example, ‘An insulting word for a boy or a man who does things that girls or women usually do’ (Macmillan Dictionary, Macmillan 2017, hereafter).

Problems translating tabooed words    205 quicksand and has to postulate some risky hypotheses. The first hypothesis has to do with the noun Madonna/​madonna and whether the letter ‘M’ has to be understood as capitalized or in lower case.3 If the noun is capitalized, it may refer to the Virgin Mary, or given we are dealing with the title of a painting, to a picture of the Virgin Mary. If so, (9) can be understood not only as an irreverent phrase, but also it is highly probable that this phrase might be viewed by many Christians and Muslims as blasphemous. By contrast, if the hearer assumes the noun madonna is written with lower case letter, s/​he can infer the painting refers either to ‘an idealized virtuous and beautiful woman’ (Oxford 2017), or to ‘an Italian lady’ or to ‘a morally pure and chaste woman’ (Merriam-​Webster Dictionary, Merriam-​Webster 2017, hereafter).4 In any of these three cases, since the noun in question refers to a lay person, one can disregard any allusion to Mary, mother of Jesus. As for the adjective fallen, that qualifies the noun Madonna/​madonna, the translator has to analyse whether it is used literally or metaphorically, it being the case that both interpretations are reasonable and can be supported by dictionaries. Indeed, the Macmillan Dictionary (2017) exclusively defines the adjective fallen according to its literal meaning as ‘on the ground after falling’. Consequently, and given that the programme makers have taken great care never to show the painting to viewers, someone might well think that the painting represents a lady who has suffered a physical fall and the humorous effect is achieved—​as in many other TV programmes—​thanks to the lady’s physical fall itself. If the translator is conversant with classic painting, s/​he can postulate that it is not usual that the Old Masters painted everyday incidents or accidents such as the physical fall of a lady. This improbable fact might allow the translator to plausibly postulate that the adjective fallen should have some figurative sense instead of, or in addition to, its literal meaning. This hypothesis is supported by other dictionaries. So, s/​he can find that fallen also means: (i) ‘Having sunk in reputation or honour’ (Collins 2017); (ii) ‘Having sinned’; and (iii) ‘dated (of a woman) regarded as having lost her honour through engaging in a sexual relationship outside marriage’. These alternative meanings can help the translator to opt for a figurative interpretation of (9), but, in turn, it creates new problems. As a collocation, fallen Madonna/​madonna evokes two different connotations: (i) the fallen angel, i.e. the angel who led a rebellion against God and was cast out of heaven, according to Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions; and (ii) fallen woman or ‘a woman who had sex with a man she was not married to’ (Collins 2017). If the translator chooses the first possibility, s/​he probably has to opt for a translation which has some blasphemous connotation and, consequently, is strongly tabooed. If the translator

3  The fact that Madonna is capitalized in (9) does not provide any conclusive argument since in English nouns, verbs, and adjectives are conventionally capitalized in the titles of books, paintings, articles, etc. 4  I disregard the fact, not to complicate more than necessary the casuistry, that the referential meaning of these definitions may be different. On the other hand, none of the three last definitions are recorded either in the Collins Dictionary (2017) or in the Macmillan Dictionary (2017). If a given translator consults only these last two dictionaries the only option s/​he has for translating (9) would be the blasphemous one.

206   Pedro J. Chamizo Domínguez chooses the second possibility, it is probable that the tabooed connotations would decrease in intensity, since (9) only would refer to commonplace adultery. Although not necessarily, the referential meaning of the noun boob seems to be clearer than the collocation fallen Madonna/​madonna is, since it refers to a lady and is qualified by the adjective big. Unlike what happens with the noun madonna, all the dictionaries I consulted basically coincide in their definitions of boob: ‘a female breast’ (Collins 2017), ‘a woman’s breast’ (Oxford 2017 and Macmillan 2017), and ‘breast’ (Merriam-​Webster 2017). By contrast, although all of these dictionaries introduce metalinguistic information in their lexical entries, this metalinguistic information differs from one dictionary to another: ‘slang’ (Collins 2017), ‘informal’ (Oxford 2017 and Macmillan 2017), and ‘sometimes vulgar’ (Merriam-​Webster 2017). Things being so, one might think that the noun boob has some dysphemistic connotations, although less deplorable than nouns which refer to pudenda, such as cunt, which is explicitly qualified as ‘taboo’ (Collins 2017), ‘vulgar slang’, ‘offensive’ (Macmillan 2017), and ‘usually obscene’ (Merriam-​Webster 2017), up to the point of being accepted that it ‘is the most tabooed word in English’ (Allan and Burridge 2006: 52). Consequently, translators have to look for equivalent nouns in their respective target languages, that is to say, nouns which are not completely tabooed, but which have informal or vulgar connotations. Summarizing, the translators of (9) have to deal with two main issues: 1) finding in the TL a collocation which is as ambiguous as fallen Madonna is in the SL; and 2) finding in the TL a collocation which is as derogatory/​vulgar as big boobies is in the SL. Let us analyse how these problems have been solved in German, French, and Spanish. (9) was translated into German as: (10) ‘Die gefallene Madonna mit den prallen Möpsen’. In this German version the first issue of (9) is only partially accomplished. Although the participle adjective gefallen can refer either to a physical or to a figurative fall, the German noun Madonna is less ambiguous than its English counterpart is. In fact, it only has two lexicalized meanings:  (i) ‘ die Gottesmutter Maria’ ( Mary, the Mother of God), and (ii) ‘bildliche oder plastische Darstellung der Madonna (i)  [mit Kind]’ (figurative or sculptural representation of the Madonna [with child]) (Duden online Wörterbuch, Duden 2017, hereafter). On the other hand, as with the English collocation fallen Madonna/​madonna, the German collocation gefallene Madonna also evokes the collocation gefallen Engel (fallen angel), i.e. the angel who sinned. Both issues make (10) less ambiguous and, consequently, more blasphemous than the original English phrase.5 For its part, the collocation prallen Möpsen (nominative, pralle Möpse) 5 

Professor Armin Burkhardt (Otto-​von-​Guericke-​Universität Magdeburg, p.c.) informs me that, although neither lexicalized nor recorded in dictionaries, the noun Madonna is also occasionally and metaphorically used to refer to a woman who thinks she is superior to the rest of women. For instance, the German sentence ‘Sie ist eine Madonna’ could be translated into English as ‘She is a prima-​donna’, and, obviously, is derogatorily used, but its meaning differs from the meanings of the English noun Madonna.

Problems translating tabooed words    207 directly evokes the jargon of porno movies and pictures like the English collocation big boobies does. In fact, the German noun Möpse is in the same taboo/​vulgar register as the English noun boobies, since Mops is defined as ‘(salopp) weibliche Brüste’ ((slangy) female breasts) (Duden 2017). Conversely, the collocation pralle Möpse slightly differs from the collocation big boobies because the German adjective prall is not synonymous with the English adjective big. In fact, a literal translation of big boobies into German would be große Titten or große Möpse, which, in addition reproduces the vulgar/​tabooed register of the SL collocation. This means that the original collocation can be understood in a derogatory way, and the humorous effect of (9) emerges from the fact that the collocation big boobies is understood as derogation together with its tabooed flavour and the fact that it refers to a madonna. Conversely, the German collocation might be understood as flattery or a compliment, since the adjective prall, when qualifies nouns such as Brüste (breasts) or Hintern (buttocks), means firm or well-​rounded. In short, (10) differs from (9) in two features: (i) the German phrase is less ambiguous than the English one and, consequently can be understood as blasphemy; and (ii) although the noun Möpse is as tabooed as the noun boobies, the collocation pralle Möpse might be understood as flattery (as might be the case of the English collocation big boobies in other contexts) whereas the collocation big boobies seems to have some derogatory and/​or humorous flavour in (9). (9) was translated into French as: (11)

‘La madone/​Madone déchue aux gros seins’.

Although (11) has an obvious humorous effect, its meaning slightly differs from (9). To start with, the collocation la madone déchue also evokes for any French speaker the collocation l’ange déchu, i.e. the devil, and is a plausible translation of the English collocation the fallen madonna. But the French collocation is less ambiguous than the English one is, since the adjective déchu/​déchue always refers to moral features such as honour, reputation, status, credit, and so on. The French adjective déchu(e) never refers to a physical fall, which would be tombé(e). Therefore, while the English collocation fallen madonna can refer either to a lady who suffered a physical fall or one who sinned, the French collocation only refers to the second option, i.e. a lady who sinned and, consequently, who has lost her status or reputation. As for the noun M/​madone, if capitalized, it refers to The Virgin Mary, while, if it is written in lower case, it can mean ‘femme très belle au visage pur’ (very beautiful lady with an unblemished face) (Le Petit Robert, Robert 2017, hereafter). If we methodologically disregard the first option, la madone déchue would mean the beautiful lady/​ woman who sinned and/​or who has lost her (social) status or reputation; that is to say, who is not as pure as she seems to be. As for the second collocation of (11), gros seins, its connotation is less tabooed than the original English collocation big boobies, since the French noun sein can be considered an orthophemism while boobs is a mild dysphemism whose more accurate French synonyms would be nichons or nibards. Moreover, the French noun sein frequently has euphemistic connotations. In fact, this is the noun commonly used in ads for women’s lingerie as well as when people (euphemistically) refer to a woman’s vital

208   Pedro J. Chamizo Domínguez statistics, and in plastic surgery. Nevertheless, the collocation gros seins might be derogatorily understood not because of the noun, but because of the adjective; although, properly speaking, this is not a matter of taboo language, but of aesthetic appreciation. Finally, (9) was translated into Spanish as: (12) ‘La virgen/​Virgen caída de los grandes melones’. As with (9), the collocation la virgen/​Virgen caída is capable of having several interpretations since both the noun and the participle adjective may have several readings, although these interpretations diverge from the literal translation of the phrase in the SL. With regard to the noun, the Spanish noun virgen can refer either to a ‘Persona que no ha tenido relaciones sexuales’ (A person who has never had sexual intercourse) (DLE 2017) when the initial letter is written in lower case, or to ‘María Santísima, madre de Dios’ (Most Holy Mary, mother of God) (DLE 2017), when the initial letter is written as a capital M. This makes the Spanish collocation parallel with the English the fallen M/​madonna, although, instead of denoting a lady, the Spanish collocation denotes a maiden or virgin.6 As for the translation of the participle adjective caído/​caída, it does not pose any problem since, as with the English adjective fallen, the Spanish adjective can be understood either literally or metaphorically. So, the original ambiguity can be maintained in Spanish. In addition, the collocation virgen caída also evokes the collocation ángel caído, i.e. the fallen/​rebel angel, as in (9) and (10). If, as in the case of (11), one disregards that the noun virgen refers to the Holy Mary, the collocation la virgen caída can be understood in two ways. First, it is possible to imagine that the collocation la virgen caída refers to a maiden who is literally laying on the ground as the result of some accident which made her fall. Alternatively this collocation refers to a maiden who—​voluntarily or involuntarily—​has lost her virginity and has ceased to be a virgin. In this case, caída is synonymous with deflowered and, if one disregards that la virgen caída is an oxymoron, this collocation has to be understood as a jocular and paradoxical allusion to a tabooed and/​or brutal phrase which could be expressed either as ‘the virgin who is virgin no more’ or as ‘the deflowered virgin’. As for the second collocation of (12), the translator opts for not literally translating the tabooed collocation of the SL, which would be grandes tetas, but for resorting to a (taboo) metaphor originating in the vegetable domain: grandes melones (big melons), which is, in all probability, a redundancy since the noun melon connotes ‘big’ when it is metaphorically used to mean boob.7 By resorting to this version, which 6 

Although the noun madona (from Italian madonna) exists in Spanish, and even is recorded in the DLE (2017), it is extremely infrequent and its use is circumscribed to the fields of religion and (Italian) art. Conversely, the noun Virgen/​virgen is both ambiguous and commonplace. 7  In fact, the English noun melon is defined as ‘plural, slang: large breasts’ (Merriam-​Webster 2017). Otherwise, it is even highly plausible that grandes melones has to be understood as a dysphemism as well, if one takes into account the Spanish saying ‘Teta que mano no cubre, no es teta, sino ubre’ (If a tit cannot be covered by a hand, it is not a tit, but an udder).

Problems translating tabooed words    209 patently differs from the German and French versions, (12) provides an additional ambiguity with regard to the SL text, as well as with regard to the translations of (9) into German and French. Since the TV programme makers have taken care never to show the painting to viewers, a hearer who is not being cooperative might well think the painting represents a virgin who has suffered a physical fall while strolling through a melon patch in which the fruits were of sufficient size to warrant being referred to. This interpretation, although it might be considered naïve, makes sense and fits the literal meaning of (12), but there is nothing tabooed in it. Nevertheless, what produces the humorous and tabooed effects is not the fact that the collocation grandes melones is literally interpreted, but the fact that it is figuratively understood. According to this figurative interpretation, the Spanish noun melones accurately translates the English noun boobies since the noun melón is as tabooed as the noun boobs is, as well as adds a witty ambiguity which is not in the SL. Summarizing, what (12) means to the Spanish speakers is something like ‘The virgin, who ceased to be a virgin, with the big tits’.

11.4  When tabooed words are softened or censored Examples analysed in previous sections exhibit no censorship by translators. In this section I  am going to analyse two instances in which it is apparent that translators have consciously censored the original tabooed words and, consequently, the TL text achieves a different connotation and even denotation.

11.4.1 Censoring a tabooed word (13) ‘Sin tetas no hay paraíso’ (Without tits there is no paradise). (13) is the title of a Colombian TV series (2006), whose script is based on the bestselling novel written by the Colombian author Gustavo Bolívar Moreno. The plot of (13) tells the story of a poor but very beautiful teenager who becomes a prostitute in order to ascend the social and economic ladder. Since her flat chest is regarded as an obstacle to her being perceived as attractive, she resorts to plastic surgery to get fulsome breast implants. The title of the series alludes to the necessity for a woman to have buxom breasts (it does not matter whether they are natural or artificial) if she hopes to ascend the social scale and achieve ‘paradisiacal’ social and economic status. The problematic word in (13) is tetas, which, in spite of the fact that it can be considered an orthophemism—​as can be the case of the English noun teat(s)—​if one only takes into account the aseptic definition provided by the DLE (2017) as ‘mama (órgano

210   Pedro J. Chamizo Domínguez glanduloso)’ (mammary (glandular organ)), has some taboo connotations since this is the preferred word in pornography and macho chauvinist jargon. Thus (13) can be considered obscene or inappropriate, at least, by many speakers of Spanish. And, in any case, the noun teta is not a plausible candidate for use in lingerie ads and other contexts in which the aesthetic aspects of the breasts are emphasized. In such contexts, the Spanish nouns typically used are pecho and seno—​mainly in plural, pechos and senos, respectively. In my opinion, in spite of the fact that the noun teta originated in children’s language and is currently used when parents address their children and vice versa, it became a semi-​tabooed word just because it is scarcely polysemous and, consequently, scarcely ambiguous; it being the case that euphemistic words use to be more polysemous than tabooed words (Chamizo Domínguez 2018). In fact, whereas teta is barely polysemous, its synonyms pecho and seno are three and three-​and-​a-​half times more polysemous, respectively, than teta is, as shown in Figure 11.1 based on the senses recorded by the DLE (2017). The fact that pecho and seno function as euphemisms for teta can be attributed to their polysemy to the extent that one can suggest the hypothesis that teta is a semi-​forbidden word just because it is not polysemic enough, while pecho and seno work as euphemisms just because they are polysemous. And what is said about the Spanish language can be said, mutatis mutandis, about the English language as shown in Figure 11.2, which is based on the senses of the English nouns tit, breast, and bust, according to the Merriam-​ Webster (2017). Again, breast and bust are two and three times, respectively, more polysemous than tit is. 15 10 5 0 Teta



Figure 11.1  The relative polysemy of Spanish teta, pecho, and seno.

10 8 6 4 2 0 Tit



Figure 11.2  Relative polysemy of English tit, breast, and bust.

Problems translating tabooed words    211 The Colombian TV series has been shown in many Spanish speaking countries as well as broadcast in many other countries—​either dubbed or subtitled. This fact provides an excellent case study in how the semi-​forbidden noun teta has been banned or replaced by euphemisms in the different versions, even in the adaptations made in several Spanish speaking countries. The literal version of (13) in English was ‘Without Tits There Is No Paradise’; it was censored by the American Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the noun tits was replaced by the euphemism breasts, as Gustavo Bolívar himself reveals.8 Consequently, the Spanish title itself was revised when the series was broadcast in several Spanish speaking countries. In the Puerto Rican version (2007), the noun tetas was substituted by senos, and in the Uruguayan version (2007), tetas became pechos. Euphemizing the title of (13) was not a peculiarity of the American FCC; it is found also elsewhere. Sometimes tetas is replaced by an allusive euphemism that evokes the content of the series or else the title is changed completely from (13) by resorting to something vague enough to mislead anyone who does not know the original. The Bulgarian and Hungarian versions (2008 and 2009, respectively) opted for substituting the forbidden word by a euphemism which is, in fact, a metonymy of the noun banned as well as an allusion to the breast implants of the main character in the series. As a result of this (13) became ‘Силикон за рая’ (literally, ‘Paradise of silicone’) in its Bulgarian version, and ‘Csajok, szilikon, ez lesz a Paradicsom!’ (literally, ‘Girls, silicone, this will be the Paradise!’) in Hungarian. By contrast, the Greek (2007, subtitled), Finnish (2009, subtitled) and Italian (2010, dubbed) versions got round the problem of translating the tabooed term of the SL by resorting to vagueness, which is a euphemistic mechanism as well. Thus, (13) became ‘Χωρίς . . . Αυτά Δεν Υπάρχει Παράδεισος’ (literally, ‘There is no Paradise without . . . these’), ‘Paratiisin porteilla’ (literally, ‘At the gates of the Paradise’), and ‘Le due facce dell’amore’ (literally, ‘The two sides of love’), in Greek, Finnish, and Italian, respectively.

11.4.2 When ethnic slurs are censored (even when they are alluded to) It can be said that resorting to ethnic slurs is almost a cultural universal. Often, the members of a given culture use the names of people of a neighbouring culture when referring to something censored. This fact poses to the translator two problems that are difficult to successfully resolve. The first problem has to do with the fact that such ethnic slurs or derogations can be misunderstood (or not understood at all) by the speakers of the TL. The second problem has to do with the fact that such ethnic slurs are unacceptable to

8 See http://​​elmundo/​2008/​06/​14/​television/​1213447764.html, accessed 14 April 2017.

212   Pedro J. Chamizo Domínguez other people (particularly the people referred or alluded to) or to the people who speak the SL with the passing of time, or both. Let us consider these problems by resorting to actual instances. When a particular ethnic slur becomes an idiom in a given language, the translator has to face up to a prblem which does not qualitatively differ from the dilemma any translator has to deal with when translating an idiom. That is to say, on the one hand, if s/​he literally translates the SL idiom s/​he runs the risk of being misunderstood by the speakers or hearers of the TL, but, on the other hand, if s/​he opts for translating the idiomatic meaning, any other cognitive effects and implicatures of the text/​utterance of the SL run the risk of being lost. Let us exemplify both options by appealing to the Spanish and English translations of a French text from Tintin et les picaros (Hergé 1976a), where Captain Haddock insults the character of the South American dictator General Tapioca: (14) ‘Et bien, il va voit de quel bois je me chauffe, cette espèce d’apprenti dictateur à la noix de coco! . . .’ (Hergé 1976a: 10). Two idioms have been used in (14). The first idiom, il va voit de quel bois je me chauffe! (‘he is going to see what wood I warm myself with!’) can be understood as a threat, whose meaning is ‘traiter sans ménagement’ (Larousse) and whose equivalent idioms in English might be ‘I’ll show him what I’m made of!’ or ‘He’ll see my true colours!’ The second idiom, à la noix de coco! (literally, ‘with coconut’), is a derogation whose meaning is ‘sans valeur, négligeable’ (Larousse) and that, consequently, might be translated into English by the adjectives ‘crappy’, ‘despicable’, or ‘worthless’. (14) has actually been translated into Spanish as (15)

‘¡Ya verá lo que es bueno esa especie de aprendiz de dictador a la nuez de coco!’ (Hergé 1976b: 10).

The threatening French idiom il va voit de quel bois je me chauffe! is translated in (15) by the lexicalized irony ¡Ya verá lo que es bueno! (literally, ‘he will see what is good’) which, although not recorded in the DLE, is frequently used as a threat. In my opinion, this is a plausible translation of the original French idiom, since the Spanish lexicalized irony includes both the sense of Captain Haddock’s menace and an idiom which is similar to the original idiom. Conversely, the Spanish translator has failed in translating the second idiom of (14), since a la nuez de coco is meaningless in Spanish beyond its literal meaning, i.e. ‘with coconut’. In defence of the Spanish translator it might be argued that she intended to achieve in her translation of (15) a calque that recalls the original French utterance. But this explanation is weak since there is a Spanish idiom that perfectly translates the derogatory content of SL idiom: de tres al cuarto, whose idiomatic meaning is just ‘de poco valor, estimación o importancia’ (of little value, estimation or importance) (DLE).

Problems translating tabooed words    213 On the other hand, if you simply translate the idiomatic meaning, the rest of cognitive effects and implicatures of the text/​utterance of the SL might be lost. This is what occurred with the English translation of (14), namely (16) ‘All right, you dictatorial duck-​billed diplodocus! I’ll show you what sort of stuff I’m made of!’ (Hergé 1976b: 10). In (16) the translators opted for rendering the derogatory exclamation ‘cette espèce d’apprenti dictateur à la noix de coco!’ into the novel, creative metaphor ‘you dictatorial duck-​billed diplodocus!’ which, unlike (15) in Spanish, makes sense in English since any speaker of English language understands it is an offensive remark. But, in spite of the fact that it is an offensive remark, its meaning differs from the meaning of the French utterance; not to mention that the noun apprenti (apprentice; novice, beginner) has been lost in translation. Indeed, while the French remark evokes concepts such as futility, vainness, or uselessness, the English remark evokes concepts such as heaviness, fatness, gigantism, and/​or antiquatedness.

11.4.3 Censorship when translating insults and ethnic slurs The members of human communities tend to unfairly attribute to the members of other communities defects, vices, crimes, sins, and, in general, any behaviour that is considered inappropriate in their own community. Usually these unfair attributions are made to the members of neighbouring communities, although sometimes more distant communities. For instance, in spite of the fact that Turkey is very far from Spain, the Spanish noun turca (literally, ‘Turkish female’) is a colloquial synonym of borrachera (drunkenness) and, obviously, might be considered offensive by Turkish people, particularly if they are practising Muslims. The high degree of lexicalization of this noun is proven by the fact that it is even recorded in the DLE. Accordingly, the idiom coger una turca, in Colombia, Cuba, or Spain, or agarrar/​pillar una turca (both literally, ‘to take/​ catch/​get a Turkish female’), in Argentina, Mexico, or Venezuela,9 are equivalent to the English idiom to get smashed in register as well as in idiomatic meaning. Many of these insulting idioms and collocations in which foreigners are concerned have to do with their manners of speaking or with their languages themselves. This is the case of the 9  In these last countries, as well as in several other Spanish speaking countries, the salient meaning of the verb coger is ‘realizar el acto sexual’ (to perform the sexual act) (DLE 2017), which, in addition, renders it a tabooed word. Consequently, whereas a native speaker from Spain or Colombia will understand that the statement A pesar de que mi cuñado ha sido un gran bebedor nunca ha cogido una turca means ‘In spite of the fact my brother-​in-​law has been a heavy drinker, he never got smashed’, a native speaker from Argentina or Mexico will understand that it means ‘In spite of the fact my brother-​ in-​law has been a heavy drinker, he never fucked a Turkish girl’; there is no logical relationship between being a heavy drinker and having a sexual intercourse with a Turkish female.

214   Pedro J. Chamizo Domínguez English derogatory collocations pardon my French, Irish bull, Irish evidence, Irish joke, double Dutch, or Dutch concert.

11.4.4 Descartes and Low Breton Ethnic slurs can be found not only in colloquial everyday language of chauvinists and vulgar people, but even from the most rational, even rationalistic, philosopher as well. When René Descartes, in his Discourse on Method, praised the beneficial effects of his method in order to rationally persuade people, he wrote the following: (17)

‘Ceux qui on le raisonnement le plus fort (. . .) peuvent toujours le mieux persuader ce qu’ils proposent, encore qu’ils ne parlassent que bas-​breton, et qu’ils n’eussent jamais appris de rhétorique’ (Descartes 1897a VI: 7. I have updated the original spelling. My emphasis).

Although the term bas-​breton (literally, ‘Low Breton’, a Celtic language) could be used in a mere descriptive way, it is obvious that this term has some derogatory and insulting flavour in (17). In fact, it is highly probable that Descartes was using a contemporary commonplace among French speakers. This insulting commonplace can be found in other texts. For instance, Bertrand Barère de Vieuzac, member of the Committee of Public Safety during the Terror, included Low Breton among the ‘barbarian’ languages that, among other things, impeded the progress of the Revolution and encouraged superstition: ‘nous avons observé (. . .) que l’idiome appelé bas-​breton, l’idiome basque, les langues allemande et italienne ont perpétué le règne du fanatisme et de la superstition (et) assuré la domination des prêtres, des nobles et des praticiens’ (We have noticed (. . .) that the language called Low Breton, the Basque language, the German and Italian languages have perpetuated the reign of bigotry and superstition (and) ensured the domination of priests, noblemen, and professionals) (Barère de Vieuzac 1794). If one assumes that the translator of (17) into other languages takes into account this information, s/​he will have to handle with two irreconcilable options: 1) s/​he can attempt to provide a literal translation of bas-​breton and run the risk of Descartes’s thought being misunderstood, since it is highly probable that the literal translation of this term has no derogatory connotation in the TL; or 2) s/​he can opt for a vague translation, in which case the original ethnic slur becomes blurred. Let us examine several translations of (17) into English in order to analyse the pros and the cons of each option by means of real examples.10 10 

Translations of (17) into other languages cut this Gordian knot by means of looking for an analogous ethnic slur that, although referred to a different ethnic group, makes sense in the TL. This is the case of the Latin translation of (17), where encore qu’ils ne parlassent que bas-​breton was actually rendered as etiamsi barbara tantum Gothorum lingua uterentur (even if they were making use of the exceedingly barbarian language of the Goths) (Descartes 1897b VI: 543).

Problems translating tabooed words    215 (18) ‘Those in whom the faculty of reason is predominant (. . .) are always the best able to persuade others of the truth of what they lay down, though they should speak only in the language of Lower Brittany, and be wholly ignorant of the rules of rhetoric’ (Descartes 1912: 7. My emphasis). (19) ‘People with the strongest reasoning (. . .) are always the most persuasive, even if they speak only a provincial dialect and have never learned rhetoric’ (Descartes 2007: 3. My emphasis). (20) ‘Those who reason most powerfully (. . .) will always be best able to persuade others of what they say, even if they speak in the thickest of dialects and have never learned any rhetoric’ (Descartes 2006: 9. My emphasis). (18) is almost a literal translation of (17), where bas-​breton has been rendered as ‘the language of Lower Brittany’, but one wonders whether the derogatory flavour of the SL words is reproduced in the TL or, in other words, whether a normal speaker of English can infer that, when Descartes wrote bas-​breton, he did not limit himself to mention a language like any other, but this particular language. And Descartes acted like that because he counted on his French readers viewing Low Breton as the language of an uneducated minority. For its part, (19), where bas-​breton is rendered as ‘a provincial dialect’, hides the original ethnic slur as well as the reader is allowed to think that Descartes was alluding to a regional variety of French language, which is spoken by a very few, and not to a language that, to top it all, is not even a Romance language, but a Celtic one. And, finally, in (20), the expression ‘the thickest of dialects’ is clearly derogatory, but so vague as to be almost ineffective as a slur. Not to mention that, as in (20), a Celtic language becomes a vague dialect of a nameless language. And what I am saying about the English translations of (17) can be said, mutatis mutandis, about its translations into other languages. Thus, ‘Wer den besten Verstand hat (. . .) wird seine Aussprüche am besten vertheidigen, wenn es auch in schlechtem Dialekt geschieht, und er nie die Beredsamkeit gelernt hat’ (Descartes 1870: 24. My emphasis) can be considered the German counterpart of (20), whereas ‘Jemand, der den schärfsten Verstand hat (. . .) kann die Leute am besten von dem, was er vorbringt, überzeugen, selbst wenn er nur niederbretonisch spräche und niemals Rhetorik studiert hätte’ (Descartes 1969: 13. My emphasis) can be considered the German counterpart of (18).

11.4.5 Presumed greed banned I assume that the vagueness of (19) and (20) is not necessarily the result of a conscious act of censorship or self-​censorship; but other cases can be adduced where the text in the TL has the appearance of stemming from some self-​censorship in order to avoid an ethnic slur or perhaps is the result of ignorance on the part of the translator. Greed is one of the seven deadly sins and considered a vice even by nonbelievers and, as typically happens with the rest of the vices, every human community tends to

216   Pedro J. Chamizo Domínguez attribute it to some neighbouring community. So, for instance, in Britain miserliness is typically attributed to Scots, in Spain this vice is attributed to Catalans, in Germany to people from Swabia, in France to people from La Beauce and/​or Auvergne, while in Italy miserliness is attributed to the citizens of Genoa. Although it is probably unfair to do so, British, Spanish, French, Italian, and German citizens would agree in attributing avarice, par excellence, to Jews. This has resulted in the fact that many languages have traditionally included the sense of ‘miser’ among the meanings of the noun ‘Jew’. Although this sense has been gradually banned from many dictionaries, it can be found in other dictionaries. In the case of the French language, the sense of ‘miser’ cannot be found in the current, electronic editions either of the Larousse (2017) or Robert (2017). However, it can be found in the two twentieth-​century editions of the Dictionnaire de l’Académie Française, although with different nuances. Thus, the eighth edition of this dictionary (DAF 1932–​5), in addition to its literal meaning, provided the following definition for the noun juif: ‘se dit aussi, figurément et familièrement, de Celui qui prête à usure et qui se conduit, en affaires, avec avidité et âpreté’ (it is also said, figuratively and familiarly, of someone who is a money-​lender and who behaves, in business, with greed and harshness). This definition, which can be considered politically incorrect and insulting, was rewritten in the 1992 edition of this academic dictionary and the derogatory meaning was consigned to the Middle Ages as well as softened in that the people of Lombardy were included among usurers as well: ‘HIST. Au Moyen Âge, nom donné aux prêteurs à usure, parce que seuls les Juifs étaient autorisés, avec les Lombards, à pratiquer ce métier.’ (HIST. In the Middle Ages, name given to usurers, because only the Jews were allowed, together with the Lombards, to practise this trade). But in spite of the fact that this opprobrious sense of the noun Jew has been banned or softened, speakers continue to use the noun in question in this forbidden sense to the extent that it allows conventional implicatures as well as allusions. This is the case of the following dialogue: (21)

Jewish character: ‘Du porc?!! Mais c’est absolument interdit par nos lois! D’ailleurs même les autres viandes ne peuvent être consommées que si elles sont cachères’. Obelix: ‘Pas chères! Dites, vous ne seriez pas un peu près de vos sesterces dans ce pays?’ (Uderzo 1981: 30).


has actually been translated into English as:


Jewish character: ‘Pork?!! We are forbidden to eat pork by the Law and the prophets!’. Obelix: ‘Profits? You mean pork butchers can’t make profit here?’ (Uderzo 1982: 27).

The translators of (21) into English had to deal with two different problems. The first problem is strictly technical and had to do with the play on words originated in the fact that Obelix misunderstood the noun cachère (kosher) and confused it with the adjective cher (expensive). This problem was elegantly and wisely solved by resorting to a similar English play on words based on the fact that the English nouns prophet and profit are

Problems translating tabooed words    217 homophonous. The second problem was trickier and was fixed by means of avoiding any allusion to the presumed avarice of Jewish people which is not only opprobrious and politically incorrect, but anachronistic as well. As a result of this translation, the reader of (22) will probably be unaware that, since (22) makes sense in English, what s/​he is reading, is, in fact, a politically incorrect version of an allusion to an ethnic slur in the SL text. But one can debate whether it is permissible to doctor a text in the name of political correctness or, on the contrary, to stick to the original text over any other consideration.

11.5 Conclusions This chapter has explored some of the many problems the translator faces when dealing with SL texts/​utterances in which occasional tabooed words appear. After analysing several cases of different translations of a unique SL text containing a tabooed word, the most remarkable feature is that a translator may attempt to adapt the SL text to the (assumed) culture of the readers/​hearers of the TL. As a result of this, the translator has to resolve a dilemma, since s/​he has to choose between respecting what is said in the SL and, consequently, running the risk of being misunderstood by the readers/​hearers of the TL, or adapting the text/​utterance to the TL culture (or dominant trends in the culture in question) and, consequently, attempting against what is said and/​or meant in the SL. A by-​product of this dilemma is that often the TL text/​utterance is consciously or unconsciously censored or, at least, it seems to be so.

Chapter 12

L ingu istic ta b o o s i n a sec ond or foreign l a ng uag e jean-​marc dewaele

12.1 Introduction Keith Allan (Chapter 1 of this volume) defines as taboo the use of taboo words and language ‘in certain contexts; in short, the taboo applies to instances of language behaviour’ which are ‘perceived as in some way harmful to an individual or their community’. The mention of community is crucial because there is nothing intrinsic in the words or expressions that makes them taboo, the taboo originates in the attitudes of the people of the community towards these words and expressions. Allan argues that ‘shared taboos are a sign of social cohesion’. In other words, the agreement on what is unspeakable matters as much within a community as agreement on what it is appropriate to say. Only insiders know exactly what is taboo and what is not. Those who break the taboo are more likely to be outsiders who are unaware of the taboo on certain words or topics. Insiders can break the taboo too, by wilfully ignoring it while being perfectly aware of the social consequences of their violation of the rules. In football terms, one could imagine a situation where the local team has just lost against a rival team, which might have hurt the pride of local supporters to the point that mentioning the defeat is taboo. However, support for the team and a firm belief in future victories has not wavered and creates a strong bond between the community members. Taboos can appear in a flash: a day after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales on 31 August 1997, my wife and I—​who are Belgians—​returned home to London from a trip abroad. Listening to the sobbing in interviews on the radio we became aware that this tragic event was triggering mass hysteria. Diana was a public figure who had been portrayed relentlessly in the press as an attractive, brave but flawed Princess who had lost her title of Royal Highness a year earlier after her divorce from Prince Charles. This fatal

Linguistic taboos in a second or foreign language    219 car crash had suddenly turned her into ‘the people’s princess’ and a saint. As I got out of the car in front of our house, I noticed our British neighbour who looked quite emotional. She must have detected the smirk on my face as I was preparing some sarcastic remark about the situation and she cut me off before I could open my mouth: ‘Don’t even mention it’, she said, ‘you have no idea what this means to us’. In other words, despite my having lived in the UK for four years, I was warned that I did not have the right to make jokes about something I could not possibly understand as a foreigner. The Latin phrase De mortuis nihil nisi bonum ‘of the dead, [say] nothing but good’ came to mind. It had suddenly become socially inappropriate to speak ill of the late Diana, and any mention of her extramarital relationship and eating disorder had become taboo, especially for non-​British people. Communities do not just have taboo topics, they also have taboo words and expressions, which can be used in swearing, defined by Jay (Chapter 6 of this volume) as ‘the use of offensive emotional language to vent our feelings and convey them to other people’. Jay (2009b, and Chapter 5 of this volume) argued that tabooness is a word’s connotative or emotional tag. It is thus part of a word’s semantic representation, defined by Pavlenko (2009) as: ‘the largely implicit knowledge of: (1) the mapping between words and concepts determining how many concepts and which particular concepts are expressed by a particular word via polysemy or metaphoric extension and (2) connections between words, which account for phenomena such as collocation, word association, synonymy, and antonymy’ (Pavlenko 2009: 148). According to Jay’s (2009b) emotional tag hypothesis, a language user selects a word based on how offensive it is—​assuming for LX users that that information is known and accurate. Pavlenko (1999) argued that semantic representations are separate from conceptual representations. In other words, LX users may know the meaning of an emotion word but may be unable to deploy it in conversation because of an incomplete emotion concept, defined as ‘prototypical scripts that are formed as a result of repeated experiences and involve causal antecedents, appraisals, physiological reactions, consequences, and means of regulation and display’ (Pavlenko 2008: 149–​50). Appropriate use of swearwords and taboo words requires proper semantic and conceptual representations as well as considerable sociocultural and sociopragmatic awareness because, according to Beers Fägersten and Stapleton, their use can lead to ‘controversy, disagreement, disdain, shock, and indignation’ but it can also be interpreted as an indication of ‘passion, sincerity, intimacy, solidarity, and jocularity’ (Beers Fägersten and Stapleton 2017: 1). The use of taboo words could be compared to the use of heavy medieval flails. The long version of this weapon had a wooden handle with a flexible rope or chain attached to a cylindrical head, while the shorter version had a round metal striking head with multiple metal spikes. The flail was devastating in strikes around a defender’s shield but it was hard to use with precision. In the hands—​or rather in the mouths—​of inexperienced users, such as foreign language users (LX users1), 1 

The use of categories such as that of ‘native speakers’ versus ‘non-​native speakers’ implies the inherent inferiority of the later, no matter their degree of proficiency, and the undeniable superiority

220   Jean-Marc Dewaele ill-​chosen taboo words can cause loss of face to themselves and serious offence to their interlocutors. LX users who have an incomplete semantic or conceptual representation of the words in question may risk under-​estimating (or over-​estimating) their pragmatic force which can result in pragmalinguistic failure or they may use the words inappropriately in social interaction which will result in embarrassing sociopragmatic failure (Thomas 1983). Once LX users have developed a sufficiently rich and accurate conceptual representation of a taboo word, they will have sufficient sociopragmatic understanding about its use. This means this will know how often, with whom, and in what situation a particular word or expression can be used. They will be aware of ways to strengthen or to attenuate its perlocutionary effects (i.e. the effect of the illocutionary act). They will be able to combine semantic meaning with intonation type and will be to express emotion not just through the words but using use prosodic cues such as pitch variation, prosodic patterns, and intonation (Kyoung Cho 2017). Indeed, ‘intonation, the music of language, makes a spoken language come alive in communication by carrying subtle pragmatic features’ (Kyoung Cho 2017: 221). As a result, LX users will feel a certain degree of confidence about their ability to ‘anticipate the likely reaction of interlocutors, what inference they will draw from the usage of the word in a script, and what the social consequences will be’ (Dewaele 2016: 114). Dewaele (2008) pointed out that LX users with sufficient pragmalinguistic and sociopragmatic competence might still misjudge the effect of LX taboo words on their interlocutors because of their status as outsiders. L1 users may wonder whether the use of taboo words was intentional and whether the speaker recognized what they meant and what their pragmatic force was. They may also feel that as an outsider, the LX user did not have the right to use these taboo words, which can seem unfair to legitimate LX users. The present chapter will attempt to answer the question whether and why second or LX users react differently to linguistic taboos in their LX(s) compared to those in their L1(s) and whether they handle these LX taboo words and expressions differently than those in their L1.

12.2  Physiological reactions to taboo words in the LX The seminal work in the area of physiological responses to the use of LX taboo words is that of cognitive psychologist Catherine Caldwell-​Harris and her colleagues. They

of the former. Dewaele (2017a) has defended a more holistic categorization that recognizes individuals as learners and users of many languages and uses value-​neutral terms. The dichotomy first (L1) versus foreign (LX) users does not imply any level of proficiency and both can be multicompetent users of various L1(s) and of LX(s).

Linguistic taboos in a second or foreign language    221 looked into the skin conductance responses of thirty-​two balanced Turkish–​English bilingual students at Boston University to reprimands (Don’t do that!, Shame on you!, Go to your room!), taboo words (curse words, body part, and sexual terms), aversive words (cancer, kill, death), positive words (bride, joy, kind), and neutral words (column, table) presented visually and auditorily in their L1 Turkish and the translation equivalents in the L2 English (Harris, Ayçiçeği, and Gleason 2003). Participants rated items for pleasantness, while skin conductance activity was monitored via fingertip electrodes. The authors found that their participants’ skin conductance responses were significantly stronger for childhood reprimands and slightly less strong for taboo words presented auditorily in the L1 Turkish compared to their translation equivalents in L2 English. However, responsiveness to L2 English taboo words was also very high. The authors speculated that the strong difference between L1 and L2 reprimands was linked to context of acquisition in childhood learning, including ‘fear or anxiety associated with parental reprimands, contributed to an enduring language-​specific response’ (Harris, Ayçiçeği, and Gleason 2003: 262). Skin conductance responses could not be predicted by age, gender, age of exposure to English, age of arrival in the USA, length of stay in the USA, self-​rated proficiency, or English verbal proficiency. Harris (2004) repeated the experiment with fifty-​two fluent Spanish–​English bilinguals from Latin American families in the US, thirty-​one of whom had been born in the US and twenty-​one of whom had arrived from Latin America at age twelve or older. The latter group showed stronger skin conductance responses to reprimands in Spanish L1. Early learners of English, who had been through a process of L2 socialization, responded similarly in Spanish and English. Harris, Gleason, and Ayçiçeği (2006) considered their previous research and developed ‘the emotional contexts of learning theory’ to explain their findings. They argued that the differences in age of onset of learning the L1 and L2 may be linked to different levels of involvement of emotional regulation systems in early childhood. L1(s) are typically learned in a highly emotional context, in interactions with family members and caregivers. In contrast, LXs may be acquired in the emotional context of attachment to caregivers and peers, but it may also be acquired in more formal settings such as school or work where there may be with fewer intense personal attachments. The authors conclude that ‘Early age of acquisition thus functions as a proxy for a more emotional context of learning’ (Harris et al. 2006: 273–​4). Caldwell-​Harris, Tong, Lung, and Poo (2011) measured the reactions of sixty-​four bilingual Mandarin–​English speakers to taboo expressions (He’s an asshole, He screwed your mother, She’s a bitch) in both languages. Despite the fact that participants judged L1 Mandarin expressions to be stronger than L2 English expressions, many expressed a preference for L2 English taboo phrases, possibly ‘because of the greater social constraints in Chinese culture to minimize emotional expression’ (Caldwell-​Harris et al. 2011:  348). Taboo items in English received slightly higher ratings than the corresponding Mandarin items (Caldwell-​Harris et al. 2011: 342), but skin conductance responses for insults, reprimands, and taboo words were comparable in Mandarin and English. Caldwell-​Harris (2015) argued that the most common category of explanation

222   Jean-Marc Dewaele for differences between the reactions to taboo words in the L1 and LX is that emotional resonance depends on the exposure in the discourse context because human memory is inherently associative. Eilola and Havelka (2011) combined skin conductance measures with reaction times in a group of thirty-​two English L1 users and a group of thirty-​one Greek–​English bilinguals enrolled at the University of Kent (UK). The researchers used emotional and taboo Stroop tasks. They found significantly slower response times for twenty negative and twenty taboo words compared to response times for neutral words in both groups of participants. English L1 users displayed the expected stronger reactions to negative and taboo words when compared with neutral and positive words but no such difference emerged among the bilinguals, which the authors attribute to the fact that the bilinguals were unbalanced though proficient speakers of English. The findings of these psychologists turned out to be independently confirmed in the work of applied linguists working on emotionality of L1 and LX, defined as ‘autonomic arousal elicited by particular languages or words and examined directly’ (Pavlenko 2008: 155).

12.3  Perceptions and use of taboo words in L1 and LX Intraspeaker and interspeaker variation have been the focus of a number of studies that were based on the Bilingualism and Emotion Questionnaire (BEQ) database containing self-​reported perceptions and language preferences for the communication of emotion of over one thousand participants (Dewaele and Pavlenko 2001–​3). The BEQ contained two questions with Likert scales related to swearing and the power of taboo words and swearwords in all languages known to participants: (1) If you swear in general, what language do you typically swear in? (never, rarely, sometimes, frequently, all the time, not applicable) (Dewaele 2013:  230). The question was repeated for the L1, L2, L3, L4, and L5. (2) Do swearwords and taboo words in your different languages have the same emotional weight for you? (not strong, little, fairly, strong, very strong, not applicable) (Dewaele 2013: 230). One thousand and thirty-​nine (1,039) adult multilinguals from all over the world reported a significant preference for swearing in their dominant language, which was typically their L1 (Dewaele 2004a). LXs learnt in classrooms were less likely to be used for swearing. Frequency of use of a LX was positively correlated with LX socialization and both were linked to increased use of the LX for swearing. It is possible that after being

Linguistic taboos in a second or foreign language    223 completely immersed in the LX, users judge that they are close enough to the in-​group to start copying their use of taboo words (Dewaele 2004a). Gender and education level were unrelated to LX choice for swearing. In a separate study on the emotional force of swearwords and taboo words in multilinguals’ various languages, based on the same database, Dewaele (2004b) found similar relationships with the independent variables. Swearwords and taboo words were perceived to be significantly more powerful in the L1, which could lead to avoidance, as a participant explained: Kevin (Finnish L1, English L2, Swedish L3, German L4):  I very rarely swear in Finnish but ‘oh shit’ or ‘fuck’ can easily escape my mouth even in quite trivial occasions—​they just don’t feel that serious to my (or my hearers’) ears, even though I know they would sound quite horrible to a native speaker. Dewaele 2004b: 213

Kevin’s statement also suggests that the reduced emotional force of LX swearwords and taboo words make their use more socially acceptable among LX users. The superior emotional power of the L1 swearwords and taboo words is not eternal. Participants who were no longer dominant in their L1 judged L1 swearwords and taboo words to be significantly weaker than those who were dominant in the L1 or who those were equally dominant in the L1 and an LX (Dewaele 2004c). This suggests that the finding that the L1 is more emotional and LXs more detached does not reflect a law of nature (Dewaele 2013). It is a reflection of the fact that there is a higher probability that multilinguals are dominant in their L1 rather than an LX (Dewaele 2013: 217). However, intense affective socialization in the LX can drain the emotional power of L1 swearwords (Dewaele 2004c). Finally, a strong positive relationship was found between emotional force of swearwords and taboo words in a language and their frequency of use. In other words, participants were more likely to use words in a language that had emotional force (Dewaele 2004a: 101). Some participants, typically of Asian or Arabic background deviated from the general preference for the L1 to swear in. Because of heavy social constraints on swearing in their L1, they resorted to swearing in English LX which allowed them to vent their anger without upsetting their interlocutors and risking social stigma. This was the case of Layla (Arabic L1, English L2, resident in the UK): Speaking of swearing, (. . .) I never swear in Arabic, never never at all, because I know exactly what it means, because it’s my language anyway, and how offensive it would be to swear, but in English because it’s not my native language, sometimes I use some swearwords, but I  don’t really aware I’m not really aware of how immense those words are. One of the words that sometimes I use is ‘bloody’, ‘bloody rude’ you know, this is the only swearword I use. Dewaele 2013: 125

224   Jean-Marc Dewaele Another participant, Anne Marie (English L1, Japanese L2, resident in Japan) explained that the nature of the emotion concept determined the language choice for swearing. Referring to the question on swearing in the BEQ, she explained: I circled ‘2’ in both L1 and L2. To be honest I rarely swear, but . . . my brain chooses the most appropriate feeling that I’m experiencing, be it a Japanese word or an English word. For instance, in certain situations an English swearword is more appropriate to express my anger. However, in other situations, a Japanese swearword is quicker to surface. Dewaele unpublished material

Dewaele (2011) focused on the use of French for swearing among 628 LX users of French extracted from the BEQ. Level of proficiency and socialization in French were positively linked with swearing in French. The context of acquisition of French did emerge as a significant variable after an average of fifteen years of regular contact with French: those who had used their French in authentic communication outside the classroom were more likely to swear in French than those who had acquired French through classroom instruction only. In order to find out whether multilinguals who felt maximally proficient in an L1 and an LX—​and used both constantly—​displayed language preferences for swearing, Dewaele (2010, 2011) selected a subsample of 386 participants from the BEQ. It turned out that the L1 was preferred for swearing and that L1 swearwords were considered to be significantly emotionally stronger than LX swearwords. The effect of context of acquisition and age of onset of learning on the frequency of swearing in the LX was analysed in Dewaele (2005, 2011, 2013). A subsample of 486 pentalinguals extracted from the BEQ showed that an early acquisition of an LX was linked to more frequent swearing in that language. Also, participants who had learned the LX only through formal instruction reported less frequent swearing that those who had learned the LX through mixed or naturalistic learning. Frequent LX use, strong LX socialization, including a rich network of LX interlocutors, were linked to more swearing in the LX, confirming earlier research (Dewaele 2013). Resnik (to appear) used the BEQ to collect data from 167 multilinguals, a majority of which had German as an L1 and English as an LX with the remaining participants combining Thai, Chinese, or Japanese as an L1 and English as an LX. Participants were found to prefer the L1 for swearing. Swearing in the LX was linked to age of onset of acquisition, self-​perceived proficiency, and frequency of use. The emotional weight of swearwords and taboo words was significantly higher in the L1 than in the LX, where it was marginally linked to self-​perceived proficiency. Looking back at the research based on the BEQ, it is clear that it allowed a first broad look at general patterns in the self-​reported use and the perception of swearwords and taboo words in a great variety of languages from participants from all over the world. I decided that the next phase of research in this domain would require more granularity, which would imply a set of actual words and expressions in a single language, and

Linguistic taboos in a second or foreign language    225 feedback from L1 and LX users of that language. Dewaele (2016, 2017b) are based on data collected from 2,347 English users via an online questionnaire with the aim to catch individual differences in self-​reported swearing frequency in English and the perception of offensiveness and frequency of use of thirty negative emotion-​laden words extracted from the British National Corpus. Independent variables included sociobiographical variables, linguistic profiles, and three personality traits. A total of 1,159 English L1 users (of which 83% were multilingual) and 1,165 English LX language users participated in the study (Dewaele 2016, 2017b). Swearing turned out to be significantly more common with friends, followed by swearing alone, and happened less frequently with family members, colleagues, and strangers. The 1,159 English L1 users reported swearing significantly more in English than the 1,165 LX users. Participants with high scores on Psychoticism, Extraversion, and Neuroticism reported significantly more swearing. LX proficiency and use, an early start of acquisition and the use of English outside school when learning the language was linked to more frequent swearing in English across interlocutors. The list of thirty negative emotion-​laden words included relatively mild nouns and adjectives such as comedian, daft, silly, fool, and truly taboo words and expressions such as fucking hell, slut, prick, and cunt (Dewaele 2016). The words appeared in short sentences and were followed by Likert scales to enquire about the understanding of each item, its offensiveness and its frequency of use. The analysis of differences between L1 and LX users for the thirty words and expressions yielded some unexpected findings. As could have been expected, the LX users reported significantly more uncertainty about the meaning of twenty-​two of the words and expressions and reported different frequencies of use for twenty-​five words and expressions with lower frequency of the taboo words and higher frequency of non-​taboo words (Dewaele 2016: 119). However, rather than underestimating offensiveness, as had been hypothesized based on the findings of the BEQ, LX users significantly overestimated the offensiveness of twenty-​nine out of the thirty words and expressions, with the exception of the most offensive one: cunt. Having lived in an English-​speaking environment affected LX users’ perception of offensiveness of six words: fool and silly were judged less offensive, while loser, cunt, thick, and wanker were considered more offensive compared to LX users who had not lived in English-​speaking regions (Dewaele 2016: 120). Context of acquisition was found to have an effect on understanding and frequency of use of the words and expressions. Oral proficiency was positively linked to understanding, to higher offensiveness ratings for the more offensive words and expressions and lower offensiveness ratings for less offensive words and expressions, and higher frequency of use of the words in the medium range of offensiveness, namely bugger, thick, bonkers, jerk, moron, nutter, bastard, and prick. The effect of the independent variables on the thirty negative emotion-​laden words and expressions identified in Dewaele (2016) were broadly similar to the patterns that were uncovered in the studies based on the BEQ. Long exposure to these words and expressions across a wide variety of situations with various interlocutors allowed language users to calibrate their perlocutionary effects accurately. Moreover, having used and misused the words as part of language socialization made users more confident

226   Jean-Marc Dewaele with these words. L1 users have an undeniable advantage over LX users because of longer, more intense, and more varied exposure from birth. LX users, on the other hand, would have had a delayed start in hearing and using these words, would have had more limited exposure to a smaller number of words if they studied the LX at school, and would have had fewer opportunities to experiment with these words. LX users’ uncertainty about the exact meaning of these words and the avoidance of the taboo words is a logical consequence. One burning question remained: why did LX users overestimate the offensiveness of most words? Part of the explanation may be that teachers warn foreign language learners against the use of negative emotion-​laden words, which could lead to the blanket assumption that they are more offensive than they really are. Learners may attach a metaphorical and relatively indiscriminate ‘red flag’ to them to remind them of the sociopragmatic danger they represent. The teacher’s advice is sensible since learners do not (yet) belong to the target language in-​group, their understanding of what is taboo in the LX is still fuzzy and their swearing in the LX might be considered inappropriate by L1 users. As the LX learners become LX users and socialize in the LX, they get more opportunities to hear the words and deduce the pragmatic value of their prosody and intonation contours before starting to use the words themselves. It is a long and gradual process because their avoidance of taboo words in the LX limits the feedback they receive on their appropriateness of use. They do end up identifying words and expressions that are relatively safe for them to use, typically situated in the midrange of offensiveness. Intrigued by the atypical behaviour of cunt and its offensiveness and tabooness being underestimated by LX users, Dewaele (2017c) decided to focus specifically on this word. He argued that the word is so taboo in English that it is censored in the written press (replaced by c*** or the c-​word) and beeped out on television or on the radio. It is used quite rarely by L1 users in the database (Mean frequency = 1.4, SD = 1.0, on a 5-​point scale) which means that LX users typically have incomplete semantic and conceptual representations of the word. They did indeed report a significantly weaker understanding of the word than L1 users (Dewaele 2017c: 14). LX users might have been unaware that cunt was not just any red flag word but in fact a ‘double-​red’ one (Dewaele 2016: 123). The link between understanding and self-​reported use of the word turned out to be very different in L1 users and LX users. L1 users who rated the word as being very offensive reported using it infrequently. However, LX users who reported higher offensiveness claimed more frequent use compared to those who rated the word lower (with the exception of LX users who had lived in an English-​speaking environment). It is possible that LX users who live in non-​English-​speaking environments can use the word cunt with a certain degree of impunity as their listeners are less likely to be offended. As a consequence, English LX users might believe that cunt is just another swearword, not perceiving the second red flag marking it as really taboo by L1 users. Participants with high levels of Extraversion, Neuroticism, and Psychoticism used the word more frequently, as were those who were male, younger (teenagers especially), lowly educated, and working in a swearing-​rich environment. Frequency of use of the word was lower among LX users who had started learning English late, through

Linguistic taboos in a second or foreign language    227 formal instruction, who reported lower levels of oral proficiency and frequency of use of English, and who had not lived in an English-​speaking environment. The same patterns were generally weaker for the understanding of the word and its perceived offensiveness. One important finding was that taboo words can be used—​sparingly—​to gain social prestige. The conclusion about its use in social interactions by L1 and LX users was that it ‘requires considerable sociopragmatic skills, typically honed through years of socialization in the speech community . . . as ‘cunt’ really is the verbal equivalent of dynamite’ (Dewaele 2017c: 27). Shakiba (in preparation) collected data from 254 Persian L1 English L2 bi-​and multilinguals using an online questionnaire with a list of ten swearwords in Farsi and a list of ten swearwords in English. A minority of participants (n = 50) lived in Iran, the rest lived in English-​speaking countries. She adopted a mixed methods approach to investigate the relationships between acculturation, personality traits, and the self-​reported swearing behaviour of Persian immigrants outside Iran. She found that immigrants who scored high on acculturation into English-​speaking society preferred swearing in English. High scorers on the traits of Social Initiative (Extraversion) and Emotional Stability (the opposite of Neuroticism) used English swearwords more often. Male participants with lower scores on Emotional Stability reported significantly more frequent use of Persian swearwords. The well-​established swearword ashghal (‘dirty, garbage’) was used significantly more by Persian immigrants outside Iran while the relatively new swearword oskol (‘useless silly person’) was used more frequently by those who live in Iran. Shakiba also found that the five swearwords with extremely negative emotional valence were rated as more offensive by participants living in Iran. This suggests that living abroad affects the perception and use of L1 swearwords. Sociopragmatic norms of the immigrant community start diverging from those living in the home country. High frequency of use of L2 English and strong acculturation into mainstream culture were positively correlated with the frequency of use of the words shit, crap, and bitch. Younger participants, participants with a longer length of residency outside Iran, and participants who started learning English early used English swearwords more frequently. Jay and Janschewitz (2008) is a pioneering pragmatic study on perceived offensiveness and likelihood of hypothetical scenarios involving the use of taboo words among sixty-​eight L1 English and fifty-​three LX English students at the University of California in Los Angeles. The researchers considered the effects of gender, English experience, social-​physical context (dean’s office, dorm room, parking lot), speaker status (dean, student, janitor) and the degree of tabooness of the word (high, medium, low) on the offensiveness and likelihood of hypothetical scenarios using 7-​point Likert scales. Significant main effects emerged for offensiveness ratings for speaker (students are expected to swear more than deans), location (swearing in the Dean’s office is more offensive than in a students’ dorm) and tabooness (words in the ‘high’ category—​namely cocksucker, cunt, and fuck—​are more offensive across contexts). A significant negative relationship was found between offensiveness ratings and likelihood ratings. Surprisingly, no main effect emerged for English experience on offensiveness ratings, nor on likelihood ratings

228   Jean-Marc Dewaele although ‘the range between the highest and lowest average condition rating was larger for native than non-​native speakers’ (Jay and Janschewitz 2008: 280). The authors argue that this could be linked to variability in English experience among LX users who had spent an average of eleven years in the US, who were generally highly proficient and strongly socialized in English. Those who had become fluent in English later in life had higher average offensive ratings (Jay and Janschewitz 2008: 280). Also, the negative relationship between likelihood and offensiveness ratings was not significant for the LX group. Jay (2009b) expanded on the crucial importance of the situation in which swearwords are used, and the degree of formality of the speech in which they occur. A particular swearword may thus not be judged offensive in a casual conversation between friends but would be considered offensive by the same people at a formal event. Colbeck and Bowers (2012) considered the emotionality of English taboo words in twenty English L1 and twenty-​four English LX users who had Chinese as an L1. They used a Rapid Serial Visual Presentation (RSVP) task to measure the effect of English taboo/​sexual words embedded in sets of neutral words. Taboo/​sexual distracters were found to generate an attentional blink, especially among L1 users. Crucially, the performance of Chinese LX users was less impaired by taboo/​sexual distracters than that of L1 users, which confirms the view that the L1 is more emotional than the L2, even when words are processed quickly and automatically. Vélez-​Uribe and Rosselli (2017) investigated how Spanish–​English bilinguals appraised three categories of words (positive, negative, and taboo) in both languages in the visual and auditory sensory modalities. They found that taboo words were rated as significantly more negative in Spanish than in English, which confirms the general patterns in the literature. Gawinkowska, Paradowski, and Bilewicz (2013) adopted a different method to investigate the emotional power of LX swearwords. Their participants were sixty-​one bilingual Polish university students with advanced levels of English proficiency. Starting from the assumption that ‘socially unaccepted words and utterances (such as swearing) should be more difficult in L1 than in L2’ (Gawinkowska et al. 2013: 3), they asked their participants to translate texts rich in swearwords from Polish into English and vice versa. The researchers noticed that the swearword equivalents used were weaker in the Polish translations than in the source text and that the swearwords were stronger in the English translations than in the Polish original. However, the effect was only significant for ethnophaulisms, i.e. expletives directed at social groups. The authors claim that the variation is less linked to the different emotional power of both languages, but rather to different social and cultural norms in English and Polish: ‘if the emotion-​laden words are at the same level of social acceptance, there should be no difference for bilinguals as for in which language to express them’ (Gawinkowska et al. 2013: 5). It is not entirely clear to me whether this research design allowed the authors to draw any conclusions on differences in emotional force of taboo words in the L1 and L2. Valdeón (2015) used translation of texts of British sitcoms into Spanish to raise twenty-​ four students’ awareness of pragmatic differences in taboo words in the two languages.

Linguistic taboos in a second or foreign language    229 He found that the overall number of taboo words in the English programs (N = 18) more than doubled in the Spanish dubbed versions (N = 46) (Valdeón 2015: 380). He pointed out that the case of the translators was different from the situations presented to participants in the BEQ in that there were no social consequences for getting it wrong. He links the results to cultural differences: ‘European Spanish is certainly more tolerant of taboo words than British and American English in most contexts, including the media’ (Valdeón 2015: 381). A number of researchers have recently looked into the borrowing of English taboo words into other languages such as Danish, Swedish, Finnish, European and Quebecois French, Belgian Dutch, and Netherlandic Dutch (Rathje 2017; Beers Fägersten 2017; Hjort 2017; Jaffe 2017; Zenner, Ruette, and Devriendt 2017). The researchers considered the use of English taboo words ‘in one or more mediated context(s), such as new and traditional media, including print and broadcast media, online instant messaging, and social media, such as Twitter and Facebook’ (Beers Fägersten and Stapleton 2017: 7). Jaffe (2017) examined the use of the expressions fuck, fuck alors, what the fuck in European French and fucker le chien in Canadian French online exchanges. She argues that in France these English words retain some of their expressive and transgressive power and are used in a ‘lighthearted way by speakers and writers to take stances that convey some oppositionality, but limited association’ (Jaffe 2017: 88). In contrast, fucker le chien (literally ‘fuck the dog’—​meaning ‘to waste time’ or ‘to have difficulty in accomplishing something’) has little taboo value in Canadian L1 French: ‘rather than thematizing or mobilizing other-​languageness, it functions as an integrated (nativized) idiomatic expression in Québecois French’ (Jaffe 2017: 88). Jaffe speculates that the popularity of fuck in English may obscure its loanword status and its indexical connections with English but it may very well retain its position between mild and very transgressive French swearwords (Jaffe 2017: 103). Hjort (2017) found that fuck in her survey of attitudes towards Finnish swearwords was considered by a majority of the 3,002 participants to be a code-​switch rather than an established loan, in contrast with Rathje’s (2014) finding that almost all of her teenage respondents considered fuck to be a Danish swearword. Beers Fägersten (2017) reported that Swedish print media are less reticent than their English peers to use English taboo words like fuck. The phrase ‘FUCK cancer’ was used as the title of a campaign against cancer that had official backing. The choice of the English word might have been motivated by its conciseness, the fact that the construction fuck X is well-​established, and that Swedish alternatives would have been clumsier. Also, in the Swedish context, this expression was not considered to be conventionally offensive but it was legitimized and standardized. Zenner, Ruette, and Devriendt (2017) looked at the use of 882 English swearwords in more than six million tweets from Belgian Dutch and Netherlandic Dutch Twitter users. Their data reveal that shit and fuck are frequently used in both varieties of Dutch. The researchers investigated the creativity in the use of English, ranging from simple insertion, to phraseological swearing (partly translated compound English swearwords),

230   Jean-Marc Dewaele and phraseological swearing used as a construction, so that parts of the construction can be translated or interchanged, sometimes with a pun, which reflects constructional creativity. An example of this is: ‘Weer aanslag in de US? There is some serious shit on the marble . . .’ (‘Another attack in the US? There is some serious shit on the marble . . .’). The authors explain that this is a ‘literal translation into English of a Dutch expression (er is stront aan de knikker’ (‘the shit has hit the fan’)’ (Zenner et al. 2017: 130). Bilingual punning is a much appreciated linguistic activity of bilinguals (Vaid 2006) and when it involves taboo words it ‘smells like teen spirit. It roars, ducks, and feints, combining offensiveness and ambiguity’ (Dewaele 2017d: 257).

12.4  Possible causes of differences in emotionality of L1 and LX words Pavlenko (2005, 2012) argued that the main difference in emotionality between L1s and LXs comes from the fact that there are differences in affective processing, defined as ‘somatovisceral responses triggered by automatic appraisal of verbal stimuli, which may or may not register as subjective feelings at the level of higher cognition.’ (Pavlenko 2012: 409). Affective processing in the L1 is more automatic and is linked to heightened electrodermal reactivity to L1 emotion-​laden words. LX users experience decreased automaticity of affective processing ‘which reduces interference effects and lowers electrodermal reactivity to negative emotional stimuli’ (Pavlenko 2012: 405). This has consequences on the embodiment of the language. The L1(s) feel embodied because of intense affective socialization in early childhood while late bilinguals and LX users process the LX semantically but not affectively. Pavlenko describes affective socialization as ‘a process of integration of phonological forms of words and phrases with information from visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, kinesthetic, and visceral modalities, autobiographical memories, and affect’ (Pavlenko 2012: 421). As a result, words are linked to positive or negative memories while swearwords or taboo words become associated ‘with prohibition and punishment in the process of verbal conditioning’ (Pavlenko 2012: 421). Pavlenko argues that studies on bilingual autobiographical memory, the auditory effect in affective processing (Harris et al. 2003) and responses to taboo words (Bowers and Pleydell-​Pearce 2011)  show that in early language acquisition language develops together with autobiographical memory and emotion regulation systems: ‘the languages thus acquire both affective and autobiographical dimensions’ (Pavlenko 2012:  421). This concurs with Harris et al.’s (2006) emotional contexts of learning theory. The joint development of language and affect is less likely to occur in LX acquisition. The main reason is that the language classroom ‘does not provide many opportunities for integration of all sensory modalities and verbal conditioning (other than foreign language anxiety) and thus leads to development of “disembodied” words, used freely by speakers who do not experience their full impact’ (Pavlenko 2012: 421). As a result, the LX may

Linguistic taboos in a second or foreign language    231 seem more detached to its users. Pavlenko argues that affective processing is automatic in L1(s) (Pavlenko 2012: 421), while LXs are processed semantically but not affectively (Pavlenko 2012: 405). Jończyk, Boutonnet, Musiał, Hoemann, and Thierry (2016) found evidence for affective disembodiment in attenuated N400 amplitudes2 to negative English emotional sentences with congruent and incongruent endings among nineteen Polish–​English bilinguals who had moved to the UK after puberty. One stimulus was ‘Women find him interesting, because Harry is very romantic/​burnt*)’ (Jończyk et  al. 2016:  170). They did find increased N400 for sentences in L1 Polish. This raised the question about the amount of time needed in the LX to acquire affective meaning. The authors conclude that their participants suppressed ‘L2 content embedded in naturalistic L2 sentences when it has negative valence’ (Jończyk et al. 2016: 527). Jończyk (2016) warns against an oversimplification of the issue of affective embodiment in the bilingualism because ‘bilinguals’ language histories differ probably to as much an extent as their affective experiences, and it is extremely difficult to dissect and control these factors in an experimental environment’ (Jończyk 2016: 155). He argues in favour of more ecological validity, i.e. not just decontextualized lab experiments. In fact, one could argue that these lab experiments largely confirm the findings obtained through different types of epistemological (etic versus emic) and methodological approaches. Triangulation is the best way to move the field forward.

12.5 Conclusion Jay (Chapter 6 of this volume) points out that it would be nice to develop a master list of taboo words and to improve the consistency of the definition of taboo words, which are ‘a very heterogeneous, context, and mode-​dependent category’. This runs into the immediate difficulty that Jay mentions himself, namely that ‘what is seen as taboo varies not only with time and from person to person but also the situation’ (Stenström 2017: 175). Moreover, the word itself is only part of the picture, the taboo value depends on the use of intensifiers or hedges, on the tone of voice or the facial expression, and on emoticons and exclamation marks in written texts. I compared swearwords and taboo words with ‘tiles in a multi-​coloured and multi-​layered mosaic in indirect light and with persistent areas of darkness’ (Dewaele 2017d: 258). The LX adds another layer of complexity for both speaker and hearer as a foreign accent might create doubts among interlocutors about the intentionality and the pragmatic awareness of the LX user in using that taboo word—​which could completely alter the perlocutionary effects of the word. 2  The N400 is part of the normal brain response to words and other meaningful (or potentially meaningful) stimuli, including visual and auditory words, sign language signs, pictures, faces, environmental sounds, and smells. N400 amplitudes reflect the degree to which a word is semantically integrated into the context.

232   Jean-Marc Dewaele Uncertainty about meaning, offensiveness, and appropriateness of taboo words makes LX users vulnerable in social interactions, which is why they tend to refrain from using them, or prefer less offensive ones. To conclude, it is important that LX users appreciate the fact that LX swearwords and taboo words are truly the linguistic equivalent of heavy medieval flails, and not some plastic toy version sold to children at Halloween.

Chapter 13

Phil osoph i c a l investigati ons of the tab o o of  i nsu lt luvell anderson

13.1  The obviousness of insult In the summer of 2015, Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president. During his announcement, he made some remarks many felt were insulting and defamatory. He said of Mexico: They’re not sending their best . . . They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people. Time Staff 2015

Trump’s remarks were characterized as ‘deeply offensive’ (Kohn 2015)  and ‘absurd’ (Gabbatt 2015). There is a certain obviousness to these—​and other—​remarks Trump has made. That is, their status as an insult appears obvious to many. Yet, it is this very sense of obviousness that threatens to obscure the actual explanation of what gives such utterances and actions their status. What makes something an insult? What makes an insult effective? One mechanism often employed to ensure an insult’s effectiveness is the use of tabooed expressions. Philosophers have not had very much to say about the concept of taboo. There are a few occasions, however, when one provides at least a descriptive gloss of the notion.1 For instance, Charlie Crerar writes of taboos in their verbal form that they are ‘topics


For more on the definition of taboo, see also Chapter 1 of this volume.

234   Luvell Anderson that are deemed inappropriate for discussion in many social contexts’ (Crerar 2016: 198). Crerar’s characterization might be used to suggest that some instances of insult involve broaching forbidden expressions. There are, of course, countless instances of insults that make use of a recognizably tabooed expression, e.g., a racial slur. For instance, Newton Abbott MP Anne Marie Morris was recorded at an event in which she was discussing the Brexit deal, saying the following: Now I’m sure there will be many people who’ll challenge that, but my response and my request is look at the detail, it isn’t all doom and gloom. Now we get to the real nigger in the woodpile, which is, in two years what happens if there is no deal? Mason 2017

Morris’s remarks are insulting, presumably, because she uses an explicitly tabooed slur. That is, people find remarks like these insulting because they transgress widely recognized proscriptions. The transgression of these proscriptions may also be what explains the nature of direct insults that employ tabooed expressions. In this chapter, I explore the concept of insult, offering a characterization of it as a mechanism that undermines reasonable expectations of respect. I then turn my attention to linguistic insults to investigate how they work, drawing on insights from Ernest Lepore and Matthew Stone. I conclude with a discussion of how slur terms fit, raising and responding to possible objections of my account of their discursive role.

13.2  Features of the phenomenon Before providing a definition, it might be useful to examine some of the various ways insult has been carried out. First, insults can be subtle or bold. This is the distinction we find, for example, in Dorian Corey’s explanation of the difference between a read and shade: [W]‌hen you are all of the same thing, then you have to go to the fine point. In other words, if I’m a black queen and you’re a black queen, we can’t call each other ‘black queens’ because we’re both black queens. That’s not a read—​that’s just a fact. So then we talk about your ridiculous shape, your saggy face, your tacky clothes. Then reading became a developed form, where it became shade. Shade is, I don’t tell you you’re ugly, but I don’t have to tell you, because you know you’re ugly. And that’s shade. https://​www.merriam-​​words-​at-​play/​shade, https://​​watch?v=Z2lEtUqxg44

Corey’s remarks are found in the documentary Paris is Burning, a film about 1980s Harlem drag balls. Reading someone is to insult them directly, even artfully, whereas

Philosophical investigations of the taboo of insult    235 shade is more subtle and indirect (Johnson 2016). Shade, in Corey’s description, seems to rely on the sharing of unstated assumptions between the participants in a conversation. The person ‘throwing’ shade accesses and indicates the use of that unstated assumption. The unstated nature of the assumption allows for a certain kind of space between insulters and their speech. As Anna Holmes points out, shade, ‘at its most refined’, contains an element of plausible deniability (Holmes 2015). Insults can be generated through both action and inaction, or perhaps, through acts of commission and omission. For instance, if your partner walks in with a new haircut and you fail to acknowledge it, say that it looks good, etc., you will likely be accused of committing an insult. Likewise, not inviting someone who expects an invitation to some function, party, event, etc., can be received by the uninvited as an insult. What appears to be operative in these situations is the idea of an expectation and its subsequent failure. In the first case, your partner expects you to notice and comment (positively!) on the new haircut; in the second the uninvited expects an invitation given certain other background conditions that are thought to obtain. In both cases those expectations are dashed and, hence, interpreted as insult. I will have more to say about this in Section 13.3. Insults can also be generated verbally or non-​verbally. Racists have used images of gorillas, for example, to depict Michelle Obama. Failing to present the appropriate posture or demeanor when in the presence of royalty or certain celebrity individuals is sometimes interpreted as an insult. And, of course, one can insult another by verbally accosting someone. Gestural insult might count as non-​verbal speech. Lastly, insults can be generated from either the use of explicitly marked terms or expressions or through the illocutionary force of a speech act without the use of explicitly marked terms. Let us consider a distinction between insult as lexical category and insult as illocutionary act. If you take another look at the Trump quote in the previous section, you will notice that he didn’t make use of any terms that are widely recognized as an explicitly marked insult. The identification of his remarks as an insult seemingly turned more on what he used his utterance to do rather than the presence of an explicitly marked term or phrase. This is so even though he used a pejorative expression, i.e., rapist. The diversity of acts labeled as an insult might lead us to wonder about the unity of the category. Which features distinguish insults from everything else? It is to this task we now turn.

13.3  What is an insult? What makes something an insult? Most of us have an intuitive grasp of the concept even if we find it difficult to provide an explicit and adequate characterization. Part of the difficulty, I submit, rests on the fact that it is a fairly inclusive category; we identify a wide range of events and actions as insulting. This variety can seem like an overwhelming set of things for which to account in a theory. Where do we begin?

236   Luvell Anderson One way we often go about identifying an insult is by determining whether the actor possessed a particular intention or aim in acting. Insults are typically wielded as weapons, which suggests that the utterer aims or intends to harm, or at least demean, their target. There are plenty of examples that illustrate this idea. For example, someone recounted a story in which they mentioned to Prince that they were headed to Paris to work on a George Michael video. Prince responded, ‘What do you want to do that for? George Michael? George Michael ain’t shit’ (Lockett 2016). Prince’s aim is clearly to demean his target. However, it is not necessary to possess such an aim to insult someone. One can insult someone without having a positive aim to demean or harm. If you were to bring your own plate of food to a dinner to which you are invited (and it is not a potluck!), then you would likely insult the host. This would be so even if you did not intend to demean their cooking. Jerome Neu confirms this point: ‘insult can be given independent of the intentions of the insulter. Insult can be given through thoughtlessness, by negligence, as the result of the failure to care or to care enough. The insulter need not directly intend offense’ (Neu 2008: 5). How much of a role does the insultee’s perception play in identifying an insult? If a bigot feels insulted by a display of public affection between a same-​sex couple, on what basis do non-​bigots deny an insult has taken place? On what basis can a bigot claim an insult has occurred? Presumably, there is some standard or basis against which these judgments are made, that it is not a purely subjective matter whether something counts as an insult or not. That is, there is a difference, as Neu suggests, between feeling insulted and being insulted. If this distinction is applicable, there must be some objective standard to which we appeal to identify genuine insults. In order to get a start on an account, let us look at a couple of views already on offer. According to David Archard (2014), the characteristic aim of an insult is to denigrate. He provides what he claims are three key characteristics of an insult: (a) it is an expressive act but not necessarily a speech act; (b) it conveys disparaging propositional content; and (c) it must be directed at someone and in respect of something to which the target bears a possessive relation. Assuming that these three characteristics are what constitute an insult, we can think through some of the implications of the view. On Archard’s view, something is an insult if it is an expressive act that conveys disparaging propositional content while being directed at someone for something to which they stand in a particular relation. By expressive act, I understand Archard to mean acts that express some claim or attitude. Insults express propositional content that disparage their target, though that content need not be true. The main constraint on this content comes from the third condition, i.e., insults’ directedness. Archard says that the insult must be directed at someone ‘in respect of something to which the other bears a possessive relation (a belief, a bodily attribute, an achievement, a job, a family, and so on). The insult cannot disparage what the other lacks’ (Archard 2014: 129–​30). This appears to be in tension with what he says about condition two, namely, that the ‘propositional content of any insult need not be true or even indeed remotely plausibl[e]‌for an insult to be effectively made’ (Archard 2014: 129). How can content that is not even remotely plausible bear some possessive relation to the directed target? Archard does not

Philosophical investigations of the taboo of insult    237 recognize or offer a resolution to this tension. But I suppose one way he could attempt to resolve it is by suggesting that it is sufficient if the relation is apparent rather than actual. Presumably, the effectiveness of the insult depends on how believable the supposed content is. And there are at least two possible audiences the act is aimed at convincing: the target (i.e., the object of the insult) and non-​targets. If the relevant audience for an insult is a group of bystanders, then making the connection between the disparaging content and the target believable might suffice. However, things are not so simple when the target is the salient audience. It is a much tougher task to get the target to believe something false or implausible about themselves. A further difficulty for Archard’s view concerns unintentional insults. A person may do something that expresses derogatory propositional content without directing anything at anyone. For example, if a foreign visitor to some country makes a hand gesture at a local inhabitant that, unbeknownst to him, communicates a derogatory message, they will presumably have insulted that person. If you find that example contentious, then consider the seemingly benevolent racist who attempts, with good-​intention, to do good all the while reinforcing racially oppressive stereotypes. Given most plausible accounts of intentionality, the benevolent racist acts unintentionally. Thus, either Archard’s view must discount the notion of an unintentional insult altogether or admit that the view fails to account for it. A different account of insult is presented by Jerome Neu. On Neu’s account, ‘to insult is to assert or assume dominance, either intentionally claiming superiority or unintentionally revealing lack of regard’ (Neu 2008: vii). Neu’s characterization provides a much more explicit account of the content expressed by an insult. Insults assert dominance, at least, in many instances. Now, stating things this broadly is certainly too promiscuous, since there are plenty of assertions of dominance that are not interpreted as insults. Saying outright, ‘The Chicago Bulls were the most dominant NBA team in the 90s.’ is hardly an insult to the other teams in the league; it reads quite simply as a statement of fact. Thus, more must be said to turn Neu’s statement into a viable account of insult. Neu does note that insult ‘typically involves shock. A disruption of expectations’ (Neu 2008: 33). He claims that insult is a kind of injury that concerns the ‘expectations of attention and respect’ (Neu 2008: 29). Typically, we have expectations about how we should be treated or regarded. The kinds of expectations we may have will vary depending on the person or people involved in a particular context, the occasion, what’s at stake, etc. Taking Neu’s remarks about expectations and the assertion or assumption of dominance together, the picture that emerges about insult is one in which certain assumptions or assertions undermine purportedly reasonable or justifiable expectations of the insulted to be treated or regarded in certain ways. The addition of the expectations component provides a way of distinguishing assertions of dominance that insult from those that merely report a true thing. I presume that a reaction to something as an insult assumes certain things about the actor’s motivations for acting in that way. What might those assumptions be? And do any of them provide an effective means of defining an insult? Initially, it seems plausible to think there is a connection between insulting someone and feeling insulted. It is also

238   Luvell Anderson the case that the connection can be severed in different ways. Perhaps a fruitful way of exploring the nature of this connection is to investigate the following two questions: (1) What is it to insult someone? and (2) What is it to be insulted?

13.3.1 What is it to insult someone? Recall the idea that to insult someone is fundamentally to disrespect them. There is something deeply right about this characterization. I concur with Neu when he says that insult ‘at its broadest level involves failures (whether intentional or unintentional, conventional or idiosyncratic) of respect’ (Neu 2008: 235). Respect is an important concept, one we readily make use of heavily in our everyday lives. How are we to understand it in this particular context? First, there are different considerations for what might count as a proper object of respect. Some argue, for instance, that non-​persons and inanimate things can be an object of respect.2 For our purposes, we will focus on respect for persons. According to Stephen Darwall (1977), there are two basic ways persons can be the object of respect, or rather ‘two attitudes which are both termed respect’ (Darwall 1977: 38). The first ‘consists in giving appropriate consideration or recognition to some feature of its object in deliberating about what to do” (Darwall 1977: 38). He calls this recognition respect. This is the kind of respect said to be owed to all persons in virtue of their personhood. We are entitled as persons to recognition respect. The second attitude has as an object ‘persons or features which are held to manifest their excellence as persons or as engaged in some specific pursuit’ (Darwall 1977: 38). This type of respect is not something everyone is entitled to, but is based on desert. For instance, one who has not put in all of the hard work to be an excellent student does not deserve the same respect as someone who has. Darwall notes that when we speak of someone deserving or meriting respect, ‘we mean that the person is such as to merit our positive appraisal on the appropriate grounds’ (Darwall 1977: 39). If we adopt Darwall’s characterization of the two attitudes of respect, we then have two ways of undermining expectations of respect. Recognition respect involves acknowledging and appreciating an individual’s personhood as a morally constraining feature that restricts the bounds of permissible activity with respect to them. It is this kind of respect that is at issue in evaluations about the wrongfulness of racism and sexism, for instance. We have expectations of being treated with recognition respect. This is evident from things like the various human rights campaigns around the world. Acts that undermine expectations of this kind of respect, I suggest, are quite easily recognizable as ones we identify as insults. Additionally, we also identify those acts that undermine the type of respect we think we are due given the purported demonstration of an excellence in some domain. An illustration of this may be when an artist is overlooked for an award


Cf. Gaus (1998) and Taylor (1986)

Philosophical investigations of the taboo of insult    239 for someone else who clearly has not demonstrated the level of skill or creativity she has. Being snubbed in this way may constitute an insult, one that undermines the expectations of the artist in question, and perhaps those of the other members of the community. We might also expect that there are constraints on what counts as an expectation of respect that has a claim upon us. That is, the expectations must be reasonable. Identifying an objective measure for the reasonableness of expectations, however, may prove illusive. I suspect this is as it should be, though. The types of expectations one has will undoubtedly vary depending on one’s relationship with the others involved in the interaction. This variance makes it exceedingly difficult to demarcate a specific standard of reasonableness equally applicable to all individuals. Thus, for now I leave it to your sensibility for what counts as a reasonable expectation and simply suggest that disrespecting someone involves undermining it.

13.3.2 What is it to be insulted? In the previous section I claimed that insulting someone is to undermine certain reasonable expectations about how one ought to be treated. This view focuses on the action performed by a speaker. Yet, there is another aspect to this phenomenon that emphasizes the object of a purported insult, which is highlighted by this section’s heading, i.e., what is it to be insulted? As I am sure is evident, people can often judge some action by another to be an insult even if it was not intended as one. Further, one might claim that people can sometimes be wrong in judging something as an insult. Cary walks by Jasmine in the mall without saying hello or even acknowledging her presence. Jasmine might initially take this as an insult. But, suppose Cary’s eyes were somehow momentarily debilitated and she didn’t recognize Jasmine. Upon learning that bit of information it would be unreasonable for Jasmine to continue believing Cary insulted her. If correct, this means there must be a gap between insulting someone and feeling insulted. Further, if being insulted is factive, there must also be cleavage between being insulted and feeling insulted. An attempt to account for the distinction between being and feeling insulted associates the former with the answer to the first question addressed, i.e., what it is to insult someone. One is insulted when treated in a way that undermines reasonable expectations for respectful engagement. Provided a plausible means of determining the reasonableness of expectations can be given, we have a means for sorting out genuine insults from non-​insults. Feeling insulted, on the other hand, does not always correlate with genuine insult. That is, a person’s feeling insulted by some act is not an automatic indication that a genuine insult has taken place. Insults typically involve the production of a particular kind of psychological state. But, what kind of psychological state? It seems that many people label as an insult behavior that causes offense. For instance, during a training seminar with the Plainfield Indiana police department, a white male officer questioned a statistic cited by a US Department of Justice representative about the disproportionate rate of police violence Trans people

240   Luvell Anderson experience. This officer stated that no one he knew had experienced any police violence, so he was puzzled as to the basis for the claim. It is at this point Captain Carri Weber, also in attendance, remarked, ‘Cause your white male privilege, so you wouldn’t know.’ The male officer took umbrage at this, stating that he ‘was racially and sexistly slurred by Captain Carri Weber while . . . asking a question of the instructor in training’ (https://​​2017/​12/​06/​police-​captain-​on-​leave-​over-​white-​male-​privilege-​remark/​). The officer said he found Weber’s remark ‘extremely offensive.’ I am assuming we are all on board with including slurring as a kind of insult. The officer’s offended state was provoked by Captain Weber’s behavior. But it is crucial to note that offense and insult are not synonymous; some offended states are not the result of an insult. That is, I can offend you without insulting you. A voter can feel offended by a politician’s views on climate change without feeling insulted by them. As Jerome Neu (2008) points out, a person can also be too easily offended and perhaps, as a result, too easily insulted. Just as one can have too little regard for oneself, it is also possible to have too much regard. Someone who feels insulted because your assessment of their abilities does not match their (unreasonably) high assessment might be insulted by your critique. There are surely instances in which that person’s feeling of insult does not indicate that a genuine insult has taken place. Furthermore, it is not the case that insults necessarily result in an offended state. The subtlety of an insult can be so slight that the target misses it or even misinterprets it as a compliment. This can happen because the target misreads the tone of the utterance, misunderstands the meaning of a word, or misrecognizes the motives or intentions of the speaker. And in some cases, a person can fail to be offended by an insult because they lack the proper amount of regard for themselves. Given these considerations, an offended state cannot be an essential feature of insult, even if insults may often result in an offended state. The appeal to reasonable expectations is fruitful in that it allows us to explain cases where genuine insult occurs, as well as those instances in which a person feels insulted, but is mistaken. They might be mistaken for different reasons. One way a person can be mistaken was intimated earlier, i.e., they hold unreasonable expectations. If you are the kind of person who thinks so highly of yourself that any behavior by others that fails to lavish regal treatment upon you is an insult, you may feel insulted yet not be the object of a genuine one. Another way to be mistaken is by misjudging the event. This kind of mistake is illustrated in the example mentioned above with Cary and Jasmine. In some cases, the presumed object lacks access to all of the relevant facts, leading to a mistaken evaluation. In both instances, mistaken evaluation leads the judging agent away from a correct assessment of the expectations it is reasonable to have.

13.4  Linguistic insults Having characterized insulting as the undermining of reasonable expectations concerning respect, let us craft a story about the ways this is achieved via linguistic means.

Philosophical investigations of the taboo of insult    241 How might an utterance undermine reasonable expectations of respect? One way to answer this question is by thinking of linguistic insults as actions. It seems obvious that to insult someone is to do something to them. At least, that is the impression one has when consulting the dictionary for the term’s definition. Consider the New Oxford American Dictionary entry: ‘speak to or treat with disrespect or scornful abuse.’ Here, the thing done is some sort of abuse—​verbal or otherwise. Earlier senses of insult employ language like attack and assault. In both instances, what emerges is a picture of an actor doing something to an object. However, insults also appear to communicate something. On some occasions, the primary thing seems to be the communication of some content. For instance, when Sharonda says to Tariq, You’re an asshole, she makes a comment upon his character, i.e., she says something about him. Certainly, there is no reason to restrict ourselves to one or the other way just presented; aspects of both are reflected in linguistic insult behavior. We can try to make theoretical sense of both aspects of insults by appealing to the work of John L. Austin. Austin (1975) describes two broad classes of utterance: constatives and performatives. Constatives are statements that are either true or false, for example, There are 50 states in the union. Performatives, in contrast, are not true or false, are not reports or descriptions, and are utterances that constitute, either wholly or partially, the doing of an action. One example given by Austin is the uttering of I do during a marriage ceremony. The utterance does not report or describe a marriage taking place; rather, the speaker’s utterance is part of the performance of the marriage itself. Elements of both the performing of an injurious action on some object and the communication of certain information are reflected in Austin’s characterizations. Before trying to figure out where insult fits in Austin’s model, there is another set of distinctions he makes that must first be presented. Austin famously made a distinction between locution, illocution, and perlocution. A locutionary act is the making of a meaningful utterance. An illocutionary act is making an utterance with a particular sort of force, e.g., ‘Pass the salt,’ is typically uttered to make a request. And lastly, perlocutionary effects are what Austin refers to as ‘characteristic aims of speech acts.’3 For example, your laughter is the perlocutionary effect of my telling a funny joke. In lecture XI of How To Do Things With Words, Austin remarks on the viability of the distinction between constative and performative. Of the former he says, ‘With the constative utterance, we abstract from the illocutionary (let alone the perlocutionary) aspects of the speech act, and we concentrate on the locutionary’ (Austin 1975: 145–​6). The performative utterance, on the other hand, ‘attend[s]‌as much as possible to the illocutionary force of the utterance, and abstract[s] from the dimension of correspondence with facts’ (Austin 1975: 146). However, Austin recognizes that this distinction is tenuous, stating that ‘every genuine speech act is both’ (Austin 1975: 147). What is needed instead is a general theory that demarcates locutionary from illocutionary acts, as well as characterizes the various kinds of illocutionary act.


See Green (2017) for an informative survey on Speech Acts.

242   Luvell Anderson With respect to distinguishing illocutionary acts, Austin presents five general classes: verdictive, exercitive, commissive, behabitive, and expositive. Verdictives ‘are typified by the giving of a verdict’; exercitives ‘are the exercising of powers, rights, or influence’; commissives ‘are typified by promising or otherwise undertaking; they commit you to doing something’; behabitives ‘have to do with attitudes and social behavior’; expositives ‘make plain how our utterances fit into the course of an argument or conversation, how we are using words, or, in general, are expository’ (Austin 1975: 151–​2). Given these classes, what kind of thing is an insult? If we observe the different types of utterances that people typically regard as insult, it becomes clear that the phenomenon is not easily relegated to just one of Austin’s classes. For instance, we might regard Sharonda’s calling Tariq an asshole as a verdictive, the delivering of a judgment upon his character. Also, consider discussions of subordinating speech by people like Mary Kate McGowan (2009), Ishani Maitra (2012), and Rae Langton (1993) as a type of exercitive, in so far as one considers racist and sexist speech a form of insult. Given the various forms insult can take, there is no reason to treat one type of utterance as primary. This will yield greater flexibility in determining how insults are performed when done via speech. Another observation from the various examples of insult behavior listed in the previous section concerns the ability to insult either directly or indirectly. The direct/​indirect distinction maps onto a distinction linguists and philosophers of language make between ‘at-​issue’ and ‘not-​at-​issue’ content. At-​issue content is content that is asserted, what is said in an utterance. Not-​at-​issue content, on the other hand, is conveyed, expressed, implicated, etc., and not what is literally said in an utterance. The content of a linguistic insult can be expressed via at-​issue or non-​ at-​issue content. An example of insult by at-​issue content is illustrated in the case of Sharonda’s calling Tariq an asshole. Here we have the speaker directly predicating something of Tariq, namely, assholery. Consider the following emendation to Sharonda’s utterance, (1)

Oh yeah, you’re a great guy (said in a sarcastic tone).

Under the right conditions, Sharonda indirectly expresses the same attitude or content as she does when she calls Tariq an asshole explicitly. Insult via either at-​issue or not-​at-​issue content undermines reasonable expectation by expressing information that disrespects its target. The information expressed paints the subject in a light that erodes their standing.

13.5  What kind of insult is a slur? In Anderson and Lepore (2013a, b), and Anderson, Haslanger, and Langton (2012) it is argued that slurs are prohibited words and it is the violation of their prohibitions that

Philosophical investigations of the taboo of insult    243 provoke offense. Although some speak loosely of insults and slurs as distinct categories, I believe there is good reason to recognize insult as a genus with slurs as a species. This seems especially appropriate if we understand insults as expectation undermining mechanisms of disrespect. Now, prohibitionism has been described by some as deflationary, reducing the content of slurs to nothing more than synonymy with their neutral counterparts. An important question for prohibitionism is how it maintains that slurs are a kind of insult given our earlier characterization. Previously, we discussed the expression of both at-​ issue and not-​at-​issue content in insults as a way of undermining respect. Yet, according to the prohibitionist, slurs offend not in virtue of content (of any kind), but due to prohibition violation. How do we square the claim that slurs are prohibited expressions with the claim that they are insults? It is important to point out that the account does not make the expression of content necessary for insulting. The view only claims that insults undermine reasonable expectations of respect. Expressing content—​whether at-​issue or not-​at-​issue—​is just one way of doing so. I submit that much of the significance of insults is found in their non-​cognitive effects rather than what they may or may not communicate.4 Consider weaponized uses of slurs. Back in 2010 when Congress was debating what is now known as Obamacare, Tea Party demonstrators shouted nigger at Rep. John Lewis (D-​GA) and faggot at Rep. Barney Frank (D-​Mass). It seems more plausible that those who shouted the slurs were not so interested in communicating information to Lewis and Frank; instead, they were primarily venting their hatred, animosity, and disgust. Communication of any sort is not the primary goal, at least with respect to weaponized uses. I believe this particular example is just one of a plurality of purposes to which insults (slurs included) are typically employed. For some face-​to-​face weaponized uses the point might be to intimidate or belittle the target. This might also be the point for some more indirect occasions, for example, when someone spray-​painted nigger across the gate to Lebron James’s Los Angeles home (Crockett Jr. 2017). In other instances the goal may be to evoke a sense of solidarity among those the speaker perceives as like-​minded, illustrated by an example in Maitra (2012) in which an older white man says to an Arab woman on a crowded subway car, ‘Fuckin’ terrorist, go home. We don’t need your kind here’ (Maitra 2012: 100). Yet, in other situations a speaker may use a slur as a means of communicating a particular message, for example, a board member responding to the proposal of hiring an African American candidate as the new CEO with, But she is a nigger, so that wouldn’t work, presumably aiming to communicate the message that the candidate is unqualified or inferior by virtue of being African American. The variety of purposes for employing slurs—​and insults more generally—​suggests that communicating a specific message is not ultimately primary.


For a similar approach to slurs, see Cappelen and Dever (ms).

244   Luvell Anderson Perhaps one way to get a grip on what slurs in particular do, and insults in general, is to think about the effects they have. A helpful way into this discussion is by thinking about metaphor. In encountering metaphors, we are typically presented with what seems like an invitation to consider one thing in light of another. Liz Camp notes this as well, claiming that there is some topic that is ‘supposed to be thought of in terms of something else, which I’ll call “the source” ’ (Camp 2006: 161). Whether this results in the creation of semantic content (cf. Stern 2000), pragmatic content (cf. Grice 2013; Searle 1993), or no content at all (cf. Davidson 1978), metaphors implore us to think beyond the literal content of the utterance in a way that enhances our understanding in some way. Ernest Lepore and Matthew Stone (2014) follow Davidson in claiming that metaphor does not put forward propositional information, but rather ‘crucially involves perspective taking, seeing things in certain ways’ (Lepore and Stone 2014: 170–​1). In general, Lepore and Stone present figurative language as an invitation to some type of imaginative engagement. They also apply this same insight to slurs, i.e., slurs involve an invitation to imaginative engagement. This becomes more plausible when we consider how difficult it is to provide a compelling gloss of a slur’s meaning. Many responses to the question, ‘What distinguishes slurs from their neutral counterparts?’ attempt to locate the presumed difference in divergences of content. Mechanisms used to explain this divergence take the form of at-​issue content, presupposition, expressivism, and conventional implicature. Objections to all of these attempts are raised in Anderson and Lepore (2013a, b), and Lepore and Stone (forthcoming), so I won’t rehearse all of them here; I will mention only two. First, the most straightforward way to account for an apparent difference in meaning between slur and neutral counterpart is to propose different at-​issue contents. Slurs, on such an account, possess derogatory content their counterparts lack; for example, nigger expresses more than Black. One notable objection to this kind of view is that it fails to account for why the offense of the expression persists under negation or in semantically inert contexts like conditionals or modal embeddings. Explaining the apparent difference in terms of different at-​issue contents falls short. And second, some believe the difference between slur and neutral counterpart consists of the former expressing a conventional implicature (CI) that is logically and compositionally independent of the at-​issue content. The standard illustration of conventional implicature is represented in the following pair of utterances, (2) (3)

Shaq is huge and agile. Shaq is huge but agile.

It is thought that both utterances say the same thing, i.e., express the same at-​issue content, while the occurrence of ‘but’ in (3) commits the speaker to the notion that there is a contrast between hugeness and agility. However, some have questioned the validity of the distinction altogether. According to Kent Bach (1999), purported CI items like but

Philosophical investigations of the taboo of insult    245 actually do contribute to what is said, and hence, are part of an utterance’s at-​issue content because they pass what he calls the IQ Test: (IQ Test): An element of a sentence contributes to what is said in an utterance of that sentence if and only if there can be an accurate and complete indirect quotation of the utterance (in the same language) which includes that element, or a corresponding element, in the ‘that’-​clause that specifies what is said. Bach 1999: 340

An indirect report of (3), on Bach’s view, cannot be accurate and complete without the occurrence of but. If correct, this is supposed to show that but is not incidental or merely implied but part of what is directly said in (3). Obviously, if the purported CI item of slurs is like that of terms like but, then conventional implicature cannot explain the difference between slurs and neutral counterparts. Lepore and Stone ultimately think of figurative language and slurs as more creative than informative, as invitations to open-​ended engagements with their utterances. This is why the bland gloss with which we are often presented in the literature, i.e., ‘X and despicable because of it,’ is so uninspiring and unconvincing. As a paraphrase of slurs’ content, it falls ridiculously short, especially given the plurality of purposes for which slurs are employed, as mentioned previously. I concur with Lepore and Stone’s analysis of the communicative role of slurs and think it applies to insults in general. Of course, some may have a few questions. For starters, slurs are not simply put forward without any direction; the invitation itself is not open-​ended. Speakers use slurs for specifically negative purposes in many cases. So how does the proposed view account for this? In order for the view to work it must be able to show that the invitation insults extend is constrained in ways that capture its negative function. Let us focus on cases in which the speaker intends to insult a target for a moment. In these cases, it is not difficult to see that speakers generally can signal their intent quite clearly, either through their mood or intonation. Someone might respond by suggesting that special signaling is not really necessary, at least when we are considering slurs. In typical cases—​the thought goes—​we can read the negative purpose straightaway from the mere use of the expression. What explains this? Again, Lepore and Stone offer a useful suggestion, namely, that slurs often include a negative tone. Following Frege, Lepore and Stone quote him in characterizing tone: In describing tone—​what [Frege] calls coloring or shading—​he writes, ‘. . . coloring and shading are not objective and must be evoked by each hearer or reader according to the hints of the poet or speaker’ (Frege 1897: 30). Tone involves guesswork, and ‘[w]‌here the main thing is to approach what cannot be grasped in thought by means of guesswork these components have their justification’ (Frege 1918: 22–​3). In short, there’s something qualitatively different between semantics—​the propositional information speakers make public—​and tone—​the open-​ended strategies speakers use to shape one another’s thoughts and feelings. Lepore and Stone forthcoming: 15

246   Luvell Anderson As they point out, tone is a mechanism for shaping audience’s thoughts and feelings yet is not ‘objective.’ However, Lepore and Stone do note that ‘words have histories,’ and can ‘evoke the people who have used them most notably’ (Lepore and Stone forthcoming: 14). Thus, whereas for some expressions speakers will have to do more by way of signaling which general direction audience members ought to go, other expressions will have particularly salient histories that can be drawn upon for signaling. The latter happens to be the case for many slurs, the more virulent of which typically evoke that history immediately. Perhaps another question some may have concerns the apparent harmony of the interpretation of slurring utterances. When a bigot directs a slur at a target we don’t have to deliberate very hard about what is being communicated. This seems to be in tension with the claim that slurs are invitations to open-​ended imaginative engagements, which give the impression of a wide variety of non-​overlapping imaginative thoughts. On the contrary, the message communicated appears to be quite simple. But as was mentioned previously, when an attempt is made to clarify a slur’s content the best many have been able to provide is a vague formula (i.e., ‘X and despicable because of it’) that does not capture the particular slur’s level of offense, nor explain the variation in offense among slurs. This suggests that the apparent clarity of message is just that, a mere appearance. What we are left with is knowledge of the speaker’s reference, a presumption about the speaker’s negative (or apathetic) attitude toward the target, and whatever particular associations the interpreter may have with the expression. This last point brings us to one final consideration before concluding. A New York Times article reported that Donald Trump demanded to know ‘why he should accept immigrants from “shithole countries” [referencing Haiti and African nations] rather than from places like Norway’ (Davis, Stolberg, and Kaplan 2018). The response was swift and predictable; people (rightly) took umbrage at his statement, chastising Trump for making racist remarks. The case is layered and operates on two levels. First, there is the obvious at-​issue matter of referring to Haiti and African nations as ‘shithole countries.’ We can tell a pretty straightforward story about why this is insulting, despite some conservatives’ best efforts to defend the statements as truthful and unproblematic (Delk 2018). The other level in play with respect to Trump’s remarks concerns what is lurking unstated in the background. When he asked why he would want to accept more immigrants from Haiti and Africa rather than from places like Norway, there seems to be an implicit assumption about the value of each. What many found appallingly racist was the assumed contrast in value and worth. Philosophers of language and linguists often refer to this implicit assumption as a presupposition. Presuppositions are broadly characterized as information that is taken for granted.5 Consider the following examples, (4) (5)


The present King of France will meet with the German Chancellor later this evening. Issa regrets caring about Daniel at all.

For an informative primer on presupposition, cf. Beaver and Geurts (2014).

Philosophical investigations of the taboo of insult    247 Both examples presuppose information that is not part of what is propositionally expressed, in the case of (4) that there is a present King of France, and in (5) that Issa cared about Daniel. The present King of France and regrets are called presupposition triggers, i.e., words or constructions that carry presuppositions. In the case of Trump’s statements, he slurs both at the level of at-​issue content, i.e., shithole countries, and at the level of presupposition. Following our account, his use of the explicit phrase invites the audience to open-​ended imaginative engagement. Can the same be said for the presupposition? Need our account say this? A more pointed way of putting the question is to eliminate the word shithole and ask if the statement is a racist insult, (6) Why should I accept more people from Haiti rather than from places like Norway? The amended version in (6) still carries the presupposition (given the broader context) and so should still be racially insulting. How does our view account for its status as a slurring insult? Admittedly, the most straightforward answer appears to be that the presupposition expresses content that disrespects the inhabitants of Haiti and Africa. However, zeroing in on the specific content expressed may be more elusive than initially anticipated. The general gist of the presupposition is something like, ‘immigrants from predominately white countries are more desirable than those from black countries.’ But note that the utterance does not entail this, strictly speaking. The speaker maintains some room for deniability. All of this is consistent with the claim that insult chiefly involves an invitation to open-​ended imaginative engagement. Thus, even here the account holds. The presupposition undermines reasonable expectations of respect while also inviting an open-​ended imaginative engagement from the audience.

13.6 Conclusion In this chapter, we have seen that insult can take on a variety of forms and be effected by a variety of means. We have also discovered that insult primarily involves an undermining of reasonable expectations for respect, in both its recognition and appraisal form. Insults also display an open-​endedness that draws interpreters into a kind of collaborative process with the speaker. Finally, we saw that slurs operate in this open-​ended way as well. It is the subtler variety of insult that can seem especially pernicious given the kind of latitude a devious speaker has in how much signaling is done versus how much is left up to the imaginative capabilities of the interpreter. And it is this latter feature that provides space for the speaker to deny insulting behavior. There are plenty of issues left unresolved in this essay, but I hope to have provided a helpful glimpse into what is surely a topic ripe for a rich interdisciplinary discussion.

Chapter 14

Religious a nd ideol o g i c a l ly motivated  ta b o o s keith allan

14.1 Introduction The Latin proverb cuius regio, eius religio, which may be loosely translated ‘whoever is in power imposes their preferred religion’, precisely captures the correlation between power and religion. We might usefully revise the Latin proverb to cuius regio, eius idealogia (whoever is in power imposes their preferred ideology) because religions are ideologies originally motivated by a creation myth that typically involves metaphysical beings and a belief that life on earth is preparation for a life (or lives) after death; non-​ religious ideologies focus on social and political life in the material world. Ideologies (and therefore religions) routinely lay claim to moral rectitude through statements that are professed (and too often believed) to present the ultimate truth and so inform social hypotheses, community practices, and political realities. Ideologies become manifest instruments of power. In this essay I shall focus on religious taboos and make only occasional reference to comparable taboos in non-​religious ideologies. Taboo refers to a proscription of behaviour for a specifiable community of one or more persons at a specifiable time in specifiable contexts (Allan and Burridge 2006: 11). All ideological taboos arise from perceived traducing of dogma, and/​or insult to revered and/​or intimidating persons, institutions, and objects. Perhaps the most heinous offence is heresy: the rejection of what some sect takes to be the orthodox teaching of the ideology.1 Believers in one ideology are heretical with respect to others: thus schisms 1  I am using sect to mean an ideological group which claims to possess unique and privileged access to the truth or salvation, and that ‘their committed adherents typically regard all those outside the confines of the collectivity as “in error” ’ (Wallis 1975: 133).

Religious and ideologically motivated taboos    249 arise in the Abrahamic faiths between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; between Catholic and Protestant; between Sunni and Shia; between Salafi and Sufi; between Leninist and Trotskyist; between communist and anarchist; and so forth. Apostates, who put aside one ideology, typically to embrace another, are ipso facto heretical and subject to sanction. For one example, in Pakistan, a young Christian—​Augustine Ashiq ‘Kingri’ Masih—​converted to Islam in order to marry his sweetheart; shortly after his marriage he reconverted to Christianity for which apostasy he was sentenced to death in 2000. Incidentally, as a guard against heresy, there is a general taboo on ‘marrying out’, i.e. there are strong social constraints, and even laws, against marrying someone from another faith. It is usual for one of the pair to convert to the religion of the other before the marriage can be performed. Children of the couple are then raised with the one faith of both parents. For many centuries in many places, witches were supposed to serve the Devil, often in the form of a different religion or religious sect; pour encourager les autres they were executed like heretics. Various Christian authorities tried more than 100,000 Europeans for witchcraft between 1400 and 1750 and about 50% of them were executed, mostly by burning, in public spectacles intended to frighten people into toeing the official line. ‘The prosecution of witches in a religiously divided area served . . . as an alternative to the prosecution of heretics’ (Levack 2016: 116). In Britain and elsewhere blasphemy was punishable by burning up until the end of the seventeenth century; however, beliefs modified after the 1648 Peace of Westphalia ended the wars of religion (see Leeson and Russ 2017) and since then, many indictments for blasphemy could equally well have been for heresy. For example, in 1750 Baptist shoemaker Richard Phillips was accused and convicted of ‘being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil, and contriving and intending to scandalize the true and Christian Religion within this Kingdom . . . and also to blaspheme the Person, Wisdom, Omnipotence, and Majesty of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, and also to scandalize and villify the Church of England’ (Phillips 1750: 3). Phillips supposedly said that the Virgin Mary was a whore, Jesus was an imposter, all that go to the Church of England shall be damned, that he (Phillips) would blow up the parish church with the Bishop of Gloucester in it, and lastly that ‘The Baptism of Infants was no more avail than to christen a Puppy or a Kitten’ (because infants are too young to understand what is happening). Although Phillips claimed to be the victim of malicious falsehoods, he was fined one mark (more than half a guinea) and given two years in prison. So blasphemy—​impious irreverence—​came to be penalized by fines and/​or imprisonment. More germane to the linguistic topic of this volume than heresy and apostasy are the offences of blasphemy and its sidekick profanity. The Ancient Greek roots of blasphemy combine blas–​ ‘evil, profane’ with –​phemos ‘speaking’; the Latin roots of profane, combine pro–​‘before, outside of ’ with –​fanus ‘temple’. The Oxford English Dictionary defines blasphemy as ‘Profane speaking of God or sacred things; impious irreverence’; profanity is ‘irreverent, blasphemous, ribald; impious, irreligious, wicked.’ So the difference is that blasphemy vilifies or ridicules the deity, the deity’s family, divine mouthpieces like prophets and the priesthood, divine scriptures; profanity uses religious terms—​such as the name of the deity etc.—​without blasphemous intent, yet with careless irreverence. Heresy

250   Keith Allan is interpretable as blasphemy and it may give rise to profanity. Blasphemy is treason against god. Treason against a non-​religious ideology is a heresy. After a Stalinist show trial in 1953, Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria, former First Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Soviet Union, was executed for treasonous acts such as ‘the undermining of Worker’s and Peasant’s Soviets’ (Hogan 1955: 410). Insulting the King of Thailand is lèse-​majesté (treason or blasphemy) that in 2017 caused Vichai Thepwong to be initially sentenced to seventy years in jail, reduced to thirty-​five when he pleaded guilty. Religious taboos on the unclean govern constraints on what can be eaten and drunk, how to manage bodily effluvia, sexual behaviour, social outcasts, the sick, and the dead; they are primarily behavioural rather than linguistic and therefore marginal to our concerns in this volume. For example, Orthodox Jewish law forbids men from watching women dance lest they be sexually aroused. In December 2017 Israeli singer-​songwriter Yonatan Razel was photographed with the tape plastered across his eyes while singing and playing the keyboard at his women-​only concert in Jerusalem. On 18 September 2017, someone posted captioned images showing a group of young Hasidic Jewish males wearing blindfolds at an airport in order to prevent them seeing immodestly clad women (https://​www.reddit. com/​r/​mildlyinteresting/​comments/​70uwco). Reposted by Being Liberal on Facebook, it provoked a recollected instance of shomer negiah—​for a Jewish person who observes the taboo against touching a member of the opposite sex. (There is a similar taboo observed by some Muslims.) When an Orthodox Jewish man entered her office a woman reports: I reached out to shake his hand and he said to me, ‘I won’t touch you, you’re a woman and you’re unclean . . . but it’s nice to meet you. Pat Kavanagh, Facebook 2 January 2018

Touching something unclean requires ritual cleansing mikveh (‫​—)מקווה‬immersion in water to restore ritual purity after menstruation, childbirth, and ejaculation, or as preparation for burial. Similar cleansing rituals are quite common across the globe.

14.2  Taboos on the name of a god Personal names are taboo among some peoples on all the inhabited continents, and on many of the islands between them. The fear is that malevolent magic can be performed when another person is in possession of one’s true name in the same way it can be wrought on one’s faeces, spittle, nail parings, hair clippings, blood, etc. [I]‌t was believed that he who possessed the true name possessed the very being of god or man, and could force even a deity to obey him as a slave obeys his master. Frazer 1911: 389

Religious and ideologically motivated taboos    251 In ancient Egyptian mythology, Isis gained power over the sun god Ra because she persuaded him to divulge his name. In the European folktales about the evil character variously called Rumpelstiltskin (Germany, parts of England), Terry Top (Cornwall), Tom Tit Tot (Suffolk), Trit-​a-​Trot (Ireland), Whuppity Stoorie (Scotland), and Ricdin-​ Ricdon (France), the discovery of the villain’s name destroyed his power. To utter a tabooed name is to assault the owner of the name, and requires sanctions to be brought against the offender. In some societies it seems to have been acceptable to know a personal name provided the name was never spoken; for instance in many Austronesian societies the names of affines and some cross-​kin may not be used. In some, no two people may bear the same name. In several Australian languages, those whose personal names have been tabooed—​usually because of the death of someone bearing the same or a very similar name—​are addressed as No Name (e.g. nyapurr). Not only are personal names tabooed: in some societies even the names of communities were not divulged to strangers. When we say of Jane Doe’s son Sam that Sam’s a real Doe, we are speaking as if the surname itself carries the genes that make Sam a chip off the old block. The same is true for phrases like make a name for oneself, have a good name, bring one’s name into disrepute, clear one’s name, and so forth. Even today we speak and act as if the name carries the properties of the name bearer. And names do in fact have some such force: that is why proper names enter the general lexicon, sometimes in direct reference to an original celebrated name-​bearer as in the case of, e.g. He’s a little Hitler (spoken of, for instance, Sam Doe). So, as Shakespeare reminds us: Good name in man and woman, dear my lord, Is the immediate jewel of their souls. Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing; ’Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands; But he that filches from me my good name Robs me of that which not enriches him, And makes me poor indeed. Shakespeare (1951) Othello III.iii.155

In ancient Rome, the emperor or senate could have an individual’s property seized, his name erased, and his statues defaced in a practice later labelled damnatio memoriae ‘condemnation of memory’. A very similar practice was adopted by the Thought Police in George Orwell’s 1984 (I,i):  ‘Your name was removed from the registers, every record of everything you had ever done was wiped out, your one-​time existence was denied and then forgotten. You were abolished, annihilated: vaporized was the usual word.’ What applies to the names and naming of ordinary folk applies a fortiori to gods and to rulers, because any threat to their power endangers the entire society they dominate, even the whole of creation. Taboos on the names of gods seek to avoid metaphysical

252   Keith Allan malevolence by counteracting possible blasphemies and profanities that arouse their terrible wrath. And Manoah said unto the angel of the LORD, What is thy name, that when thy sayings come to pass we may do thee honour? And the angel of the LORD said unto him, Why askest thou thus after my name, seeing it is secret? Judges 13:17–​182

The Judaic names of God are the tetragrammaton YHWH ‘Yahweh, Jehovah’, El ‘First, Foremost’, Eloah plural Elohim ‘All Powerful’, Elyon ‘Exalted’, Shaddai ‘Almighty’, ‘Ehyeh ‘I Am’, Tzevaot ‘Of Hosts’, Adonai ‘Lord’, and the euphemisms Tēt-​Vav ‘9-​6’, Yōd-​Hē ‘10-​5’, Jah or Yah ‘15’—​which are believed to hide God’s name (see below). Exodus 20:7, Deuteronomy 5:11 both read ‘Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain.’ The Hebrew original reads ‘‫ ’שם יהוה‬Shem YHWH ‘the name YHWH’ because it was blasphemous to name the god of the Jews and his cohorts. The Jewish god’s name was written without diacritics ‫ יהוה‬YHWH and read out as ‫ אדני‬Adonai meaning ‘my Master, Lord’—​a euphemism carried over into Christianity for both addressing and naming God and Jesus Christ. In Exodus 3:14, when Moses asks for the name of the person speaking to him from the burning bush, God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM [‫]א ְהיֶ ה ֲא ֶׁשר ֶא ְהיֶ ה‬: and ֶ he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM [‫א ְהיֶ ה‬,ֶ ‘Ehyeh] hath sent me unto you.

Whence it appears that God’s name is ’Ehyeh /​ʔɛhjɛh/​, in English ‘I Am’. The euphemisms for Adonai used outside of formal religious service by devout Jews are Adoshem ‘The Master’s name’, HaShem ‘the Name’, and rarely HaMakom ‘the Place’. When Eloha and Elohim are used in lay conversation, the h is replaced with a k, as in Elokim. The many words in Hebrew that end with ‫ יה‬are often written with ‫ י׳‬instead. Very devout Jews will write G-​d/​G*d for God (as do some devout Christians), just as they would write Yah, an abbreviation for the first two letters of YHWH or a variant of Jah ‘15’. The ‫ יה‬combination is avoided not only in writing but in Gematria, a practice in which each letter of the Hebrew alphabet has a numerical value such that numbers are represented by a letter combination. ‫ ה‬Hē, the fifth letter in the Hebrew alphabet, has the numerical value of five, and ‫ י‬Yōd, the tenth letter, has the numerical value of ten. The most straight forward way to express fifteen would be Yōd-​Hē ‘10-​5’, but this would become ‫יה‬. Therefore, the representation of fifteen in Hebrew is Tēt-​Vav ‘9-​6’ instead. The Biblical New Testament God is addressed as Father as in the Lord’s Prayer. The Aramaic word ‫ אבא‬Abba ‘Father’ is used by Jesus in Mark 14:36 and also appears in Romans 8:15 and Galatians 4:6. Addressing God as Abba or Avinu ‘our Father’, has made its way into Talmudic discourse


All quotes from the Bible in this chapter use the King James Version.

Religious and ideologically motivated taboos    253 and Jewish prayers and is another form of euphemism that people use freely not only in prayers but also in regular conversations. It is no surprise that the names and address forms to gods and their cohorts are exactly similar to those used for rulers such as sovereigns and their cohorts. Kings and Queens are often divine in themselves as in Ancient Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt, medieval Europe, and modern Thailand. In Ancient Rome, Julius Caesar was officially recognized as a god and his adopted son, the first Roman Emperor Augustus, allowed the Hellenic cities of Asia Minor to set up temples to himself. In the modern world, monarchs are typically the earthly representative of god. And it is notable that tyrants like Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Mao, and Franco are often labelled tin gods though the term is applied to minor officials, too.3 The point is that gods are treated like monarchs and monarchs like gods. The terminology applied to both is similar, the taboos on them are similar, and, indeed, their behaviour is similar. Thus the Christian God rules the Kingdom of Heaven, hence ‘Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy Kingdom come . . .’ One of the names for Allāh (‫ )اللّٰه‬in the Qur’ān is ‫ الملك‬Al-​Mālik ‘the King, Sovereign’ (20:114, 23:116, 59:23). Both sovereigns and gods are described as magnificent, exalted, honourable, and the like. For example at the March 1989 coronation of Prince Mangkubumi in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, the new Sultan was given the following title: Ngarso dalem kanjeng ratu inkang sinuhan sri sultan hamengku buwono adipati ingalogo ngabdurahman sayidin panoto gomo kalifatullah kaping X ‘His Exalted Majesty, whose Honour Shines Bright, Sultan of all the world, Commander in Chief, Servant of God, Protector of Religion, Assistant to God, the tenth.’ Allāh is Most Graceful (Ar-​Raḥmān), Most Merciful (Ar-​Raḥīm), the Supreme (Al-​Mutakabbir), the Creator (Al-​Khāliq), the Provider (Ar-​Razzāq), the All Seeing (Al-​Baṣīr), the Magnificent/​Great (Al-​’Aẓīm), the Sublime (Al-​’Aliyy), the Exalted (Al-​Jalīl), the Bountiful (Al-​Karīm), the Majestic (Al-​Majīd), the Truth (Al-​Ḥaqq), the Giver of Life (Al-​Muḥ’yiy), the Bringer of Death (Al-​Mumīt), the All Powerful (Al-​Qādir), the Most High (Al-​Muta’ālī), the Beneficent (Al-Barr), The Timeless (Aṣ-​Ṣabūr). The Christian God has comparable titles. Popes wear crowns as did the Egyptian Pharaohs and European monarchs; Roman Emperors Trajan, Caligula, and Marcus Aurelius wore crowns as did Roman gods and heroes as tokens of their divine status. The mitre of Christian Archbishops is crownlike. Taboos surrounding behaviour towards terrestrial sovereigns and princes are virtually identical with the taboos surrounding religious sovereigns and princes. Jesus was a divinely inspired name: the angel of the Lord appeared unto him [Joseph] in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins. Matthew 1:20–1


Franco’s coins read ‘Francisco Franco Caudillo de España por la Gracia de Dios’.

254   Keith Allan The Christogram IHS mimics the first two and either the third or final Greek letters of Jesus ΙΗΣΟΥΣ or Biblical Greek IHCOYC as in the Eastern Orthodox Christogram IC XC from ΙΗϹΟΥϹ ΧΡΙϹΤΟϹ Jēsoys Christos. Alternatively, the Christogram XP or ☧ (chi rho) is also found in Catholic and Orthodox churches. In Islam there are ninety-​nine names for God, Allāh. Perhaps the most significant, because they occur in every surah but one of the Qur’ān, are Ar-​Raḥmān ‘the Most Gracious’ and Ar-​Raḥīm ‘the Most Merciful’. There are many Hindu gods, some of whom, e.g. Krishna, Ganesha, Vishnu, Shiva, Lakshmi, have 108 names each, many of which are comparable with the names used by Jews, Christians, and Muslims for their deities.

14.3  Blasphemy and profanity For Ancient Hindus, Sanskrit vedas had to be in the pure form (śuddah) described by Pāṇini in the Aṣṭādhyāyī (fourth century bce). ‘A mantra [hymn] recited with incorrect intonation and “careless”, arrangement of varna (letters) [reacts] like a thunderbolt and gets the reciter destroyed by God Indra’ (Kachru 1984: 178, quoting a sutra). Why? Because it is blasphemous to deviate from the prescribed rendition of the holy text. At about the same period, Plato warns against speaking ill (‘βλασφημῶσιν’) of the gods (Plato 1997: Republic 381e). It is often blasphemous to name a person after a deity. The names of God are not used in Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, though descriptions like Servant of God, Abed Allāh/​ Ar-​Raḥīm (Slave of Allāh/​the Merciful) do occur. In Puritan England there were Fear-​ God and Praise-​God, whose son was If-​Christ-​had-​not-​died-​for-​thee-​thou-​hadst-​been damned. An exception is that Hispanic communities frequently use the first name Jesús/​ Jesusa, whose equivalents are not found in other Catholic or Protestant countries.

14.3.1 Blasphemy and profanity in Christendom Modern European constraints on the use of God’s name hark back to the Semitic founders of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. According to Leviticus 24:16, God prescribes the penalty for anyone who blasphemes: he shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him: as well the stranger, as he that is born in the land, when he blasphemeth the name of the LORD, shall be put to death.

For claiming Jesus to be the Son of God, the Jews accused Jesus and his disciples of blasphemy and prepared to stone him, but he escaped (John 10:31–​40). However, they did succeed in stoning Stephen to death (Acts 7:59) (see Section 14.4). In Europe, blasphemy

Religious and ideologically motivated taboos    255 came to be penalized by fines and/​or imprisonment. Thus, in 1606 the Act to Restraine Abuses of Players (3 Jac.I. cap.21) severely penalized profanity. If . . . any person or persons doe or shall in any Stage play, Interlude, Shewe, Maygame, or Pageant jestingly or prophanely speake or use the holy name of God or of Christ Jesus, or of the Holy Ghoste or of the Trinitie . . . [they] shall forfeite for every such Offence by him or theme committed Tenne pounds. Quoted in Hughes 1991: 103

In consequence, the 1616 folio of Ben Jonson’s plays replaces By Jesu with Believe me (Jonson 1981). A  1634 edition of Beaumont and Fletcher’s Philaster (first acted 1608, Beaumont and Fletcher 1620) had Faith either cut or replaced by Indeed or, somewhat strangely, by Marry—​a remodelling of Christ’s mother’s name; By Heaven is remodelled to By these hilts; and, despite the original reference to pagan gods not being truly profane for a Christian, by the (just) Gods is altered to By my sword, By my life, By all that’s good, By Nemesis, And I vow (see Gildersleeve 1961: 128f). Religious censorship remained in force until significantly weakened during the twentieth century. That it has not yet disappeared is demonstrated by the fact that Andres Serrano’s photograph Piss Christ (of a cheap plastic crucifix in urine) has been accused of being blasphemous.4 It was verbally attacked in the US senate in May 1989 and physically attacked with hammers in The National Gallery of Victoria (Melbourne, Australia) in October 1997 and again in Yvon Lambert’s gallery in Avignon France, in April 2011 (despoiling another print). As I pointed out in Chapter 1.10 of this volume, taking the Lord’s name in vain was frowned upon in Tudor Britain and eventually banned. It led to the development of so-​ called ‘minced oaths’ such as ’sblood ⇒ ’s’lood ⇒ ’slud, ’sbody, ’sfoot, ’slid [eyelid], ’slight, ’sprecious [body], ’snails, God’s bodkins [nails] ⇒’Od’s bodikins, God’s wounds ⇒ ’swounds ⇒ zounds pronounced /​zuːnz/​ ⇒ zaunds pronounced /​zaunz/​, God rot it! ⇒’Od rabbit it ⇒ Drat it! ⇒ Drat!. Such remodellings of the word god are deliberate ploys to avoid explicit profanity as also Cock!, Cod!, Cor!, Cor lumme!, Gad!, Gog!, Golly!, Gorry!, Gosh!, Gorblimey!, Gordonbennet!, Gordon’ighlanders!, Goodness (knows)!, (Good) gracious!, For goodness’ sake! Today’s ubiquitous OMG and its attendant emoji, :o, is the euphemistic version of Oh my god! In So help me! ⇒ Swelp me! and So save us! there is omission of God (or Lord) replaced by so. Similarly, (Oh) Lord!, Lordy!, Lawdy!, La!, Land’s sake!, and Heavens (above)! or Heavens to Betsy!. The names Jesus, Jesus Christ, or Christ are avoided in Jis—​which possibly derives from the romanization of IHS and is the likely source for Gis (Hamlet IV.v.55). These have given way to Jeeze! and Gee! (which doubles as both a clipping from Jesus and being the initial of God); Gee whiz! is a remodelling of either jeeze or jesus. More adventurous remodellings with a few clippings 4  This is obviously not primarily an example of linguistic blasphemy, although some Christians hold the phrase Piss Christ to be blasphemous. Serrano does not regard the image as sacrilegious and has said ‘The best place for Piss Christ is in a church’ (‘Shooting the Klan: an interview with Andres Serrano’ by Coco Fusco http://​​kEccl).

256   Keith Allan but more substitutions are By jingo!, Jeepers creepers!, Jiminy cricket!, Christmas!, Cripes!, Crust!, Crumbs!, and Crikey!. Christmas!, of course, is semantically related to Christ. It is likely that By Jove! is a clever choice of a name beginning with J-​which is at the same time the name of the chief god in the ancient Roman pantheon. One of the best disguised remodellings of Christ is in For crying out loud! which is a euphemism for For Christ’s sake. Holy Mary! may be the motivation for such as Holy Moses!, Holy mackerel! In addition there are such phrasal expletives as in For Christ’s sake, what are you doing? and What in God’s name are you doing? and variants on these. For chrissake is an orthographic remodelling from For Christ’s sake; lexical variants are For God’s sake, For Jesus’ sake, and the euphemistic For heaven’s sake. What in God’s name . . . has variants What in Christ’s name . . . and the euphemistic What in heaven’s name . . . . If the expressions like Holy Mary! are euphemistic, Holy Jesus! is outright profane—​and some people would say blasphemous. Expletives ran the gamut of reference to God, Christ, heaven, hell, and the Devil; curiously, though, dysphemistic epithets are restricted to invoking either the Devil or hell. Only euphemistic epithets invoke God, Christ or heaven, cf. the adjectives godlike, christlike, heavenly. Dysphemism can be achieved by negating such invocations as in ungodly, unchristian, etc. Otherwise, profane epithets invoke the Devil or hell in one way or another, cf. devilish, hellish; He’s a devil. The latter is of course ambiguous between the dysphemism He’s wicked and a term of approbation if not outright praise, He’s a dare-​devil. Note that He’s a little devil/​demon is an affectionate description for, e.g. a naughty boy, with only very slight disapprobation; it is comparable with dare-​devil, and perhaps devil-​may-​care—​which are not at all dysphemistic. It’s a devil/​hell of a nuisance uses ‘a devil/​hell of ’ as a dysphemistic intensifier, cf. I had a devil/​hell of a job reaching him. In these environments heck is the standard euphemistic dysphemism for hell, as it is too in expletives like What the devil/​hell/​heck [are you doing]?, compare What the fuck. . . . Semantically associated with hell is the euphemistic epithet flaming, cf. flaming hell/​heck, and what is probably a remodelling of it: flipping. The initial f-​ suggests that these may link up with fucking (cf. fucking hell), whose illocutionary point (i.e. message) they share. Ritualized superstition is revealed in our response of Bless you when someone sneezes. It was to prevent the devil from entering the body momentarily emptied of its soul. Notice the euphemistic omission of God as the subject of Bless you. And before we leave aside euphemisms motivated by religious superstition What the dickens . . . for What the devil . . . avoids calling up the malevolent spirit of Old Nick aka Old Harry, Old Bendy, Old Bogey, Old Poker, Old Roger, Old Split-​Foot, the Old Gentleman, Old Billy. Perhaps What in Hades?! . . . is a euphemism for What in hell?!. . . . Curiously, although What the deuce . . . is formally analogous to What the dickens . . . and What the devil . . ., ‘deuce’ here derives from the Norman French oath Deus! ‘God’. Hell!, Hell’s bells!, and Heck! will stand alone as expletives, where they have about the same force and meaning as the expletive Damn! and its cohort Damnation! Although dash could stand for any expletive, it probably gets some motivation from damn (even Oh dear, though it presumably derives from (Oh) dear God, might get some push from

Religious and ideologically motivated taboos    257 damn—​compare Dear me! with Damn me!). Save for Oh dear, all of them condemn a provocative situation to hell. Damn! is based on a verb meaning ‘condemn’ (condemn essentially combines con–​ with damn) which has become an expletive along the lines of Shit! or Fuck! but milder; this is more likely than that it is an end-​clipping from damnation. All of these are modelled on a clause in which God is the agent:  (May/​Let) God damn NOUN PHRASE (giving rise to the euphemistic dysphemism Dagblag it!). According to Montagu 1968, between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries, the English were known in France as Goddams because of their ubiquitous use of this oath; and it is still going strong. In the same vein is Strike! (euphemized to Stripe!) from God strike me dead [if I’m not telling the truth]. In place of the malevolent curses Damnation! and Damn! there the corresponding euphemistic dysphemisms Tarnation!; What in tarnation?!; Consarn it! and Darn!, Dang!, Drat!—​all of which are remodellings. There are also Blast! and What the blazes!, both of which clearly invoke hell. Blast it!, and the more euphemistic Bother it!, presumably mean (May) God blast/​bother it! and so euphemistically omit God’s name. The euphemistic dysphemism Blessed thing! does the same. The expletive Bother! has a cohort botheration, cf. damnation, tarnation; it also has a variant, Brother! whose profane credentials may be affected by brother in Christ. Despite the secularization of English speaking communities during the twentieth century, profanity (blasphemy) is still a potent source for dysphemism. Moreover, phrases like God damn X, which invoke God as an agent of malfeasance, and which are found euphemistically abbreviated to Damn X in order to avoid explicit profanity, provide a model for more potent imprecatives such as Shit on X, Fuck X, Bugger X, etc. Thus we can account for a set of otherwise inexplicable dysphemistic constructions. Despite persisting incantations like ‘Χριστέ, ἐλέησον’, ‘Kyrie, eleison’, ‘Lord, have mercy’ in Orthodox, Catholic, and Anglican churches, it is unlikely that more than a handful of Christians nowadays seriously fear divine wrath to the extent that they are strongly motivated to use euphemisms to guard against it. Indeed, most people using the euphemistic dysphemisms discussed above are unaware of using euphemism at all. Like euphemisms everywhere, these have become ritualized and conventional behaviour. The changing nature of taboo will always be reflected in shifts among preferred terms of opprobrium. The history of swearing in English, for example, has seen the sweeping transition from religious to secular swearing. Blasphemy, religious profanity, and religious insults have lost their punch.

14.3.2 Blasphemy in Islam According to Tolan (2016: 38), In Islamic law, the common term for blasphemy is shatm, a word that does not appear in the Qur’an, though a word with a related meaning, sabb, appears once. The basic meaning of shatm is insult or vilification. To insult God or Muhammad (or for some

258   Keith Allan jurists, Muhammad’s Companions), was a crime equivalent, for some legal scholars, to apostasy (ridda) or unbelief (kufr), each of which could warrant the death penalty in certain cases.

As stated in Chapter  1.3 of this volume, today apostasy is punishable by death in a number of Muslim countries; Islamic militants believe that assassinating those who do not follow the same dogma as themselves (infidels) is rewarded in heaven; and the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris, January 2015, demonstrated that, even today, insulting the prophet Muhammad warrants assassination. By tradition, the Qur’ān offers the following strictures against blasphemy, though they look more like the appropriate punishment for heresy: The only punishment of those who wage war against Allāh and His Messenger and strive to make mischief in the land is that they should be murdered, or crucified, or their hands and their feet should be cut off on opposite sides, or they should be imprisoned. This shall be a disgrace for them in this world, and in the Hereafter they shall have a grievous chastisement. Except those who repent before you overpower them; so know that Allāh is Forgiving, Merciful. (5:33–​4) Those who annoy Allāh and His Messenger—​Allāh has cursed them in this World and in the Hereafter, and has prepared for them a humiliating Punishment. Truly, if the Hypocrites, and those in whose hearts is a disease, and those who stir up sedition in the City, desist not, We shall certainly stir thee up against them: Then will they not be able to stay in it as thy neighbours for any length of time: They shall have a curse on them: whenever they are found, they shall be seized and slain (without mercy). (33:57–​61)

Radical Islamicists fervently adopt these commandments. More moderate Muslims say these extreme punishments were appropriate in Muhammad’s day (fl. 609–​32 ce) but no longer are. Usually an infidel was given the opportunity to become a good Muslim or be executed. And, usually, women were not executed unless they refused to repent. The Hanbali school, however, does not permit such leniency. Consider the fatwa issued in 1989 by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran demanding the death of British Indian author Salman Rushdie for publishing the novel The Satanic Verses (Rushdie 1988). Earlier in 1988 a Farsi translation of Rushdie’s novel Shame had been given an award by an official jury appointed by a ministry of the Iranian Islamic government. The publication of The Satanic Verses led to severe political repercussions in Iran, Europe, India, and Pakistan. Khomeini’s fatwa was for blasphemy of the Prophet Muhammad and his wives. Some Muslims find the description ‘satanic verses’ to be sacrilegious in itself and a fabrication of heretics. The novel’s title refers to the Gharaniq, a legend that, in violation of monotheism, verses 18–​22 in surah 53 (An-​Najim) of the Qur’ān, permit prayer to three pre-​Islamic Meccan goddesses, Al-​lāt, Uzza, and Manāt. Rushdie’s novel recounts several episodes in the life of Muhammad and, an important subplot in The Satanic Verses is that the utterance and withdrawal of these verses on the grounds that Shaytan, Satan, had sent them to deceive Mohammad into thinking they

Religious and ideologically motivated taboos    259 came from God. The sacrilege is that Rushdie (and his supporters) are believed to be claiming that part of the Qur’ān is the work of the Devil. The Satanic Verses is a magical tale involving Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, two expatriate Indian actors living in England, who journey back to India. On the return flight, their plane is hijacked by Sikh nationalists. During an argument amongst these terrorists they accidently detonate their bomb, destroying the plane over the English Channel. The two protagonists miraculously survive but are transformed by the experience: Gibreel gains a halo and takes on the character and physical characteristics of the archangel Gabriel; Saladin grows horns and becomes Satan. During his fall from the plane, Gibreel also experiences an elaborate vision that involves Mahound, a Muhammad-​like figure. It is details of this subplot that angered many Muslims. To start with, Mahound was a derogatory term for Muhammad used by Crusaders. Pre-​ Islamic Mecca is called Jahilia ‘time of ignorance’. The archangel Gibreel (Gabriel) is a film star; the great Muslim hero of the Crusades, Saladin, becomes Satan. Ayesha, the name of one of Muhammad’s wives (Aisha), is a fanatical Indian woman who leads her village on a fatal pilgrimage. Moreover, the brothel of the city of Jahilia was staffed by twelve prostitutes with the same names as Muhammad’s wives, the Mothers of all Believers. The prophet in Rushdie’s novel, as he lies dying, is visited in a dream by the Goddess Allat (Al-​lāt), suggesting either that she exists or that the Prophet thought she did. ‘Fact is, religious faith, which encodes the highest aspirations of human race, is now, in our country, the servant of lowest instincts, and God is the creature of evil’ (Rushdie 1988: 518). The Iranian government backed the fatwa against Rushdie until 1998 when President Mohammad Khatami said Iran no longer supported the killing of Rushdie. However, the fatwa remains in place, and in February 2016 the Fars News Agency reports that forty state-​run Iranian media outlets have jointly offered a new $600,000 bounty for the assassination of Salman Rushdie. In the interim, Hitoshi Igarashi, the Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses, was stabbed to death outside his office at Tsukuba University, the Italian translator Ettore Capriolo survived being stabbed at his apartment in Milan, and the novel’s Norwegian publisher was shot three times in the back and left for dead outside his home in Oslo. Graphic representations of the Prophet Muhammad are ipso facto blasphemous (though at least one seventeenth-​century copy of a fourteenth-​century Persian painting of the Prophet preaching does exist, see https://​​wiki/​ File:Maome.jpg). In 2005, reports that Danish writer Kare Bluitgen could find no one willing to illustrate his children’s book Koranen og profeten Muhammeds liv (The Qur’ān and the life of the Prophet Muhammad) led newspaper Jyllands-​Posten to publish several cartoons of Muhammad, one of which, by Kurt Westergaard, depicted the Prophet with a bomb in his turban. This caused protests around the world, consumer boycotts of Danish products, the withdrawal of the ambassadors of Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Syria from Denmark. Some non-​Muslims agree that association of the Prophet with terrorism is offensive to a vast majority of Muslims. In France, satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo republished the Jyllands-​Posten cartoons of

260   Keith Allan Muhammad. It was taken to court by Islamic organizations under French hate speech laws, but acquitted. The 3 November 2011 issue of Charlie Hebdo was renamed Charia Hebdo (mocking Shariah ‘canonical law’) and featured the Prophet Muhammad as apocryphal guest-​editor. On 2 November the editorial office was firebombed. Editor Stéphane Charbonnier, aka Charb, and two co-​workers subsequently received police protection. In September 2012, the newspaper published a series of satirical cartoons of Muhammad, some of which feature nude caricatures—​ipso facto blasphemous. In January 2013, Charlie Hebdo announced a comic book on the life of Muhammad, but it was never published. On 7 January 2015, two masked Islamist gunmen opened fire on Charlie Hebdo’s staff as vengeance for its frequent caricatures of Muhammad. Twelve people were assassinated, including Charb, and eleven others were wounded. During the attack, the gunmen shouted Allāhu akbar (‘God is great’) and also On a vengé le prophète ‘The Prophet has been avenged’/​‘We have avenged the Prophet’. The massacre led to much sympathy across the world and the Je Suis Charlie movement. The print run of issue 1178 of Charlie Hebdo was raised from 60,000 to five million. However, this is no recompense for the lives lost. Jyllands-​Posten did not re-​print the Charlie Hebdo cartoons in the wake of the attack, with their editor-​in-​chief citing security concerns.

14.4  Religious martyrs Religious martyrdom is voluntary death in the service of one’s religion. Martyrdom among adherents to Abrahamic religions seems to have begun with the Maccabees, Jewish rebels in the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire at the time of Antiochus IV Epiphanes c.215–​164 bce who lived in Judea. According to the rebels, Antiochus banned many traditional Jewish and Samaritan religious practices: burned copies of the Torah, made possession of the Torah a capital offence, banned Sabbaths and feasts, outlawed circumcision, forbid ritual sacrifice, defiled the Temple with an idol of Olympian Zeus, and sacrificed unclean animals (such as swine) there. Those Jews who died for nevertheless continuing to practise their religion were martyrs. In the end they prevailed. (King Herod was the last of the Maccabee monarchs.) Christian martyrs suffered hardship (such as forced labour) or were executed giving testimony for Jesus by subjecting themselves to Him rather than Caesar. Deaths were typically by stoning, crucifixion, or burning. It was believed that martyrs were inspired by the Holy Spirit and could intercede between plaintiff and God. By tradition the first Christian martyr is St Stephen (c.5–​34 ce, a Hellenized Jew); he was accused of violating two taboos: he had declared that Jesus would destroy the Temple in Jerusalem and that he had subverted the customs of Moses. He answered them: Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye. Which of the prophets have not your fathers

Religious and ideologically motivated taboos    261 persecuted? and they have slain them which shewed before of the coming of the Just One; of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers: who have received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it. When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth. But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, and said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God. Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord, and cast him out of the city, and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul. And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep. Acts 7:51–​60

According to Tertullian (c.155–​240 ce, a Christian Berber from Carthage) it is acceptable for Christians to be put to torture and to death because ‘the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church’ (Apologeticus pro Christianis 50). One more example of a Christian martyr, St Edmund Campion, SJ (1540–​81). He began as an Anglican priest under the patronage of William Cecil and the Earl of Leicester, both advisors to Queen Elizabeth I. Between 1564 and 1569 Campion suffered ‘remorse of conscience and detestation of mind’, he went to Ireland then to what is now North East France, Rome, Moravia, and Prague where he became a Jesuit. He joined a secret Jesuit mission to Britain in 1580 administering the sacraments and preaching to Catholics in Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire, and Lancashire. He wrote a pamphlet against the Anglican Church and was arrested by a priest hunter who took him to London with his arms pinioned and a paper on his hat identifying ‘Campion, the Seditious Jesuit’. He was offered freedom if he recanted and accepted Anglicanism but he refused, preferring martyrdom. He was convicted with two others of treason and sentenced as follows: You must go to the place from whence you came, there to remain until ye shall be drawn through the open city of London upon hurdles to the place of execution, and there be hanged and let down alive, and your privy parts cut off, and your entrails taken out and burnt in your sight; then your heads to be cut off and your bodies divided into four parts, to be disposed of at Her Majesty’s pleasure. And God have mercy on your souls. Waugh 2001: 116

Campion was hanged, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn in December 1581, beatified by Pope Leo XIII in 1886, and canonized in 1970 by Pope Paul VI as one of the forty martyrs of England and Wales. Shia Muslims get the name from being ShīʻatuʻAlī ‘followers of Ali’, i.e. Ali ibn Abi Talib (601–​61 ce), Muhammad’s cousin and son-​in-​law, married to Fatimah. Shias believe that Muhammad explicitly named Ali as his successor; Sunnis assert that

262   Keith Allan Muhammad never appointed a successor and, on the Prophet’s death, Abu Bakr (573–​ 634 ce) was elected first caliph by the Muslim community. Ali was elected to be fourth caliph in 656 and was martyred in 661 while praying in the Great Mosque at Kufa, mortally wounded by Abd al-​Rahman ibn Muljam who was within a week himself despatched by Ali’s son Hasan. Ali’s younger son Husayn (625–​80 ce) was also martyred, being beheaded at the battle of Karbala. Husayn is highly regarded by Shi’ites for refusing to pledge allegiance to Yazid, the Umayyad caliph, because he considered the rule of the Umayyads unjust. He inspires Shias who mourn his martyrdom every year on Ashura, the tenth day of Muharram (10 October). The proverb Every day is Ashura and every land is Karbala! indicates the significance of sacrificing oneself to God and to other Muslims. According to Lamb (1988: 287) Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini said ‘The purest joy in Islam is to kill and be killed for Allāh’. Some Muslims celebrate and revere suicide bombers, knowing that martyrdom in the service of Allāh is glorified: And never think of those who have been killed in the cause of Allāh as dead. Rather, they are alive with their Lord, receiving provision, Rejoicing in what Allāh has bestowed upon them of His bounty, and they receive good tidings about those [to be martyred] after them who have not yet joined them—​that there will be no fear concerning them, nor will they grieve. Qur’ān 3:169–​70. See also 9:111, 22:58

In the Qur’ān the prophets, incarnations of Islam, are called shuhadā (plural of shahīd) meaning witnesses or paradigms (models); it is only later that the same term was used for martyrs. The act of martyrdom is istishhad. The struggle to extend and grow or to develop within Islam is jihad. Suicide is a sin, but suicide bombers and others who kill heretics and infidels for the greater glory of Allāh are, in their own eyes and those of their supporters, shuhadā. It is sometimes said that Islamic martyrs believe they will go direct to Paradise to be rewarded with twenty-​four or seventy-​two virgins for their pleasure. Although the gardens and vineyards of Paradise are promised in Qur’ān 78:32 and a full cup (presumably of wine) in 78:34 the virgins are an extrapolation from wakawāʿiba atrāban ‘and well-​matched [feminine] splendid companions [feminine]’ (Qur’ān 78:33). No number of these comely women of faith is given.

14.5 Conclusion Taboo imposes restrictions on behaviour. I began this chapter by comparing religious ideologies with non-​religious ideologies: religions are motivated by a creation myth that typically involves metaphysical beings and a belief that life on earth is preparation for life after death; non-​religious ideologies focus on social and political life in the material

Religious and ideologically motivated taboos    263 world. Both religious ideologies and non-​religious ideologies lay claim to moral rectitude and access to the ultimate truth that informs social hypotheses, community practices, and political realities. They are similar enough that the proverb cuius regio, eius religio should be rephrased cuius regio, eius idealogia with wider application and truth. All ideological taboos arise from perceived traducing of dogma, and/​or insult to revered and/​or intimidating persons, institutions, and objects. I discussed taboos on the names for and terms of address to gods and their cohorts, which are comparable with those used for other powerful dominators such as sovereigns and dictators and their courts. It’s for same reason: because any threat to their power endangers the entire society they dominate, even the whole of creation. Next, I turned to the most prolific area for linguistic taboos within the scope of this chapter by investigating the fields of blasphemy and profanity. Blasphemy vilifies or ridicules the deity, the deity’s family, divine mouthpieces like prophets and the priesthood/​ imams/​muftis/​rabbis, and divine scriptures. Profanity uses religious terms with careless irreverence. In the ancient world, blasphemy was a capital offence but today it only remains a capital offence in the Ummah (Islamic world)—​hence the Charlie Hebdo massacre in 2015. Blasphemy is avoided through the euphemism of substitute terms (e.g. Lord for YHWH) or frequently accomplished through formal remodelling (jeepers for Jesus). In English the term profane has been extended to non-​religious expletives such as shit! I surveyed blasphemy in Christendom and then in Islam. I also differentiated and discussed the taboos of heresy and apostasy and recounted the histories and treatment of a few traitors, heretics, witches, and martyrs who allegedly violated ideologically sanctioned taboos. Religious and ideological taboos still have a hold today, and, as we see almost daily, fatal consequences for some. Those who fanatically believe they are guided by a god or ideology and feel the need to impose their worldview on everyone else would, in my humble opinion, be better guided by H. L. Mencken: We must respect the other fellow’s religion, but only in the sense that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart. Mencken 1956: 1

Acknowledgements I am grateful to Barry Blake, Matthew Anstey, Pedro Chamizo Domínguez, Said Farahat, and Shlomit Finkelstein for comments and insights on an earlier version of this chapter that led to a host of improvements. I didn’t always take their advice, so no one but me is responsible for infelicities that remain.

Chapter 15

Speech or c ondu c t ? Law, censorship, and taboo language christopher hutton

15.1 Introduction The notion of completely free and unfettered speech is incoherent (Fish 1994), and all societies have censorship mechanisms—​broadly understood—​in relation to language. Linguistic censorship has been defined as ‘the proscription of language expressions that are taboo for the censor at a given time, in contexts which are specified or specifiable because those proscribed language expressions are condemned for being subversive of the good of some specified, specifiable, or contextually identifiable community’ (Allan and Burridge 2006: 27). When we think of censorship we think initially of rules governing creative works and media productions. However law’s control of language reflects its centrality within social order in public, institutional, and organizational spaces, in social media and, to a degree, in the private sphere. The material discussed below is drawn from common law jurisdictions that have undergone parallel developments, in particular Australia, Britain (England and Wales), and the United States. The global situation is of course considerably more complex than that presented here.1 Linguistic taboos are double, in that there are prohibitions not only against using taboo language but, to a degree, against mentioning it (Fleming and Lempert 2011: 6; Harris 1990). Yet in its engagement with taboo language, law must somehow reference, reproduce, and quote forbidden language. Law thereby becomes ‘complicit’ with the material it is censoring (Blumberg 2017). Verbal taboos are often seen as a form of magical thinking, i.e. as irrationally imbuing words with contagious or corrupting power. On the ‘irrational 1  For a list of expressions banned in state media in the People’s Republic of China, see http://​supchina. com/​2017/​08/​01/​words-​chinese-​state-​media-​banned/​.

Speech or conduct?    265 model’ of linguistic taboo, taboos recede as modernity advances: ‘Legal sanctions against obscene words are disappearing in the English-​speaking world and there is a growing tendency for more rational, less magical attitudes to develop towards taboo’ (Trudgill 2000: 70). ‘I believe that for the perfectly civilized person, obscenity simply would not exist’ (Read [1935] 1977: 16). Through the substitution of written forms such as f*** for fuck or c—​t for cunt the taboo (and the associated censorship regime) is granted recognition and respect; further, the full realization of the taboo term is left—​symbolically—​to the addressee. Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (1948) avoided legal censure by the substitution of fug for fuck. The story goes that when Dorothy Parker met Mailer she greeted him with the line: ‘So, you’re the man who can’t spell fuck’. Categories of taboo language targeted by law include: (1) blasphemy, sacrilegious oaths, profanity; (2) obscenity, understood as primarily sexual in content, or involving ‘vulgar’ words for body parts; (3) scatological language, referring to excretion; (4) abusive, insulting, hostile speech, including threatening behaviour, defamation, sexual harassment, hate speech; (5) criminal jargon and drug terminology; (6) euphemistic, truncated, or allusive usage which invokes verbal taboo. These categories interact and overlap: ‘Nowadays terms such as swearword, taboo word, oath, obscenity, profanity, and expletive are often used as if they were synonymous’ (Harris 1990: 412). One longstanding argument for censoring bad language is that it represents the contagious undermining of civility, with harmful effects on women and children in particular (Feinberg 1983). Contemporary studies tend to stress the pervasiveness of taboo language among children (Jay and Jay 2013). It is no longer evident today that women swear less than men (McEnery 2006: 28ff.). Nonetheless, the notion that bad language should be censored to protect vulnerable groups remains powerfully present.

15.2  Ante hoc and post hoc censorship Formal censorship regimes operate ante hoc (‘prior restraint’), post hoc, or as a combination of both. British theatre censorship operated as an ante hoc system until 1968 (Shellard and Nicholson 2004). Public order offences involving spontaneous speech are by their very nature determined post hoc, creating a legal grey area. Live broadcasts pose particular problems; in some contexts a short delay is adopted, to prevent offensive material being broadcast; in pre-​recorded speech non-​scripted swearwords can be ‘beeped out’. Some organizations operate a ‘profanity filter’ on their email systems based on a list of taboo terms. Legislatures often have lists of ‘unparliamentary language’ which members are enjoined from using, often an accumulation of (post hoc) rulings by the speaker. Film censorship and classification is ante hoc, frequently as a matter of industry self-​regulation in combination with a licensing regime, for example the Motion Picture Production Code or the ‘Hays Code’ adopted in the US from 1930 to 1968 (Lewis 2002), or carried out by a government agency, e.g. the Office for Film, Newspaper, and Article

266   Christopher Hutton Administration in Hong Kong.2 In the United States, the Children’s Internet Protection Act of 2000 (CIPA)3 requires schools and libraries to filter internet access, so as to protect children from obscene language or harmful content, an ante hoc regime that predictably has led to litigation and controversy (Henslee 2015; Chandran 2016). Obscenity law in common law jurisdictions has primarily operated post hoc. In Europe the rise of printing in the fifteenth century led to a formalized regime of ante hoc or license-​based censorship operated both by Church and State. Beginning in 1488, one target of the Star Chamber in England was the regulation of printing, so as to prevent libels against officials, or more generally, to prohibit criminal, defamatory, seditious, and obscene libel (Lennon 2006: 244–​5). The Licensing Order of 1643 and the Licensing of the Press Act 1662 continued this regime of censorship through licensing. In addition to writings, the principle target of censorship was the theatre, as the locus for undesirable speech and conduct—​both on and off stage. In England, control of theatrical performance shifted from ecclesiastical powers to the state in the course of the Reformation. Censorship of the stage can be traced to the mid-​sixteenth century with a position known as Master of the Revels. A 1581 Act prohibited ‘Sedicious Wordes and Rumors Uttered Against the Queenes Most Excellent Majestie’,4 with censorship operating primarily ante hoc (O’Callaghan 2008: 92). The 1606 Act to Restrain Abuses of Players punished anyone who would ‘jestingly or prophanely speake or use the holy name of God or of Christ Jesus, or of the Holy Ghoste or of the Trinitie’ (Allan and Burridge 2006: 16; Guzzard 2010). Theatres were closed during the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell (1642–​60) and with the Restoration in 1660 the office of Master of the Revels fell under the office of the Lord Chamberlain. The Lord Chamberlain’s role was formalized under the Licensing Act of 1737. Remarkably, this ante hoc regime, although modified by the Theatres Act (1843), remained in place until 1968. It collapsed just before the opening of the musical Hair in London, with its nudity, depictions of drug use, sexual themes, and language (Shellard and Nicholson 2004: 174).

15.3  Profane swearing, cursing, and blasphemy In terms of linguistic categories, the common law, with its roots in ecclesiastic law, has been historically concerned primarily with blasphemous oaths and profanity, i.e. ‘using God’s name unreverently’ (Baxter 1673). Blasphemy has been termed ‘treason against God’ (Levy 1981). But the exact boundary of ‘profane swearing’ and its relation to our


http://​ This replaced earlier enactments: the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA), and the Child Online Protection Act of 1998 (COPA). 4  23 Eliz., c.2. 3 

Speech or conduct?    267 contemporary and very broad category of ‘swearing’ is unclear, especially when coupled with ‘cursing’. In the turbulent seventeenth century there was a burst of legislative activity, as blasphemy established itself as a common law offence. In England and Wales, a line of statutes used the term ‘profane swearing’ or ‘profane swearing and cursing’.5 The phrases ‘profane swearing and blasphemy’ (Arwaker 1695:  74) or ‘blasphemous Raillery, and prophane Swearing’ (Barrow 1678: 3) were also used. In 1644 Charles I issued a proclamation ‘for the further restraint of prophane swearing and cursing’. The Long Parliament passed An Ordinance for the Punishing of Blasphemies and Heresies in 1648; the 1650 Act against Several Atheistical, Blasphemous, and Execrable Opinions was directed primarily against the Ranters, a non-​conformist sect associated with antisocial conduct and bad language (McEnery 2006: 65). Oliver Cromwell issued a proclamation in 1655 urging the better enforcement of laws against ‘the abominable Sins of Drunkenness, Prophane Swearing and Cursing, Adultery, Fornication, and the like Uncleanness’ ([Lord Protector] 1655). A tome of moral advice suggested a wide range of vocabulary associated with profane swearing: ‘No blemish in the face is so unseemly, as an unruly tongue, full of vain and idle oathes, full of prophane swearing, full of cursing and bitterness, full of wanton, rotten communication, full of railing, of scoffs against godliness, against old age’ (Maynard 1669: 61). Another important aspect of this legal regime was that ‘every Oath not legally administered and taken, is within the Statute against prophane swearing’ (Colquitt 1682: 166). The crime of blasphemy can consist of a spontaneous linguistic utterance or an articulated theological belief. The most significant blasphemy trial in English history combined both elements. In a 1676 case, the court convicted John Taylor for statements such as ‘Christ is a whoremaster, and religion is a cheat’ and ‘I am Christ’s younger brother and Christ is a bastard’.6 The significance of the case is that it defined blasphemy as an offence not only against Christianity, but—​within secular law—​as a crime against government and state (Lawton 1993: 26). In a mid-​eighteenth-​century case, Rex v Sparling,7 the defendant appealed against his conviction for ‘profane cursing and swearing’ under the Profane Oaths Act of 1745. Witnesses had testified that James Sparling, a leather-​dresser, did ‘profanely swear fifty-​ four oaths, and profanely curse one hundred and sixty curses, contra formam statuti’. The court quashed the conviction, on the grounds that ‘oaths and curses were not set forth’, i.e. the record did not quote what was actually said. What counted as prohibited language was ‘a matter of law, and ought not to be fit to the judgment of the witness’ (see Blumberg 2017: 13–​14). The question of whether obscenity is primarily a matter of law for a judge or fact for a jury haunts law’s censorship of words and images to the present day. The 1745 Act was not repealed until the Criminal Law Act of 1967. In the course of the nineteenth century legal authorities increasingly insisted that blasphemy had always been defined by manner of speech, i.e. tone, vocabulary, or 5 

Profane Swearing Act (1623); Profane Swearing Act (1694). Rex v Taylor 1676 1 Vent. 293. 7  1772 1 Str. 497. 6 

268   Christopher Hutton register, rather than doctrine: ‘the crime of blasphemy is not constituted by a temperate attack on religion in which the decencies of controversy are maintained’ (Bowman v The Secular Society, Limited, per Lord Finlay, L. C., p. 423).8 Blasphemy involved ‘vilification, ridicule, or irreverence as would be likely to exasperate the feelings of others and so lead to a breach of the Peace’, or ‘violent, offensive, or indecent words’ (Lord Parker, p. 446). In this way blasphemy came to be defined as a ‘class crime of language’: law targeted the demotic register of religious protest, while permitting religious dissent articulated in learned language (Marsh 1998: 8; Schneider 1999). Although interjections that invoke God, Jesus, hell, damnation, and the like have long since been decriminalized, blasphemy played a role in the censorship wars of the 1960s and 1970s. James Kirkup’s poem, The Love That Dares To Speak Its Name, published in Gay News (7 June 1976), was an erotic meditation on the crucifixion, voiced by a centurion. It contained the lines: ‘For the last time /​I laid my lips around the tip of that great cock, the instrument /​of our salvation, our eternal joy. /​The shaft, still throbbed, anointed /​with death’s final ejaculation.’ Gay News was charged with blasphemous libel, in a private prosecution initiated by Mary Whitehouse, founder of the National Viewers and Listeners Association. The conviction at trial was upheld in the House of Lords,9 though the common law offence was later abolished (Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008). The decline of blasphemy and the rise of obscenity are interlinked phenomena: in the twentieth century, the ‘modern’ category of obscenity was often used as a charge when what was really being targeted was blasphemy (Lawton 1993: 9–​10). However in a sense the crime of blasphemy was reconfigured and resurrected by the Racial and Religious Hatred Act (2006).

15.4  Public order and bad language One modern reflex of the concern with oaths and profanity is the Public Order Act of 1986 (UK). This formalized a set of common law offences, distinguishing broadly between ‘threatening, abusive, or insulting words or behaviour’ that created ‘fear or provocation of violence’ (s. 4) or those which cause ‘harassment, alarm, or distress’ (s. 5). Part III of the Act was directed against ‘racial hatred’. The issue arose as to whether such ‘harassment, alarm, or distress’ could be caused to police officers, the conclusion being that it was possible but needed to be shown on the contextual facts.10 In Southard v DPP,11 the appellant had shouted ‘fuck you!’ and ‘fuck off!’ at police while his brother was being searched. His conviction under s. 5 was upheld. In Taylor v DPP,12 the appellant had 8 

[1917] A. C. 406. Whitehouse v Gay News Ltd [1979] AC 617, HL. 10  DPP v Orum [1989] 1 WLR 88; Southard v DPP [2006] EWHC 3449 (Admin). 11  [2006] EWHC 3449. 12  [2006] EWHC 1202. 9 

Speech or conduct?    269 used the phrases ‘fucking nigger’ and ‘fucking coon bitch’ towards police officers, which introduced a racially motivated element under the Crime and Disorder Act (1998 s. 31(1) (c)). The conviction was upheld, even though there was no evidence that a member of the public had heard the statements, as the police officers were likely to have been caused distress. In Harvey v DPP,13 police officers searched an individual for cannabis, and he responded ‘Fuck this, man, I ain’t been smoking nothing’. He was warned that if he continued to swear, he could be arrested under s. 5. When the search found nothing, the defendant said ‘Told you, you won’t find fuck all’. When asked if he had a middle name, he said ‘No, I’ve already fucking told you so’. He was subsequently convicted under s. 5, but this was quashed on appeal, on the grounds that no one present, in particular the police officers, had been ‘harassed, alarmed, or distressed’. The offending statements in Harvey, one might argue, were a breach of class-​based norms of linguistic deference, and distinct from the invective in Southard and, in particular, the racist abuse in Taylor. The term ‘insulting’ was subsequently removed from s. 5 by the Crime and Courts Act (2013, s. 57), following controversy about the curbing of freedom of speech. One incident that raised serious concerns was the arrest by the City of London police on 10 May 2008 of an anti-​ Scientology protestor for displaying a placard featuring the word cult (Danwar 2008); in another, a student was arrested for saying to a police officer: ‘Excuse me, do you realise your horse is gay?’ These cases were subsequently dropped (see Boland 2013: 33ff.). In the Australian context, the case of Heanes v Herangi14 concerned in part the utterance ‘I’m on the fucking phone to my father. Get fucked. So fuck off ’, said to police officers. These words were determined ‘to have been said in the proximity and within the hearing of both adults and children’ (para. 30). On appeal, the conviction for disorderly conduct was upheld, on the grounds that ‘in the context in which the relevant words were used, they offended contemporary community standards and were offensive and deserving of criminal sanction’ (para. 205). The magistrate in Police v Butler15 waxed eloquent about the pervasiveness of fuck in Australian society, but debates continue about the correct legal standard (Leaver 2011). In Stutsel v Reid16 the court found the phrase ‘Why don’t you fuck off you dog arse cunts?’ to be ‘offensive language’, even in the absence of bystanders other than police officers. One criticism of these offences is that they are ‘ill-​defined and unequally apply to persons who are disenfranchised or minority groups: people who are homeless, young people, Indigenous Australians, and those with a mental illness’ (Methven 2017: 9). Studies have shown that ‘police have disproportionately arrested Aboriginal people for using swear words such as “fuck”, “prick”, and “cunt”, words frequently spoken both amongst police officers and by police officers to members of the public’ (Methven 2017: 11). In August 2017 the Sydney activist Danny Lim had a conviction for offensive behaviour reversed.17 In 2015 he had displayed a sandwich 13 

[2011] EWHC 3992 (Admin). [2007] WASC 175. 15  [2003] NSWLC 2, p. 22. 16  [1990] 20 NSWLR 661. 17 Danny Lim v Regina [2017] NSWDC 231. 14 

270   Christopher Hutton board with, among other things, the text: ‘Peace, smile, people can change, Tony you cunt, liar, heartless, cruel, peace be with you’. The reference was to Tony Abbot, the then Australian prime minister. The word cunt was spelled with the vowel as an upside down ‘A’ (i.e. as C∀N’T). The district court commented that the word was ‘more prevalent in everyday language than it has previously been’ and was ‘of ancient English origin and featured in Shakespeare’s Hamlet’ (para. 50). In the United States, bad language used in public is in theory not criminalized, unless it constitutes disorderly conduct, threatening behaviour, leads to ‘a clear and present danger’, or constitutes ‘fighting words’.18 One contentious area involves so-​called ‘contempt of cop’, i.e. bad language in the presence of a police officer. In Cincinnati v Karlan19 the Supreme Court held that ‘fucking, prick-​ass cops’ did not constitute fighting words when uttered to a police officer. Disrespectful behaviour, it is alleged, may lead a police officer to seek grounds for an arrest, especially in relation to minority groups: ‘many African-​American citizens in Ferguson [Missouri] are wrongly arrested for mere “contempt of cop” ’ (Green 2015: 268). In People v Gingello20 the utterance at issue was ‘you are an asshole’ directed at a police officer who was arresting the defendant’s friend. Gingello was charged with two counts of disorderly conduct. He was acquitted of the offence of ‘fighting or violent, tumultuous, or threatening behaviour’ but found guilty of ‘harassment’, i.e. using ‘abusive or obscene language’ in a public place. By contrast, ‘giving the finger’ and yelling obscenities at a police officer has been found to be ‘an expression of disapproval’ and therefore constitutionally protected speech under the First Amendment.21 In People v Gonzalez,22 a conviction for possession of a weapon discovered following an arrest for disorderly conduct was quashed, following a determination that an obscene rant against the police officers had not been shown to constitute probable cause for the initial arrest. In US law, ‘fighting words’ are such that ‘by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace’.23 In Chaplinski v New Hampshire, a Jehovah’s Witness had been arrested for creating a public disturbance in denouncing organized religion as a ‘racket’, and he subsequently directed invective against a city official. The utterances in question were: ‘You are a God damned racketeer’ and ‘a damned Fascist and the whole government of Rochester are Fascists or agents of Fascists’ (p. 569). The Supreme Court upheld the conviction, given that these were ‘epithets likely to provoke the average person to retaliation, and thereby cause a breach of the peace’ and as such were not protected by the First Amendment (p. 574). In California v Cohen24 a protester inside the Los Angeles courthouse appealed against conviction under s. 415 of the California Penal Code for using ‘vulgar, profane, 18 

Schenck v United States 249 U.S. 47 [1919]. 416 U.S. 924 [1974]. 20  67 Misc.2d 224, 324 N YS.2d 122 [1971]. 21  Duran v City of Douglas Arizona 904 F. 2d 1372 [1990]. 22  2015 25 NY3d, p. 1101. 23  315 U.S. 568 [1942]. 24  403 U.S. 15 [1971]. 19 

Speech or conduct?    271 or indecent language within the presence or hearing of women or children’. Cohen was arrested for wearing a jacket with the words ‘Fuck the Draft’. The Supreme Court held that these were not fighting words and constituted speech rather than conduct, noting that Cohen had not behaved aggressively, nor directed his message to any particular person. Justice Harlan famously declared that ‘one man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric’, arguing that not just the cognitive force, but also the emotionally expressive function of speech deserved protection (p. 25). The boundaries of acceptable verbal conduct in public remain unclear. In 1999, a canoeist on a river in Michigan vented his frustration through what was termed ‘indecent and vulgar language’. Apparently he said fuck around seventy-​five times. He was convicted under a Michigan statute (M.C.L. 750.337): ‘Any person who shall use any indecent, immoral, obscene, vulgar, or insulting language in the presence or hearing of any woman or child shall be guilty of a misdemeanor’. However on appeal, the conviction was quashed,25 as the statute was ‘unconstitutionally vague’ and impinged on First Amendment freedoms: ‘Children aside, it is far from obvious what the reasonable adult considers to be indecent, immoral, vulgar, or insulting’. The provision in question has since been repealed, though many such laws remain across common law jurisdictions. In 2000 a Hong Kong taxi driver lost his appeal against a conviction for swearing, contrary to regulations that require drivers of public vehicles ‘to behave in a civil and orderly manner’.26 Social media are now at the centre of linguistic contention. On 6 January 2010, Paul Chambers, frustrated by delays at Robin Hood airport in South Yorkshire, England, sent the following tweet: ‘Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!’. He was subsequently convicted under the Communications Act (2003, s.  127)  for sending ‘a public electronic message that was grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene, or menacing character’. This was upheld on appeal in the Crown Court but the High Court eventually quashed the conviction, on the grounds that the tweet was not, viewed objectively, of ‘menacing character’.27 In May 2017, Rhodri Philipps, the 4th Viscount St Davids, was likewise charged under s. 127 of the Communications Act for insults directed at anti-​Brexit campaigner Gina Miller posted on Facebook. The posts were cited in court as follows: ‘£5,000 for the first person to “accidentally” run over this bloody troublesome first generation immigrant’ and ‘If this is what we should expect from immigrants, send them back to their stinking jungles’. He was fined and jailed for twelve weeks for what were determined to be ‘racially aggravated’ postings ([CPS] 2017).


People v Boomer 655 N.W. 2d 255 (Mich. App. 2002). HKSAR v Tsui Ping Wing [2000] HKCFI 1410. 27  Chambers v DPP [2012] EWHC 2157. 26 

272   Christopher Hutton

15.5 Obscenity Obscenity is associated both with prurience and vulgarity. Prurience is understood as the triggering of lewd or lustful ideas, whereas vulgarity is seen as grossly offensive speech. Fuck, prick, or cunt may be considered obscene, even where there is no intent to produce an erotic response. To be obscene in canon law the book or work of art had to ‘exude some sort of allure that panders to the passions of sex’, an idea that was subsequently taken over by the secular law of obscenity (Gardiner 1955: 563–​4). However in England ‘no ecclesiastical case law on obscenity developed’ (Levy 1995:  305). The claim has been made that ‘English did not even have a word for inappropriate sexual expression until the sixteenth century, and even then the word—​“bawdy”—​did not have a negative connotation’ (Stone 2007: 717). However Richard Allestree (1619–​81), in his The Government of the Tongue, included a short section on ‘obscene and immodest talk’ (Allestree 1667: 204): ‘For the talk of many is so bestial, that it seems to be but the conceptions of the more libidinous Animals clothed in human Language.’ The 1708 prosecution of a poem entitled The Fifteen Plagues of a Maiden-​Head by James Read, which contained the line: ‘But I poor Virgin never shall be Focked’ failed because there was no relevant offence at common law: ‘This is for printing bawdy stuff, that reflects on no person, and a libel must be against some particular person or persons, or against the Government. It is stuff not fit to be mentioned publicly’ (Queen v Read 28; see Stone 2007: 721–​2). However, in 1727, Edward Curll was successfully prosecuted for his translation Venus in the Cloister or the Nun in her Smock, though the court used the offence of libel: ‘Libellus is not always to be taken as a technical word; in this case it may stand as an obscene little book’, as well as being an offence against the peace.29 The rise of formal obscenity law coincided with ‘Romantic-​and Victorian-​era celebrations of youthful sexual innocence’ (Heins 2001: 26). The category of obscenity was given statutory form in the Obscene Publications Act (1857). In the leading case, Regina v Hicklin,30 Lord Chief Justice Cockburn defined obscenity as the tendency ‘to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influence’ (p.  371). The pamphlet at issue, an attack on corruption in the Catholic Church, ‘would suggest to the minds of the young of either sex, or even to persons of more advanced years, thoughts of a most impure and libidinous character’ (p. 371). The so-​called ‘Hicklin rule’, was understood in subsequent jurisprudence both in Britain and the United States, as applying to isolated passages or even single words or expressions taken out of context (Gillers 2007), and therefore not allowing defence of the work’s value or artistic merit as a whole. This point became a key battleground in the literary obscenity trials of the twentieth century.


Fortesc. 98. The King v Curll 2 Stra. 788 [1727]. 30  L. R. 3 Q.B. 360 (1868). 29 

Speech or conduct?    273 In the United States, there were no prosecutions for obscenity during the colonial period (Stone 2017); prosecutions at common law can be dated to 1815, with states subsequently enacting individual obscenity statutes (Stepka 1997: 913). At the Federal level, the Tariff Act of 1842 forbade the importing ‘of all indecent and obscene prints, paintings, lithographs, engravings, and transparencies’. Following the ‘Comstock Acts’ of 1868 and 1873, the courts defined obscenity very broadly. Anthony Comstock (1844–​1915) founded the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and used his special agent status with the Post Office to develop a wide-​ranging censorship regime, targeting not just erotica, but materials relating to sex education and contraception (de Grazia 1955; Stone 2017). The First Amendment played almost no role within obscenity law until the mid-​twentieth century (Strub 2013). However in the case of United States v One Book Called ‘Ulysses’,31 Judge John Woolsey rejected arguments based on the vocabulary used in James Joyce’s Ulysses, and framed his decision in terms of the representational aims of the text as a whole. These ‘old Saxon words’ were (pp. 183–​4): such words as would be naturally and habitually used, I believe, by the types of folk whose life, physical and mental, Joyce is seeking to describe. In respect of the recurrent emergence of the theme of sex in the minds of his characters, it must always be remembered that his locale was Celtic and his season spring.

The court recognized the realist imperative, and in so doing affirmed the representational rights of the novelist. Ulysses had previously been declared obscene in 1921 (see Birmingham 2014). This realist argument was raised in United States v Two Obscene Books,32 a case that concerned Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn: The many long filthy descriptions of sexual experiences, practices, and organs are of themselves admitted to be lewd. They are sought to be justified by the claim that the books as a whole have an artistic pattern, into which the obscene and scatological portions fit as part of a whole literary mosaic. But I must conclude that this is mere sophistry. (p. 762)

The Court of Appeals also rejected the argument that ‘since we live in an age of realism, obscene language depicting obscenity in action ceases to be obscenity’.33 It affirmed the decision of the lower court. Legal attempts to curb taboo language in literary works constituted a key battleground of the culture wars of the late 1950s to the 1970s. In finding that Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems was not obscene, Judge Clayton Horn commented (3 October 1957): ‘Coarse and vulgar language is used in treatment and sex acts are mentioned, but unless the book is entirely lacking in “social importance” it cannot be held obscene’


5 F. Supp. 182 (S.D.N.Y. 1933). 99 F. Supp. 760 (N.D. Cal. 1951). 33  Besig v United States 208 F.2d 142, Ninth Circuit (1953), para. 5. 32 

274   Christopher Hutton (Ehlich 1961: 119–​20). The prosecution had focused on particular lines: ‘who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy’ (Ehlich 1961: 32). The Howl decision was taken in the shadow of the Supreme Court decision in Roth v US34 which defined the standard for judging obscenity as follows: ‘whether, to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material, taken as a whole, appeals to prurient interest’ (p. 477). Obscene images and writings fell outside the protection of the First Amendment (p. 476): All ideas having even the slightest redeeming social importance—​unorthodox ideas, controversial ideas, even ideas hateful to the prevailing climate of opinion—​have the full protection of the guaranties . . .; but implicit in the history of the First Amendment is the rejection of obscenity as utterly without redeeming social importance.

Frank discussion of sex per se was not obscene, so long as it did not ‘treat sex in a manner appealing to prurient interest’ (p. 477). This left the law still captive to the notion of prurience, but appeared to remove recognized literary texts from its scope. Thus in the Howl case, attorney Jake Ehlich could argue that ‘individual words in and of themselves do not make obscene books’ (Ehlich 1961: 7). He continued: Some people think that certain four-​letter words in and of themselves destroy mankind from a moral standpoint. This, of course, is not the law. There was a time, your Honor, when words which today are frowned upon, were in common usage, were not considered improper and were used daily by decent people.

Roth marked the end of the Hicklin test in the US, but Roth’s legacy consisted of both progressive and conservative strands of jurisprudence (Strub 2013). In 1959 the US Post Office barred D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover from the United States, arguing that: The book is replete with descriptions in minute detail of sexual acts engaged in or discussed by the book’s principal characters. These descriptions utilize filthy, offensive, and degrading words and terms. Any literary merit the book may have is far outweighed by the pornographic and smutty passages and words, so that the book, taken as a whole, is an obscene and filthy work.

However, a federal court held that the Post Office was wrong in barring the work, given its literary merit:35 Quite apart from this, the broadening of freedom of expression and of the frankness with which sex and sex relations are dealt with at the present time require no



US 354 U.S. 476 (1957). Grove Press, Inc. v Christenberry 175 F. Supp. 488, 501 (S.D.N.Y. 1959), p. 502.

Speech or conduct?    275 discussion. In one best selling novel after another frank descriptions of the sex act and ‘four-​letter’ words appear with frequency.

In the early 1960s the US comedian Lenny Bruce faced a series of arrests for violating obscenity laws, with acts that mocked religion and examined sexual and linguistic taboos (see Collins and Skover 2012). One aspect of Bruce’s act was the use of strings of racial epithets, including a nigger-​kike-​spic-​mick-​wop routine, presented as a means of critiquing the power of such terms. On occasion, the act opened with the line: ‘Are there any niggers here tonight?’ In California, Bruce was arrested for his act at The Jazz Workshop (14 October 1961), in particular for his use of the word cocksucker and an extended verbal riff on the sexual meaning of to come. Bruce was charged with violating the Municipal Police Code forbidding ‘obscene, indecent, immoral, or impure’ performances, and s. 311.6 of the California Penal Code which forbade the use of ‘lewd or obscene words’ in a public place. The jury voted to acquit. In 1963, Bruce was convicted for obscenity in Illinois for his performance at the Gate of Horn club in Chicago. His act had included the following words: ‘ “fuck”, “piss”, “tits”, “stomping and stepping on my dick”, “Jag off ”, “hang Kennedy’s balls up”, “fuck their mothers for Hershey bars” ’; in addition, ‘motions and gestures indicating masturbation were made by him’.36 The verdict was upheld on appeal, though the judgment was vacated following the Supreme Court’s decision in Jacobellis v Ohio [1964].37 A performance at a Greenwich Village club named the Café Au Go Go (31 March and 1 April 1964) led to his indictment and conviction under New York s. 1140 for ‘obscene, indecent, immoral, and impure drama, play, exhibition, and entertainment’ that would ‘tend to the corruption of the morals of youth and others’. The court noted that ‘words such as “ass”, “balls”, “cocksucker”, “cunt”, “fuck”, “mother-​fucker”, “piss”, “screw”, “shit”, and “tits” were used about one hundred times in utter obscenity’ (People v Bruce [1961]: 29). In dissent, Judge Creel cast doubt on the applicability of the notion of ‘community standard’ to ‘such a diverse and varied metropolitan area as New York’ and argued that this was a tool for judges to shape and apply their own notions of obscenity (p. 35). Arguably Bruce was prosecuted as much for blasphemy (and social disrespect) as for obscenity, even if the category itself was not explicitly mentioned. In Britain, the Obscene Publications Act (1959, s. 4) allowed for a defence of public good, if the publication was ‘in the interests of science, literature, art or learning, or of other objects of general concern’. Following objections to the use of words like fuck and cunt, a prosecution was launched against Penguin, the publisher of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.38 The prosecution counted up instances of taboo language: ‘The word “fuck” or “fucking” appears no less than thirty times . . . “Cunt” fourteen times; “balls” thirteen times; “shit” and “arse” six times apiece; “cock” four times; “piss” three times, and so on’ (Robertson 2010). Unimpressed, the jury voted to acquit. Subsequent manifestations 36 

People v Illinois record of proceedings, pp. 105–6. 378 U.S. 184 (1964). 38  R v Penguin [1961] Crim LR 176. 37 

276   Christopher Hutton of the censorship wars included the Oz trial, involving Oz No. 28 School Kids Issue [May 1970]. This contained sexually explicit drawings, including Rupert Bear sporting an erection, and words like cunt, fuck, and bollocks. Originally produced in Australia by Richard Neville and others, Oz had already come into conflict with obscenity laws there. In the London trial, the defendants were charged not only with obscenity, but conspiracy to corrupt public morals. They faced heavy prison sentences.39 The defendants were acquitted on the more serious charge, but convicted of obscenity, after a notoriously partial summing up by Judge Michael Argyle (Robertson 1998). The convictions were reversed on appeal.40 Given the widespread availability of much more ‘hard core’ pornographic materials in London (with the Soho trade controlled by corrupt police officers), the trial must be understood as primarily targeting social non-​conformity and non-​deference.

15.6  Broadcast speech In the United States, ‘broadcast speech receives less constitutional protection because its uniquely pervasive and intrusive presence into the home endangers unsupervised children’ (Fairman 2013: 569). Title 18 U.S.C. s. 1464 states that anyone who ‘utters any obscene, indecent, or profane language by means of radio communication shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both’. The Supreme Court decision in Federal Communications Commission (FCC) v Pacifica Foundation41 arose out of a broadcast performance in 1973 of George Carlin’s routine involving ‘Seven words you can never say on television:  ‘Shit, Piss, Fuck, Cunt, Cocksucker, Motherfucker, Tits’. The FCC, a ‘complaint-​driven’ regulator rather than an active censor (Rosenblat 2006: 173), upheld a complaint against the broadcaster, though it did not order any specific sanctions. Subsequently the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that the FCC’s definition of ‘indecency’ was overbroad and vague, arguing that the order was a form of censorship lacking any principled basis or reference to any actual community standard. The Supreme Court reversed this decision, 5–​4, citing privacy concerns relating to the sanctity of the home, with the additional factor being the presence of children. It was not necessary to show that the broadcast had prurient appeal; merely that it was indecent in relation to ‘nonconformance with accepted standards of morality’ (p. 740). The court rejected the idea that there was any political or satirical content to the broadcast, such as would attract First Amendment protection (p. 746). In dissent, Justice Brennan pointed out that Carlin was mocking attitudes to these words and therefore delivering a message. The court had shown (p. 775): a depressing inability to appreciate that in our land of cultural pluralism, there are many who think, act, and talk differently from the Members of this Court, and who 39 

R v Anderson. Neville, Dennis, Oz Publications Ink Ltd [1971] 3 W.L.R. 939. R v Anderson, Neville, Dennis and Oz Publications Ink Ltd [1972] 1 QB 304. 41  438 U.S. 726 (1978). 40 

Speech or conduct?    277 do not share their fragile sensibilities. It is only an acute ethnocentric myopia that enables the Court to approve the censorship of communications solely because of the words they contain.

Brennan (p. 776) pointed to sociolinguistic research, including Dillard (1972) and Labov (1972), and cited from Bins (1972: 82) to the effect that words ‘generally considered obscene’ were not necessarily so in the Black vernacular. For Brennan, the words found so unpalatable by the Court and the FCC ‘may be the stuff of everyday conversations in some, if not many, of the innumerable subcultures that compose this Nation’ (p. 776). In 1987, the FCC went beyond the list of seven words and sanctioned language that ‘describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory activities or organs, when there is a reasonable risk that children may be in the audience’ (Goldsamt 1995: 212). On 19 January 2003, the singer Bono used the phrase ‘really, really fucking brilliant’ while live at the Golden Globe Awards. This drew a strong warning from the FCC about so-​called ‘fleeting expletives’ (Calvert 2004; Quale 2008). One figure who has clashed repeatedly both with media management and the FCC is the ‘shock jock’ Howard Stern, famous for his foul-​mouthed tirades. Content that is live-​streamed on the internet, transmitted via satellite or accessed through subscription (e.g. cable) evades regulatory regimes such as the FCC, so that indecency and profanity are permitted, though obscenity remains unprotected by the First Amendment.42 Stern’s show is now broadcast by the satellite and online station SiriusXM.43 On occasion, words that might be judged indecent or vulgar (rather than obscene) are integral to the broadcast text of a news story. One can think of pussy, as in the name of feminist protest group Pussy Riot, or as used in Donald Trump’s non-​feminist ‘Grab them by the pussy’ line (Jacobs, Siddiqui, and Bixby 2016). This raises the more general question of the status of what might be termed second-​order vulgarisms:  crap, piss, screw, balls, cock up, wanker, jerk, etc.

15.7  Popular music The history of linguistic censorship in modern popular music is primarily one of self-​ censorship, in-​house constraints, sociopolitical pressure, combined with the economic need for artists to access mainstream broadcast media. Law served primarily as a threatening presence in the background, with occasional interventions. For example, a recording of the song Louie Louie by the Kingsmen, made in April 1963, was alleged by some listeners to have obscene (but indistinct) lyrics, including fuck and bitch. An inconclusive forensic investigation was undertaken by the FBI (Crawford 2015). Direct

42  43 

https://​​consumers/​guides/​obscene-​indecent-​and-​profane-​broadcasts. http://​

278   Christopher Hutton confrontations with the law tended to arise out of live performance, as in the case of Jim Morrison of the Doors, who was convicted for indecent exposure and ‘public profanity’ in March 1969 (Davis 2006: 316ff.). One famous drug-​related lyric was White Rabbit, written by Grace Slick and recorded by the Jefferson Airplane in 1967. In 1971 the Federal Communications Commission issued a notice warning broadcasters about the need to vet lyrics for drug-​related content. This survived a challenge under the First Amendment.44 In 1985, amid concerns about explicit language, drug-​related content, and occultism, the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), argued successfully for warning labels on albums (‘Explicit Lyrics—​Parental Advisory’) and various forms of self-​regulation, but no legislation resulted (Rolden 1987). In 1990 a federal judge ruled that 2 Live Crew’s album, As Nasty As They Wanna Be, was obscene:45 Nasty appeals to the prurient interest for several reasons. First, its lyrics and the titles of its songs are replete with references to female and male genitalia, human sexual excretion, oral–​anal contact, fellatio, group sex, specific sexual positions, sadomasochism, the turgid state of the male sexual organ, masturbation, cunnilingus, sexual intercourse, and the sounds of moaning.

This finding was reversed on appeal.46 But complex questions remain about whether rap lyrics can be used as evidence in criminal trials, as speaking to character or to gang affiliation, as confessions, or as threats (Shumejda 2014; Kubrin and Nielson 2014). In the UK, police targeted Never Mind The Bollocks by the Sex Pistols (released 28 October 1977): ‘Somewhat ironically it was not “controversial” tracks such as “God Save The Queen” nor the plethora of ‘fucks’ in the anti-​abortion track “Bodies”, but the “bollocks” on the cover which brought the record to court’ (Cloonan 1995: 351). The case failed in the magistrate’s court. In 1984, the Punk band Flux of Pink Indians released an album entitled The Fucking Cunts Treat Us Like Pricks which likewise attracted police attention and seizures, though in the end legal proceedings were inconclusive (Cloonan 1995: 352–​3).

15.8 Trademarks Trademark registration regimes typically deny registration to categories of language deemed offensive or inappropriate. The UK rules forbid ‘offensive’ marks containing ‘swearwords or pornographic images’.47 In 2005 the registration of the FCUK (French


Yale Broadcasting Company v Federal Communications Commission 478 F.2d 594 (D.C. Cir. 1973). Skywalker Records, Inc. v Navarro 739 F. Supp. 578, 596 (S.D. Fla. 1990), p. 591. 46  Luke Records v Navarro 960 F.2d 134. 47  https://​​how-​to-​register-​a-​trade-​mark. 45 

Speech or conduct?    279 Connection UK) fashion brand was challenged for evoking the swearword fuck.48 Since FUCK would not be registerable, the question arose as to whether—​and why—​FCUK was acceptable. The legal issue at stake might be termed the problem of the imperfect realization of taboo language, i.e. the status of quasi-​taboo euphemisms. The hearing officer commented (para. 48) that FUCK ‘would cause a high degree of offence to a significant number of people’, but that FCUK was not itself the swearword. The offence was created ‘through word play, mistake, or misconstruing of the letters’, given that it was capable of being seen as something it was not: ‘There is no evidence that establishes that the trademark FCUK solus is seen as the expletive amongst an identifiable section of the public’. Given the wide dissemination of this mark, the fact that it would be typically pronounced as a series of letters, and the few number of complaints (which primarily arose when the FCUK label was put into a suggestive context), the registration could stand.49 Decisions which rejected the trademarks of HALLELUJAH,50 TINY PENIS,51 and FOOK52 were also considered. In the FOOK case, it was held that the proposed mark failed given that it was ‘so closely related to a swearword that when pronounced it can be interpreted as a person using a swearword’; when pronounced in certain parts of the UK it would be pronounced the same way as fuck, [fʊk]: ‘the word FUCK remains a taboo word, a swearword which causes grave offence, even today, to a significant proportion of the general public.’ (para. 20) and ‘would cause greater offence than mere distaste to a significant section of the general public’ (para. 24). In the United States, issues of ethnic or racial labelling have been particularly contentious. Historically there were brands such as ‘Nigger Head Brand’ and ‘Niggerhair Tobacco’, and there has been a long-​running dispute over the Aunt Jemima figure as used by Quaker Oats (Pace 1994: 8–​10). The Lanham Act (s. 2) provides that registration may be refused for marks which consist of ‘immoral, deceptive, or scandalous matter; or matter which may disparage or falsely suggest a connection with persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute’. Section 14(c) allows anyone who feels that they have been disparaged or damaged to bring an action for cancellation. In 1999 legal proceedings were brought over the trademark for the pro-​football team, the Washington Redskins. The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) found that, while the trademark was not ‘scandalous’, it might ‘disparage’ Native Americans.53 That determination was reversed in 2003, partly on the grounds of delay in bringing the action. In June 2014 the TTAB again cancelled the mark, and this decision was again appealed. In 2017 the Supreme Court found in 48  Application No. 81862 by Dennis Woodman, for a declaration of invalidity in respect of trade mark no. 2184549 in the name of French Connection Limited (2005). 49  In March 2003 a judge sitting in a Crown Court discharged a juror wearing a FCUK T-​shirt (Chrisafis 2003). 50  [1976] R.P.C. No. 22. 51  Ghazilian’s Trade Mark Application [2002] RPC 33. 52  In the matter of Application No 2309350, by Kevin Scranage, to register a trademark in class 25 (2005). 53  Harjo v Pro-​Football 50 U.S.P.Q.2d 1705 (T.T.A.B. 1999).

280   Christopher Hutton favour of the Asian-​American band, The Slants, who had been refused registration on the basis that their name was a racial slur. The government had argued that since the band were free to use the name in commercial activities, this did not violate their first Amendment rights. However in a ruling that applies to the Redskins case, the Supreme Court held that the disparagement clause violated the First Amendment. The argument that trademarks were in some sense government rather than private speech, and therefore that the principle of viewpoint neutrality did not apply, was untenable.54

15.9  Personal Names Common law jurisdictions are highly permissive in relation to personal names.55 This is in marked contrast to many civil law jurisdictions. In the early 1980s French courts rejected Manhattan as a child’s name, whereas this would pose no problems in common law jurisdictions (Munday 1985). In Australia, one contentious name was Prime Minister John Piss the Family Court and Legal Aid, taken by a plaintiff previously known as John Zabaneh. At issue was its acceptability for the electoral roll and for a passport. The Administrative Appeals Tribunal ruled that piss (as an expletive) and Prime Minister (as an administrative title) were offensive, though they recognized that being difficult to process was not a barrier to a particular name choice and affirmed ‘a person’s right to use his name to make a political statement’.56 This was upheld on appeal, in part because a passport was the property of the Australian government.57 Following similar logic, in the United Kingdom, while there is a high degree of latitude in choosing a personal name, HM Passport Office will not accept names that are ‘vulgar, offensive, or blasphemous’.58 In the United States, legal rules vary by the individual state (Kushner 2009). In 2005, Snaphappy Fishsuit Mokiligon won an appeal against a decision to deny his name change to Variable.59 However a subsequent attempt to change his name to Fuck Censorship was rejected, as it was ‘obscene, offensive, and would not comport with common decency’. The refusal did not violate his First Amendment rights.60 In Lee v Superior Court61 the applicant appealed against a decision denying approval to the name


  Matal v Tam 582 US (2017). Davies v Lowndes 1835 131 ER 1247. 56  Mr Prime Minister John Piss The Family Court And Legal Aid and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade [2000] AATA 1028 (23 November 2000), para. 22. 57  Prime Minister John Piss the Family Court & Legal Aid v Minister for Foreign Affairs & Trade (No.1) [2003] FMCA 90 (20 March 2003). 58  https://​ 59  In re. Snaphappy Fishsuit Mokiligon for change of name to Variable 2005 NMCA 021 (NM Ct. App. 2005). 60  In the Matter of the Petition of Variable for Change of Name, No. 28,488. Court of Appeals of New Mexico. (27 June 2008), para. 7. 61  11 Cal. Rptr. 2d 763 (Ct. App. 1992). 55 

Speech or conduct?    281 Misteri Nigger (Kennedy 2003: 165). The applicant, an African American, invoked his First Amendment rights in arguing that the use of the racist epithet as a name would ‘steal the stinging degradation—​the thunder, the wrath, the shame, and racial slur—​ from the word’. The court held that it could not approve a racial insult as a name, given its offensive and harmful social profile and history; further, the term fell into the category of ‘fighting words’. Online platforms like Facebook now increasingly operate as a system of identity registration, and regulate personal names within their own ‘jurisdiction’. Facebook’s rules include prohibitions on: ‘Symbols, numbers, unusual capitalization, repeating characters, or punctuation; Characters from multiple languages; Titles of any kind (e.g. professional, religious); Words or phrases in place of a name; Offensive or suggestive words of any kind’.62

15.10  Dream is over? The liberating power of fuck, to which the 1960s countercultural movement subscribed, found its purest expression in the short-​lived Berkeley Filthy Speech Movement, an offshoot of the Free Speech Movement. In March 1965 John Thompson was arrested by campus police for holding up a placard with the word fuck. Collections were made on campus for a ‘Fuck Fund’ to defend him, and Michael Klein gave a public reading from D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, featuring multiple uses of the word fuck. Four further arrests were made (Allyn 2001) and the subsequent convictions resulted in jail sentences (Freeman 2004: 234). It was believed that society could be liberated from its harmful repressions, given that obscenity was primarily in the ear or the eye of the beholder. Everyday words and ideas, the human body, its functions and natural forms of expression, could not be obscene in themselves, but became so given an irrational response presented as the voice of community values, or on behalf of a particular moral or religious standpoint: ‘The determinant of obscenity lies not in words or things, but in the attitudes that people have towards these words and things’ (Read [1935] 1977: 9). The contemporary female Japanese manko (‘cunt’) artist Megumi Igarashi has as a slogan: ‘my body is not an obscenity’ (Sala 2017): While this position makes sense on the political or polemical level, the relationship of the artistic taboo-​breaker to the taboo is in some cases culturally and psychologically much more complex, a dynamic akin to love–​hate, since the taboo animates the work, and must be reverentially sustained, even while it is being denigrated or dismissed as irrational. In such cases, the taboo is simultaneously the vehicle of expression and the object of aggression. Andres Serrano’s photograph Immersions (Piss Christ) (1987), an ethereal photograph of a crucifix suspended in a yellow liquid, captures this blend of



282   Christopher Hutton the sacred and the sacrilegious. Piss Christ has been an unusual case where the text, in the form of the title, has proved more provocative than the image (Casey 2000: 22). The response of politicians and clerics to this work was to emphasize the offence caused to identity-​based sensibilities (rather than appealing to the law of blasphemy), a form of argument mirrored now primarily on the progressive left. In the United States today the strongest advocates for free speech and the First Amendment are from the political right, as attempts are made to deny conservative speakers a platform on US campuses (‘no platforming’). Libertarians decry trigger warnings for the content of college courses, while left-​progressives—​drawing on identity politics—​support models of hate speech which seek to protect particular classes of hearer-​interpreter and seek to grant veto-​rights to feelings of offence or outrage, as in a proposed tort of racial insult (Delgado and Stefancic 2004) or ‘group defamation’ (Pollele 2003). Many uses of fuck have long been rejected by feminists as misogynistic rather than liberating, and successive attempts have been made to reclaim ownership of and thereby reauthenticize cunt (Muscio 2002). Today Lenny Bruce might face legal sanction on account of his use of racial epithets, and social or moral rejection on account of sexism and misogyny. Radical feminist critics operate with the same underlying theory of the imbrication of representation with conduct as traditional Christian moralists (see Braunmiller 1975: 296ff.; MacKinnon 1996). Rather than becoming less magical, one might argue that attitudes to linguistic taboo have become increasingly complex. Law may have largely (though not entirely) relinquished control in some domains of language use (e.g. text in books), but legal control of verbal expression continues to advance in other domains (the workplace, cyberspace). Increasingly, it is transnational corporations such as Facebook, Google (including YouTube), and Twitter that operate or enable censorship regimes, notably in relation to sexual or pornographic content, the depiction of violence, hate speech, defamation, threats and incitement to criminal acts, violation of intellectual property law, etc. End User Licence Agreements give corporations the right to monitor for offensive and vulgar speech and to delete content, creating a ‘virtual panopticon’ (Jankowich 2006). For YouTube, the use of ‘sexually explicit language or excessive profanity in your video or associated metadata may lead to the age-​restriction of your video’.63 While Google and its fellows are global companies, they interact with and must to a degree reflect, the censorship policies of the jurisdictions in which they are accessed. Corporations have always impacted on free speech issues through their role as advertisers and sponsors. Now they have now become the primary medium of global communication and at the same time the regulator of its content. A critic of Twitter’s hate speech filter speaks of ‘Twitter’s evolution from bastion of free speech to global censor’ (Leetaru 2017). The boundary of corporate control in broadcasting and social media has become the primary contentious issue, together with cyberbullying, trolling, targeted misogyny, and racism. This is in marked contrast to the relatively clear battle lines drawn between progressive social movements and state authorities in the 1960s and 1970s. 63 


Speech or conduct?    283

15.11  Speech versus conduct One fundamental aspect of the linguistic culture of law is the distinction between speech (including writing) and conduct or action (Schauer 2015).64 Freedom of speech is protected by positive rules in most common law regimes, whereas ‘freedom of conduct’ is not. Categories of speech that are perceived to shade into conduct may be denied this de jure legal protection, so that law punishes ‘a few classes of words like obscenity, profanity, and gross libels upon individuals’ (Chafee 1941: 149). This is because ‘the very utterance of such words is considered to inflict a present injury upon listeners, readers, or those defamed, or else to render highly probable an immediate breach of the peace’. This is distinct from punishing words ‘because they express ideas which are thought to cause a future danger to the State’ (Chafee 1941: 149). The distinction here is between speech that potentially creates a real-​time immediate response, as opposed to that which engages the cognitive realm, i.e. the domain of ideas and abstract opinions. On Chafee’s model, profane and obscene speech operates directly by creating a bodily response of erotic excitement or disgust or anger. ‘Verbal crimes’ exist because ‘profanity and indecent talk and pictures, which do not form an essential part of any exposition of ideas, have a very slight social value as a step toward truth’ and militate against ‘social interests in order, morality, the training of the young, and the peace of mind of those who hear and see’ (Chafee 1941: 150). These kinds of utterance ‘offer little opportunity for the usual process of counterargument’ and ‘[t]‌he harm is done as soon as they are communicated, or is liable to follow almost immediately in the form of retaliatory violence’ (Chafee 1941: 150). Obscenity and profanity ‘are criminal, not because of the ideas they communicate, but like acts because of their immediate consequences to the five senses’ (Chafee 1941: 150). Such utterances bypass reason and impact on the body (Chafee 1941: 150): The man who swears in a street car is as much of a nuisance as the man who smokes there. Insults are punished like a threatening gesture, since they are liable to provoke a fight. Adulterated candy is no more poisonous to children than some books. Grossly unpatriotic language may be punished for the same reasons.

Following this logic, some political expression should be prohibited, such as disrespecting the flag: ‘because the effect resembles that of an injurious act such as trampling on the flag, which would be a public nuisance and a breach of the peace’ (Chafee 1941: 150). However Chafee himself pointed to the major problem with this, namely that the nature of the response may operate as post hoc censorship (Chafee 1941: 151): This breach of the peace theory is peculiarly liable to abuse when applied against unpopular expressions and practices. It makes a man a criminal simply because his neighbours have no self-​control and cannot refrain from violence. 64 

‘And ’tis a kind of good deed to say well: And yet words are no deeds’ (King Henry VIII. Act 3, Scene 2).

284   Christopher Hutton For Chafee, there is a division between primitive bodily reaction and civilized cognitive response. There is also the logic of social class underlying this distinction. The first has the potential to cause direct harm, while the second is protected speech. Chafee’s framework helps explain why pictures (drawings or photographs) are much more likely to be censored than writings, since they are assumed as a default to operate on the viewer directly rather than via a process of reflexive analysis. These models of communication and interpretation run counter to assumptions in the study of discourse, in sociolinguistics and semiotics, where there is no clear distinction drawn between speech and action, and pictures or images are no less requiring of interpretation than speech. The problematic boundary between free speech and harmful conduct can be illustrated from Snyder v Phelps.65 There the US Supreme Court ruled 8–​1 that demonstrations by Westboro Baptist Church near the funeral of a marine killed during the Iraq War, which featured signs such as ‘America is doomed’, ‘You’re going to hell’, ‘God hates you’, ‘Fag troops’, ‘Semper fi fags’, and ‘Thank God for dead soldiers’, were entitled to protection under the First Amendment. The Church’s viewpoint, namely that God was punishing the United States for its toleration of homosexuality, was speech concerning matters of public interest and, consequently, an action in tort, for the ‘intentional infliction of emotional distress’ on the family of the deceased marine, failed. The decision hinged on the determination that this was essentially public ‘speech-​as-​viewpoint’ expressed peacefully in a public place on a matter of public import, as opposed to private ‘speech-​as-​conduct’ primarily directed so as to cause distress in specific targeted private individuals.

15.12 Conclusion Linguistic taboos do not disappear but are constantly reconfigured. Legal and cultural taboos against discriminatory language, harassment, and hate speech are increasing (Trudgill 2000: 70). The modern censorship regimes that were established in the post-​ WWII era relied on stable understandings of space, time, and patterns of circulation, so that, for example, material broadcast into the home could be calibrated by time of day and related audience (adults versus children). Similarly, access to the cinema was graded by age-​appropriate category. But the rise of the internet has overthrown this order, and posed once again fundamental questions about the rights and freedoms of speakers as against addressees, and the point of view from which ‘red-​line’ judgments can be made.


562 U.S. 443 (2011).

Chapter 16

Tab o o l anguag e i n b o ok s , f ilm s, and th e   me dia gabriele azzaro

16.1 Introduction In what follows I will refer to offensive/​taboo language and swearwords interchangeably to include all forms of suppressed emotional expressions. The language area that includes the audiovisual media and the press is an oceanic expanse with unfathomed reaches and depths. The abyss is mesmerizing but volatile, since it is mainly characterized by constant growth and unpredictable change, despite long-​ lasting attempts to clean the slate. From the inception of oral and written communication, authorities of various ranks and power have stamped down on forbidden language, from famous examples like the repression of profanity in Biblical times, to Socrates’s death sentence (399 bc) for blasphemy, the establishment of the office of censors in Rome (443 bc), the Chinese censorship law of 300 ad, the Inquisition and the Index of Prohibited Books (Index Librorum Prohibitorum, 1559–​1948, officially abolished only in 1966), and political censorship in Japan, Russia, South America, and African, Asian, and European countries under totalitarian regimes (Heins 2001). To no avail.

16.2 Books In general, the idea that the most frequent taboo words change constantly is an exaggeration. Twenty years of taboo word studies—​from 1986 to 2006—​show that ten expressions are used most commonly (fuck, shit, hell, damn, Goddamn, Jesus Christ, ass, oh my God, bitch, and sucks), accounting for 80% of the data; in fact, fuck and shit alone amount to between one third and one half of usage. On the other hand, highly offensive words (cunt, cocksucker, nigger) are scarce. A stable core lexicon survives several

286   Gabriele Azzaro decades (Jay 1996); but over longer periods, change is inevitable, and even the classic chronology of use—​with religious oaths appearing first, followed by curses and finally insults (Montagu 1968)—​may need some adjustments. In this quest for the origins and development of taboo language, the earliest surviving work of literature seems to be an appropriate starting point. Offensive language is present in the oldest saga of human history, Gilgamesh (written before 2000 bc), an epic poem from Mesopotamia. Curses and insults flourish in the elaborate tirade against a prostitute, Shamhat (a central character who doubles as a teacher and educational mentor): her former pupil turned into archenemy wishes that she may never ‘love youthful men,’ that ‘excrements may sully your pretty vulva, . . . the drunkard may stain your finest clothes with vomit, . . . may you become destitute, . . . may whoever enters your pussy get syphilis . . .’ (George 2003). Even though limited to tiny sections of the text, they testify to the exuberance of offensive expressions in the local culture at the time. The Bible itself presents us with shocking expressions, especially in the original versions: a male is identified as ‘anyone who pisses against a wall’ in 1 Samuel 25:22, 1 Kings 16:11, 21:21 and 2 Kings 9:8; in 2 Malachi 2:3, God himself threatens unworthy priests of ‘smearing faeces on your faces, the excrements of the victims from your feasts’. The book of Revelations equates Rome to a prostitute and Ezekiel 16:30 compares Jerusalem to a ‘a bold-​faced harlot’. A tasty appetizer in the long history of expletives. Insults are present in Egyptian hieroglyphs showing the whole gamut of present-​ day taboo words (arse, cunt, fucked vulva, putrid vagina, stretched out pussy, pussyless woman, empty-​glans, and such delicacies). In India, the Rigveda (1500–​1000 bc, written in Sanskrit) liberally showcases sexual taboos, for instance on the lips of Indrani, the attractive Goddess of the skies, anatomically brash in her self-​presentation: ‘No other woman bears a prettier vagina than mine’. Phallic, sexual, physical language is very explicit in the greatest epic poem of Indian literature, the Mahābhāratam written between the fifth century bc and the third century ad: it includes a book (n. 14, the Ashvamedhika Parva) which describes with crude language a royal fertility rite with sadistic traits. A royal horse was set free to roam the land for a year, and was then suffocated: a mock copulation with the new queen was then publicly performed in order to ensure her fertility, in the presence of high priests, local chiefs, the king himself, his other wives, their children, their attendants who all joined in a frenzied crescendo of mutual insults, based on propitiatory obscenities and lasting a whole three days. Needless to say, all the usual unmentionables blossomed, and for quite some time; this was an anticipation of later flyting matches. Women too were valiant abusers in pre-​Christian literature: in an old Norse saga, Kormák’s saga, Bersi (a possibly homosexual husband) is divorced by his wife who calls him ‘buttocks Bersi’. It must be added, though, that all the preceding reports of taboo language are vague and statistically ephemeral since both the quantity, emotional intensity, and cultural connotations of the terms used are not clear. We get closer to the mark with Greek authors.

Taboo language in books, films, and the media    287 Greek literature was the expression of a culture which is closer, better represented and understood; the relative weight of offensive language and its contextual nuances are sharper than in previous centuries. Swearwords were extremely varied in their denotative and connotative force: from the decorous ‘by garlic’, ‘by onions’, and ‘by 4’ (attributed to Pythagoras, who treasured the number 4 as a symbol of completeness and perfection1), to the names of deities, to outright vulgarity. In Homer various expressions relating to lack of bravery are common as insults, with words like wanker, brat, bastard, and kunopa (‘bitch-​face’) possibly featuring as the strongest epithet for both men and women: Achilles throws it at Agamemnon (Iliad 1:195), and Helen refers it to herself (Iliad 6:422). Other authors use explicit language in expressing emotional turmoil: Archilochus, writing invectives in iambic verse, excelled in offensive and obscene language (Gerber 1999: i–​iv); Aristophanes is even more prolific, and has koprophagos (‘shit-​eater’), metrokoites (‘mother-​fucker’), and kunops (‘bitch-​face’) or simply kun/​ kuna (‘bitch’) referring to both sexes. He famously mocked Socrates in The Clouds (423 bc) by showing him in profound elucubrations about whether mosquitoes ‘hum through their mouth or through their bum’ (Aristophanes 2007). The same play discusses the possible consequences of adultery: ‘But what if the boy listens to your advice and ends up with a radish up his arse and his pubes singed with hot ashes by the husband?’ Common were expressions like piss off, bum, bum-​holes, (smart) arse/​ass, although the stronger words of the present-​day spectrum seem to be absent. The same pungent tone of Greek insults carries on in some Roman classics: Catullus’s Carmina offer us an egregious example with Poem 37: Randy tavern and you tavern-​men, nine pillars from the cap-​clad brothers, do you think that you alone have pricks, that you alone are permitted comprehensively to fuck whatever girls there are and to consider the rest of us goats? Do you really think that, because you sit there, silly fools, one hundred or maybe two hundred in a row, I won’t dare mouth-​fuck you as you sit there, all of you at once?

To stay in tune, he then proceeds to threaten ‘to inscribe the front of the whole tavern for you with obscene graffiti’, for ‘all of you cheap backstreet lechers’, and storms out abusing the man who stole his woman: ‘you above all, you outstanding member of the long-​haired crew, son of bunny-​infested Celtiberia, Egnatius, to whom a thick beard and your teeth brushed in Spanish urine give respectability’ (Watson 2009). The longest Latin curse ever written belongs to Ovid, in the cryptic poem ‘Ibis’, whose object remains unclear: 644 lines of sheer abuse against a real or imagined enemy, possibly Augustus himself (Kline 2003). Catullus has a poem (n. 16) which would have a sailor cringe: ‘I will fuck you in the ass and in the mouth, cocksucking Aurelius and butt-​ boy Furius, you who think that I, because my verses are a little soft, have no shame’. The diffusion of literacy in the first three centuries ad spawned the inscription of explicit graffiti on public walls, whose content is usually offensive, primarily scatological, 1 

Because there were (supposedly) 4 elements, 4 seasons, 4 directions, and 4 ages of man.

288   Gabriele Azzaro and sexual: various names for genitalia appear, spiced up with coprolalia and personal stings, along more original outbursts such as ‘Your dick is out of use, having played too many instruments’, or ‘Cry girls, my dick has abandoned you, it now fucks arses. Goodbye arrogant pussy’, ‘Arse-​fucking, oh what joy!’, etc. (Canali and Cavallo 1991). The greatest Latin epigrammatist Martial wrote over 1,500 short poems mocking the moral and physical decadence of urban life in Rome, scathingly satirizing about named individuals. His topics are often risqué, with explicit language to match: ‘Your little dog licks your mouth and lips, Manneia. I am not surprised, if your dog likes to eat shit’ (I, 83), or ‘Chloe, I could live without your face, without your neck, and hands, and legs; without your boobs, and ass, and hips, and Chloe, not to labour over details, I could live without the whole of you’ (III, 53); ‘You do Germans, and Parthians, and Dacians, Caelia, you don’t scorn Cappadocian and Cilician beds; and fuckers from Memphis . . .’ (VII, 30); ‘Ponticus, you only fuck your fist. That complaisant left hand is your sole mistress’ and ‘Horatius fucked just once, and sired three sons’ (IX, 41); ‘Lesbia swears she’s never been fucked for free. True. When she wants to be fucked, she pays’ (XI, 62). Societal taboos, rather than universal ones, reflect directly localized attitudes to morality and social relations. If we limit ourselves to analysing taboo language from Christianity onwards, we may come to the conclusion quoted earlier that a progression exists over the centuries from religious to sexual, scatological, and ethnic cursing: this evolution would move from reference to the Gods first, then to death, illness, and madness, and finally to effluvia, sex, and strangers (Hughes 1991: 11). The reality seems more varied if we include pre-​Christian accounts of coarse language from the literary canons of several cultures, as we have seen so far (see also Mohr 2013). Anglo-​Saxon literature inherited a curious tradition from Germanic cultures: ritual insults or ‘flyting’. Typically, two heroes tried to spur each other into action by throwing not swords but words at each other. It was an accepted convention, reflected in several literary passages with more or less controlled language: Viking and Saxon warriors are reported to have yelled insults at each other across the river Blackwater before the battle of Maldon (991 ad) in the eponymous poem. An episode in Beowulf has the protagonist publicly insulted by a nobleman during a thanksgiving banquet in honour of the hero. Beowulf ’s reaction is unruffled, answering with the same coinage, insulting and demeaning his verbal opponent; the tone may be literal or ironic, we do not know, but it is a witness to a widely practised custom. Another notable medieval example is the unattributed poem The Owl and the Nightingale (c.1250), where two birds engage in mutual insults each picking on the most repugnant habits of the other, with ample scatological references. Flyting was particularly strong in Scotland, where we find literary examples as late as the sixteenth century. Taboo language in the Middle Ages orbited around the Christian faith:  expletives included by my faith, by God, Cristes passioun, and hundreds of variations on holy names and relics. Also, words denoting lower social ranks switched their meaning to become insults: wretch, churl, knave, villain, etc. (Hughes 1991: 57). It appears that the first instance of cunt in writing in the UK dates back to 1230: a London street was called

Taboo language in books, films, and the media    289 Gropecunt Lane, a sad omen of recent—​disheartening—​‘locker-​room banter’, but also a sign of the acceptability of the term.2 The masterful exploration of humanity offered by the Canterbury Tales abounds in aptly strong language. Vulgarity of language deftly reflects personal character and social standing, so that swearwords uniquely identify the personality of the innkeeper Harry Bailey, the wife of Bath, the Pardoner and Miller, amongst others. Chaucer’s genius in this area was composite: first, he fitted the language perfectly to the psychology and sociology of the characters, and secondly he was both extremely original but also sensitive to the language of the time. So we find chaste interjections like ‘Sainte Loy’ (the Prioress), ‘Benedicitee’ (the Parson), but also freshly minted exclamations like ‘God’s arms’, ‘Pardee’, ‘cokes bones’, ‘idiot’, ‘lousy’, ‘gay girl’, and characteristically cultured curses from the Man of Law: O sultana, root of iniquity! Virago, you second Semiramis! O snake hidden in femininity, Just as the snake deep in hell is bound! O pseudo-​woman, all that may confound Virtue and innocence, through your malice, Is bred in you, the nest of every vice! The Man of Law’s Tale, 358–​64

The Host’s abrasive coarseness is detailed in his scolding of the pardoner: Why, you would have me kissing your old breeches, And swear they were the relics of a saint, Though by your buttocks it were stained. By cross Saint Helen found in Holy Land, I wish I had your ballocks in my hand Instead of relics in a reliquary; Let’s cut them off, and them I’ll help you carry; They shall be shrined within a hog’s fat turd. The Pardoner’s Tale, 662–​9

The Middle Ages seem to be an age of contrasting light and darkness, with transgressive pagan rites surviving the increasingly strong grip of the Church on language and thought3:  the Divine Comedy, with its kaleidoscopic variety of registers and stylistic 2 

It was common for a medieval street to express its function through the street name, and several towns in England had lanes bearing that name. The word is recorded earliest in place names, bynames, and surnames (Oxford English Dictionary). Not all the four-​letter words are of Anglo-​Saxon origin: in fact only arse, fart, shit, and turd are. Other four-​letter words are of uncertain origin (including cunt, crap, fuck, twat). 3  Even though it is a Roman church (Saint Clement) which has a painting with the first Italian vernacular insult, ‘Fili de pute!’ (‘Whoresons’), probably painted before 1100.

290   Gabriele Azzaro variation bears witness to this: from sublime flights of masterful poetry to prosaic expressions like vidi un col capo sì di merda lordo (‘I saw a man, his head so smeared with shit’), puttaneggiar coi regi (‘fornicating with the kings’), le mani alzò con amendue le fiche (‘he gave the finger with both his hands’).4 Greek and Latin culture revived in the fifteenth and sixteenth century, after the fall of Constantinople. The physicality of love and human life in general brings back a renowned freedom of expression. Writers worship physical beauty, and explicit sexual language appears in many authors like the Italian Pacifico Massimo (a pre-​Sade bisexual libertine), Teofilo Folengo (who has a character selling ‘freshly defecated shit’), and Pietro Aretino (author of Luxurious Sonnets and The Wandering Whore, a Kamasutra-​ like encyclopaedia). It is a period of sexual and linguistic emancipation: ‘It would make a man’s heart to bleed’, wrote William Perkins in 1593, ‘to hear . . . how swearing, blaspheming, cursed speaking, railing, slandering, chiding, quarrelling, contending, jesting, mocking, flattering, lying, dissembling, vain and idle talking, overflow in all places’ (Perkins 1638 [1593], sig. A2). The Renaissance (and the Reformation) saw a dampening of theological swearing in favour of more modern, social, ethnic, and sexual insults, a shift from religious to secular swearing gained momentum. The demonization of Catholic symbols stifled the reference to sacred names in curses, fundamentalist bigotry rose, and various sects went as far as to call each other ‘whores’, and their adepts ‘(w)horesons’. It is notable that throughout the history of fiction—​drama in particular—​a persistent lineage of women swearers exists, which constitutes a testimonial to the fact that perhaps women have used taboo language across the centuries as well as men. All this, despite strong cultural criticism of ‘the weaker sex’ using the ‘stronger’ sex’s language. After the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (an inveterate swearer herself) profane language was censored with an Act in 1606 forbidding the use of religious curses on the stage. Pagan deities reappeared in force, and euphemisms replaced the former Christian references (zounds for ‘Gods wounds’, sbody, sblood, snails, sdeath, etc. with possessive s’s replacing the name of God).5 The legal crackdown on taboo language actually fertilized the fruitful minds of playwrights like Shakespeare, and inspired copious innuendos and play on words (Wells 2004). While defamatory speech in the street was full of coarse and virulent stereotyped expressions, some of Shakespeare’s characters swear with extravagant flamboyance: Prince Hal, for instance, addresses Falstaff ‘thou whoreson, obscene, grease tallow catch . . . thou whoreson impudent embossed rascal’; Petruchio calls Grumio ‘you whoreson malt-​horse drudge’; and Lear shouts to Oswald ‘you whoreson dog, you slave, you cur’ (Cressy 2013: 52–​3). Legal censorship got tighter during the first half of the seventeenth century, until Parliament closed down all the theatres in 1642, although examples exist of breaching 4  5 

Respectively in Canto XVIII: 116; Canto XIX: 108; Canto XXV: 2. For detailed historical evidence of censorship in the UK see McEnery (2006).

Taboo language in books, films, and the media    291 the law:  the translation of Pantagruel is famously adorned with the names given by Gargantua’s governesses to his ‘tool’ or ‘codpiece’: Which codpiece, or braguette, his governesses did every day deck up and adorn with fair nosegays, curious rubies, sweet flowers, and fine silken tufts, and very pleasantly would pass their time in taking you know what between their fingers, and dandling it, till it did revive and creep up to the bulk and stiffness of a suppository, or street magdaleon, which is a hard rolled-​up salve spread upon leather. Then did they burst out in laughing, when they saw it lift up its ears, as if the sport had liked them. One of them would call it her little dille, her staff of love, her quillety, her faucetin, her dandilolly. Another, her peen, her jolly kyle, her bableret, her membretoon, her quickset imp: another again, her branch of coral, her female adamant, her placket-​racket, her Cyprian sceptre, her jewel for ladies. And some of the other women would give it these names—​my bunguetee, my stopple too, my bush-​rusher, my gallant wimble, my pretty borer, my coney-​burrow-​ferret, my little piercer, my augretine, my dangling hangers, down right to it, stiff and stout, in and to, my pusher, dresser, pouting stick, my honey pipe, my pretty pillicock, linky pinky, futilletie, my lusty andouille, and crimson chitterling, my little couille bredouille, my pretty rogue, and so forth. (XI, 1)

Under a thick cloak of decorum, the eighteenth century saw the resurfacing of licentiousness; bawdy language was soon restored. The most prominent satirist of the Reformation has long been ostracized from the official canon because, being a licentious libertine, he did not mince words: John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester (1647–​80), recently championed by Graham Greene and Ezra Pound, was one of the most learned of the Restoration wits, besides acting and writing like a dissolute courtier. In A Ramble in St. James’s Park, we can count eight appearances of cunt, four of whore, and two of fuck and bitch, amongst other notables. ‘Rochester’s is a world seen from the crotch level’ (Hughes 1991: 140). Other words like piss, shit, bloody, whore, and quean merrily canter through Swift’s prose, in notable deviations from Augustan propriety. Swearing was clearly flourishing in Swift’s time, as his project The swearer’s bank attests: a financially viable proposal to build and maintain schools by fining one shilling per curse. Not to mention, across the Channel, the forays into the Parisian underworld of prostitution and debauchery by Nicolas-​Edme Restif de la Bretonne, author of an almost scientific treatise on prostitution in all its forms, and the notorious Marquis De Sade, amoral, obscene, cruel and . . . ‘sadistic’ par excellence. Musicians were not insensitive to the joys of swearing. Mozart for instance used such coarse language in his letters and in some of his canons that he was recently declared tourettian by a musical endocrinologist (Simkin 1992): even in his letters to his stern father we read lines like ‘from ten o’clock onwards I wrote rhymes: to be precise, all dirty stuff, about shit, and shitting, and arse licking’; he bids his cousin Maria Anna Thekla ‘Well, I wish you good night; but first shit in your bed and make it burst. Sleep soundly, my love; into your mouth your arse you’ll shove’. And several of his canons were published posthumously with altered titles: ‘Kiss me on my arse’ became ‘Let’s be merry’,

292   Gabriele Azzaro and ‘Lick my arse and wipe it clean’ turned into ‘Nothing makes me happier’ (Tartamella 2006: 225–​6). In the Victorian era, euphemism reigned supreme over the UK. On a literary level, Dickens and Trollope fully exemplify the prudish sensitivities of the time:  although demotic and criminal slang appears in many of Dickens’s novels, offensive language is totally taboo. What the hell becomes ‘what the—​something beginning with a capital H’, ‘jiggered’ and ‘drat’ replace ruder expletives, and trousers is famously rendered by ‘inexpressibles’ and ‘indescribables’. In Trollope, the extremely impulsive and irascible Archdeacon, Dr Grantley, cannot bring himself to venture further than a meek ‘Good Heavens!’. Notably, Shakespeare was ‘bowdlerized’.6 The only taboos to appear in print during the Victorian age emerge in cant dictionaries. Lists of words to help people understand the street language of beggars, conmen and thieves, had emerged from the 1550s onwards—​with a notable lack of interest in the Augustan age. They reappear in droves after 1785 (see Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue), when it is obvious that in the baser layers of society swearing was still spirited. The seven volumes of A Dictionary of Slang and Its Analogues by Farmer and Henley (1890–​1904) are illuminating, for instance with the inclusion of fuck and many of its compounds (fuckable, fuck-​finger, fuck-​fist, fuck-​hole, fuckish, fuckster). Whereas Americans have only recently gained status as turbo-​swearers, Australians have always been renowned for their strong language, which is usually portrayed as repetitive and unimaginative. The stereotypical quality of their offensive expressions is amended by one notable author, the comedian Barry Humphries, creator of a satirical strip where the prototypical Australian character Barry McKenzie donated the English-​ speaking world some of the brightest expressions for bodily functions (drain the Dragon, point Percy at the porcelain, syphon the Python, strangle a darky), sexual activity (sink the sausage, flash the nasty, spear the bearded clam, jerking the gherkin) and vomiting (technicolour yawn) (Partridge 2006). The nineteenth century started with the scandal caused by one word in Shaw’s Pygmalion, with Eliza Doolittle refusing to walk:  ‘Walk! Not bloody likely.’ The following, dark decades were brutally censored, due to the general authoritarian politics spreading across Europe. It is with the post-​war era, the growth of mass-​media, and the film industry that strong language comes back with a vengeance, in the wake of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Philip Larkin. Censorship, tight-​fisted at intermittent bursts throughout the twentieth century up to the Second World War, has recently gone softer. Fuck was first broadcast by the BBC in 1965, and reactionary efforts like Mary Whitehouse’s seem to have ended in a puff of smoke; even Hollywood has swung from restraint to permissiveness, away from the chaste Production Code from the 1930s/​ 40s (forbidding anything from excessive kissing to suggestive behaviour, profanity of 6  Dr Thomas Bowdler (1754–​1825) and his family took it to heart to cleanse the language of anything they could put their hands on—​from the Bible to Shakespeare—​so that ‘bed’ in the Song of Solomon became ‘bridal chariot’ and in Shakespeare ‘God!’ appears as ‘Heavens!’, strong language is deleted or camouflaged, bawdy characters vanish, and Ophelia’s suicide becomes accidental drowning.

Taboo language in books, films, and the media    293 language down to the famous ‘I don’t give a damn’ whose unnatural stress pattern was meant to wash the language clean). More recently, the competition with TV series like The Sopranos, Fargo, South Park, or Breaking Bad is pushing film producers towards wider cursing avenues. The Code was eventually replaced by the present Rating System, which leaves plenty of legroom for bad language to kick in.7 In recent years, many authors have chosen to reproduce demotic (colloquial or slang) expressions directly or indirectly in their works. Without dipping into the murky waters of pornography, all the taboo words feature prominently in authors like Hubert Selby, Martin Amis, Will Self, etc. Since the early 1990s, a new form of censorship is trying to bridle offensive and demeaning language: political correctness bans the use of judgmental expressions, particularly those directed at socially weak or marginalized minorities, like ethnic groups, financially, mentally or physically challenged people, ostracized individuals. Hence the appearance of coloureds, Caucasians, sex worker, the visually handicapped, underprivileged, physically challenged, etc. But the fact that such choices pander to the speaker’s rather than their listener’s sensitivity has caused a reversal of terms in many areas; many homosexuals for instance prefer queer to other PC terms, and Blacks is often reclaimed by people politically renamed African Americans. Taboo language in the media is becoming increasingly ‘de-​tabooed’, also thanks to public broadcast rating systems, upheld to defend both freedom of speech and local sensibilities. Religious terms have become quite inoffensive, some sexual expressions still retain a degree of abrasiveness, and racial slurs are still considered most objectionable. Radio and TV broadcasts are perhaps the most differentiated territories across the Atlantic. Whereas language decency is by and large desirable in the UK, many American programmes allow for some scathing deviations. As a general trend, in print like elsewhere, the focus of taboo language might seem to have slid along the centuries from religion to bodily functions and ethnic or minority disparagement (Hughes 1991: 237). Following the course of the history of literature and media productions in English-​speaking countries, this classic transition from religious to sexual and scatological swearing is actually flanked by a persistent underground reference to physicality (sex and effluvia). As many scholars have noted time and again, people swear by what they perceive as most powerful: therefore, religious swearing follows the rise and decline of religious feelings and the Churches, while anatomical swearing flows through seen and unseen crevices with adamant boldness. Also, attitudes towards taboo language tend to waver along culturally determined currents. It is interesting to note, for instance, how the social and political advance of the bourgeoisie forced the powerful to shun taboo language, while the powerless embraced it. After the turn of the eighteenth century, the aspiring British middle class decided to


More detailed information on the power of censorship can be found in Allan and Burridge (2006); Heins (2001); and Jay (1992).

294   Gabriele Azzaro distinguish themselves from the plebs by polishing their manners: the language of cursing, insults and taboo expressions became then a mark of inferiority (McEnery 2006). More recently, the balance may have swung the other way, especially if we turn to films and TV programmes.

16.3  Big and small screens The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) is a good example of the standards generally adopted in the ‘democratic’ countries as far as film censorship is concerned. The BBFC offers guidelines on taboo language to reflect public attitudes, as follows: U—​‘Infrequent use only of very mild bad language’. PG—​‘Mild bad language only’. 12A/​12—​‘Moderate language is allowed. The use of strong language (e.g. “fuck”) must be infrequent’. 15—​‘There may be frequent use of strong language (e.g. “fuck”). The strongest terms (e.g. “cunt”) may be acceptable if justified by the context. Aggressive or repeated use of the strongest language is unlikely to be acceptable’. 18—​No constraints on language. This shows that already at fifteen the strongest language taboos are vanishing. The first fuck uttered on screen dates back to 1967 in two films: Ulysses by Joseph Strick and I’ll Never Forget What’s ’is Name by Michael Winner. Earlier than that, it was the Italian vaffanculo (‘fuck off ’) to feature in 1945 in the film Il ratto delle Sabine by Mario Bonnard. Three questions are briefly addressed in what follows: 1. Which taboo expressions feature more prominently in films? 2. Is there a change in the quantity and quality of bad language during the last decades? 3. Is there a difference between films in general and TV-​serial language? The following data is based on two corpora: one of 352 movie scripts totalling over 8 million words, and another of 1,625 scripts from recent British and American TV serials, with over 11 million words (Azzaro 2005).

16.3.1 Films The ten most ‘degenerate’ films were: 8 Mile (with 461 items), The Big Lebowski (425 hits), Pulp Fiction (419), True Romance (402), Training Day (349), Natural Born Killers (322), Bad Santa (313), House of 1000 Corpses (249), Suburbia (242), U–​Turn (238). The following words were present in at least 40% of the movies: fuck (7327 occurrences), shit (2934), God (2642), hell (2517), ass (1454), damn (1309), Jesus (989), Christ

Taboo language in books, films, and the media    295 (616), bitch (576), bastard (556), piss (481), idiot (232), whore (217), dick (174), pussy (149), nigger (146), (bloody) hell (89), jerk (82), cock(suck . . .) (80), faggot (78), prick (70), shag (52), bugger (38), sod (35), cunt (31), slut (30), pimp (28), tart (23), son-​of-​a-​bitch (14), poof (11), pansy (10). Authors’ ingenuity flies full throttle with some of these items, like the compounds of ass (and its variants): ass-​backwards describing something done in the wrong order, ass-​bumping as a description of a rough bus ride, ass-​bustin(g) for hard-​work, ass-​deep meaning ‘knee-​deep’; other common ass coins are strangely absent, like tight-​ass, perhaps in the attempt to avoid typecasts. Bitching and bitchinest assume a positive connotation: ‘You got a bitchin’ car’, ‘That was the bitchinest thing I ever seen in my whole life’ and ‘Man, you got . . . you got the bitchinist car in the Valley’ (American Graffiti); other bitch expressions are more cryptic: bitch-​box (a telephone or walkie-​talkie), bitch-​slapping (the verbal lashing on political talk-​shows), bitch-​whore as an intensifier ‘But Clarence and that bitch-​whore girlfriend of his brought this all on themselves’ (True Romance). Cunt is by far the strongest lemma, addressed both to male and female characters. It functions as an insult, as a metaphor (synecdoche), and as a literal referent: Insult GEORGE: You dumb cunt, everybody fucks everybody, grow up, for Christ’s sakes. (Shampoo) DAD: You fuckin’ little douchebag cunt, you watch your language in front of your mother. (Natural Born Killers) BURKE: Cunting Hun! Bloody damnbutchering Nazi pig! (The Exorcist) Metaphor Great to see you, Maxine. Sorry about the cunt at reception. (Being John Malkovic) Is this a declaration of war? Is this some sort of white cunt’s joke that black cunts don’t get? (Lock Stock And Two Smoking Barrels) Literal [S]‌he advised me to keep my fingers away from her Goddam cunt. (The Exorcist) HANNIBAL LECTER: I c-​can sssmell your cunt. (Silence of the Lambs) It seems that its strength almost bans it from literal use, except for violent behavioural deviance like in The Exorcist and The Silence of the Lambs. It mostly collocates with the premodifiers little, fucking, fat, dumb, terrible. As expected, fuck is the trendiest and most versatile of all four-​letter words, stand-​ alone or compounded: fuckable, fuckbag, fuckball, fucked, fucked-​in-​the-​head, fuckeditallup, fucked-​up, fuckee, fuckeen, fucken, fucker, fuckey, fuckface, fuckhead, fuckiag, fucking (fuckin/​fuck’n), fuckit, fuck-​me, fuckneck, fucko, fuck-​off, fuckola, fuckononium,

296   Gabriele Azzaro fuckrag, fuckstain, fuck-​up, fuckwad; compounded with mother it yields motherf-​, motherfu-​, motherfuck, motherfucker, motherfucking. Aptly, fuckable applies equally to both sexes: [T]‌he women say he’s fuckable. And one of the men said he’s fuckable. (Ed TV) She is severely fuckable, isn’t she? (Alien Resurrection) Fuckbag, fuckball, fucko, fuckrag, fuckstain, and fuckwad are similar insults to fuckhead. Fuckee exemplifies the standard use of the morpheme –​ee: Kennedy fucked us in ’61, ’62, and he’s fuckin’ us now! And that fuckin’ zealot Bobby Kennedy is the fuckee! (JFK1) Fuckononium is a neologism inserted along with fuffonium and assonium as part of a pun on metal names: The mines done it. All that uranium, plutonium, fuffonium, fuckononium, assononium, all that ‘om’! (U-​turn) It is used with morphological infixation, often in pre-​stress position: Well, it worked, and I  will not let you fail. You are Jerry Ma-​fuckin-​guire. (Jerry Maguire) Look, just because I wouldn’t give no man a foot massage, don’t make it right for Marcellus to throw Antwan off a building into a glass-​motherfuckin-​house, fuckin’ up the way the nigger talks. (Pulp Fiction)8 Shag gives us shagadelic, shag-​in, shag-​mad, shag-​sack, Shaguar (brand name), shag-​ very-​well, Shagwell (proper noun): Felicity Shagwell, CIA. Shagwell by name, Shag-​very-​Well by reputation. (Austin Powers II, 6.400) Also for the lemma shit we have a lavish coffer of coins: s-​hit, S-​H-​I-​T, shite, shitter, shittier, shittiest, shittin(g); derivationally we have shitty, shitless, and shittity; plus the extravagant compounds:  shit-​ass, shitbag, shitball, shitbird, shitbox, shitcan, shitcanned, shit-​eatin(g), shitface, shitfaced, shit-​for-​brains, shitfucker, shitfuck, shithead, shitheel, shithole, shithouse, shitkick, shit-​kicker, shitkicking, shitlist, shitload, shitpoke, shitpot, 8 

An interesting film chart on the frequency of fuck alone is at https://​​wiki/​List_​of_​ films_​that_​most_​frequently_​use_​the_​word_​%22fuck%22.

Taboo language in books, films, and the media    297 shitstick, shitstorm, shitwork. Shitbox denotes a cheap, battered junk car; to shitcan means ‘to denigrate unmercifully’; shit-​eatin(g) normally describes a smug, complacent, or embarrassed grin; shitfaced stands for extremely drunk; shit-​for-​brains, shitfuck(er) denote an extremely stupid or annoying person; shitstorm indicates a violent or unpleasant situation/​place. Very common is the filler and shit (aka an’ shit or n shit): Now, we solve this, we could get famous, do shaving ads and shit. (Lethal Weapon) Alex and Wink get out of the van. Wink’s a mess. Broken nose. All bloody and shit. (8 Mile) One example from Lethal Weapon shows the origin of this expression: ‘They show emotions around women and shit like that’ (also validated by the OED). A mention of honour for shit-​words goes to the reduplicative expletive: Oh no—​shittity brickitty—​it’s my sister’s birthday—​shit—​we’re meant to be having dinner. (Notting Hill) Which brings us to the idiom with bricks, an expression of terror: . . . you’ll be breathin’ red dust and shittin’ bricks. (Total Recall)

He’s standing, barely in the shadows, nearly exposed. Shitting bricks. (Saving Private Ryan) A transition occurred at the end of the 1960s between strongly reduced usage of taboo words to modern freedom of representation. Males outswear females with a ratio of 4 to 1, but both genders are represented as swearing more over time, particularly in the use of fuck and shit (Jay 1992: 226). Chronologically, the watershed is clear across the late 1960s, as we see from the percentage of taboo words over total number of words in various periods: 20s to mid-​60s 0.02%

Late 60s and 70s 0.24%

80s 0.22%

90s and 00s 0.37%

The chronological distribution of certain terms rather than others sketched the historical configuration of taboo language across those decades: so, fuck, shit, hell, and damn were the four discriminating items between the five periods, with a steady rise of fuck and shit; conversely, hell and damn increased sharply around 1970 but then dipped in popularity; pussy, nigger, motherfuck(er), and dick-​words all escalate significantly after the late 1960s. These trends reflect the history of censorship in the film industry (Jay 1992; Steinberg 1982).

298   Gabriele Azzaro

16.3.2 TV  series The most common taboo expressions on prime TV are hell (2687 occurrences), (my) God (2584), damn (1592), arse/​ass(hole) (975); of average importance we find bitch (554), screw (494), idiot (396), bastard (263), piss (261), gosh (249), son-​of-​a-​bitch (226), jerk (203), moron (161), whore (121); less common are Jesus (Christ) (82), slut (74), heck (54), fart (46), bloody (hell) (34), poof (23), bugger (21), shit (17), sod (16), Christ (10), prick (10); and almost irrelevant pansy (8), Goddamn(it) (7), dick (7), tart (6), shag (5), bonker (4), nigger (2), blimey (1), cock (1), faggot (1); no instances were found of fuck, cunt, and pussy, alone or compounded. The linguistic difference between film and primetime series lies in just a few expressions: by subtracting the proportion of occurrences of individual expressions in films from the corresponding proportion in series, we obtain (my) God as the single expletive dominating TV language, while fuck compounds are exclusively on the big screen; hell expletives are equally distributed, while faggot, cock, bum, whore, bitch, nigger, pussy, dick, piss, bastard, hell, Christ, arse/​ass(hole), Jesus (Christ), Goddamn(it), and shit are progressively more typical of films. In general, both for films and TV, the majority ‘of the portrayals of men and women cursing show that men curse more often than women, men use more offensive words than women, and women use more euphemisms than men’. Men are rarely sanctioned, and cursing women are bad characters (whores, drunks, drug addicts) (Jay 2000: 171). Primetime TV language appears much more sedate than film language, of course. This would not hold if we analysed post-​watershed programs like The Sopranos, The Wire, Entourage, True Blood, Breaking Bad, The Thick of It, etc.

16.4  The press It is interesting—​and refreshing—​to read in the style guidelines of the Guardian how taboo language should be a meaningful ingredient of discourse to be treated with respect: Even some readers who agree with Lenny Bruce that ‘take away the right to say “fuck” and you take away the right to say “fuck the government” ’ might feel that we sometimes use such words unnecessarily, although comments in response to Guardian Style’s blogpost on the subject were overwhelmingly in support of our policy.

The rules to be applied by authors and editors should be: 1. mind and respect the reader, by using such words purposefully; 2. avoid unnecessary taboo language; 3. be aware of the relative strength of taboos (‘the stronger the swearword, the harder we ought to think about using it’); and 4. avoid asterisks ‘or such silliness as b-​-​-​-​-​-​’, which are just a weak and futile cop-​out.’ (Marsh and Hodsdon 2017).

Taboo language in books, films, and the media    299 Frequency 160 140 120 100 80 60 40 20 nt Cu

le As sh o

Fa rt


Fu ck



se /a ss Ar


er gg Bu

d Ba sta r

Da m



Figure 16.1 Frequency.

The editorial style guides of many newspapers are hidden at the very bottom of an ocean of unattractive legal and copyright trivia. Those for the Daily Mail seem to be available only in a very detailed guide by Margaret Ashworth, former editor of the newspaper (Ashworth 2016).9 Yet some of the major British newspapers are not shy of printing the F-​ and C-​words: in 2009, in The Guardian the word fuck (and its variants) featured 705 times, with a further 279 mentions in The Independent; The Observer printed them 269 times, The Independent on Sunday 74, The Times 3, The Sunday Times 2, and in all other papers together 0. The figures for the arch-​taboo C-​word were: Guardian 49, Observer 20, Independent 8, Independent on Sunday 5, others 0 (Marsh 2010). A search on the BNC newspaper subcorpus gave the results in Figure 16.1.10 These are the most frequent British newspapers ordered by circulation: The Sun, The Daily Mail, The Daily Mirror, The Daily Star, The Daily Telegraph, The Daily Express, The Times, The Financial Times, The Daily Record, The Evening Standard, The Guardian, and The Independent (https://​​). In order to glimpse the distribution of the most flexible taboo words across a wide range of readership, I considered a sample based on demographic and sociolectal variation. The following Google search through five British newspapers spanning a varied social spectrum gave the scores in Figure 16.2. In the American press, the counts in Figure 16.3 were obtained for five of the most widely read newspapers, under the same search conditions.11 Almost all the instances of bugger and cunt are reported third-​party sentences.


See especially Ashworth (2017). The most grammatically and functionally flexible lemmas were included in the count. 11  The ten most widely read newspapers nationwide are: The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, San Jose Mercury News, New York Daily News, New York Post, The Washington Post, Chicago Sun-​Times, and The Denver Post. The choice was dictated by demographic and sociolectal variation. 10 

300   Gabriele Azzaro

140000 120000 100000 80000 60000 40000 20000 0

The Sun Fuck

Daily Mail Ass/arse



Daily Mirror Piss


The Times Asshole


The Guardian Bugger


Figure 16.2  Some taboo terms in British newspapers.

In the case of the American press, it is possible to be more fine-​grained thanks to the Corpus of Contemporary American (COCA). A search on the COCA Corpus through American magazines and newspapers gave Figure 16.4. The proportions are shown in Figure 16.5. The Australian Press Council is a body established in 1976 to promote standards in the press; it aims at developing printing standards, responding to complaints and issuing recommendations for policy-​makers at various levels. An online search through all their published documents (‘Standards of Practice, Policies, Complaints, and Publications’) gave zero results for the phrases offensive language and taboo language/​words; furthermore, searching all the major swearwords only yielded results regarding the lemma shit

Taboo language in books, films, and the media    301

12000 10000 8000 6000 4000 2000 0

Wall Street Journal Damn


New York Times Fuck


USA Today Bastard

Los Angeles Times Piss



Washington Post Bugger


Figure 16.3  Some taboo terms in US newspapers.

in a complaint about an article with a subtitle ‘It feels like shit’. The complaint was not about the language but the unsatisfactory contents of the article. Along with books, films, and other media, the press is also patrolled by the Australian Classification Board (ACB), a statutory censorship institution founded in 1995 and controlled by the government. It is mainly meant to produce advice for consumers to make informed decisions about their reading, viewing, or playing choices. Six elements are considered crucial in the classification:  drug use, language, nudity, themes, sex, and violence. An analysis of the rulings from the last decade showed no cases of printed materials:  the decisions concern films and computer games. In 2007 the film Sleuth was classified as ‘Moderate’ for ‘strong coarse language, infrequent aggressive coarse

l ta To

rt rd

Da m



























9000 8000 7000 6000 5000 4000 3000 2000 1000 0


Figure 16.4  Some taboo terms in magazines and newspapers.

120% 100% 80% 60% 40% 20%



Ba s



Figure 16.5  Overall contrast between newspapers and magazines.


s/a rse

r ge

Bu g

t Fa r

ss Pi

it Sh

e sh ol

Fu ck


Cu nt


Taboo language in books, films, and the media    303 language, adult themes’: linguistic objections report the fact that fuck and derivatives appeared sixteen times and cunt three times, even though the board judged it justified by the context; in 2009, Charlie Wilson’s War was given M due to ‘Moderate coarse language, drug references, and violence; partial nudity’; in 2013 three films were classified ‘Mature’ due to ‘frequent coarse language and mature themes’; in 2014 the film Blended was classified ‘Mature’ for ‘Sexual references and crude humour’ even if ‘the film contains mild coarse language’; in 2016 the film X-​Men: Apocalypse was classified ‘Mature’ due to ‘action violence and infrequent coarse language’ (this referred to the infrequent use of fuck and one of piss off, in humorous contexts); in 2017 the film Split was classified ‘Mature’ due to violence and one item of language (the intimation of the word motherfucker). As a comparison with the British press, I have collected data on the five Australian papers with the largest circulation (according to http://​​ Top50/​Top50-​CurrentAustralia.htm). See Figure 16.6.

7000 6000 5000 4000 3000 2000 1000 0

Ass/arse The Age



The Australian




The Daily Telegraph

Figure 16.6  Some taboo terms in Australian newspapers.



The Courier-Mail

Asshole Cunt Canberra Times

304   Gabriele Azzaro

16.5 Broadcasting All the English speaking countries with established radio and television traditions have some form of legalized control regarding taboo words, or ‘offensive language’. A fairly common phenomenon strides across most TV schedules in the free speech countries: ideally, a nine o’clock fence divides the realm of social politeness and politically correct agreeableness from the battleground of explicit language. The watershed does not apply to radio, but particular attention is required when children are likely to be listening. Only occasionally, talk show hosts and celebrities bombard their audience with filth: TV chef Jamie Oliver recently caused a public rant by uttering twenty-​four fuck-​ related expletives in fifty minutes on air; many viewers stormed his website with complaints, criticizing the concentration of unnecessary and unrealistic cursing. Talk show host Jonathan Ross and TV chef Gordon Ramsay have also come to prominence for taboo language, although it is generally recognized that such use of swearwords is uncreative and stereotyped.12 In recent years, TV critics have noticed that the nine o’clock watershed is becoming increasingly thin (Preston 2008), especially noting how stand-​ up comedy across the 9pm timeline is often based on strong language. Ofcom is the national communication censor in the UK. It is accountable to Parliament, and amongst other sectors, it enforces monitoring rules on the TV, radio, and video-​on-​demand services, in order to safeguard viewers and foster competition. In particular, it aims at protecting radio and television users from harmful or offensive content, it prevents individuals and groups from being unfairly treated on the radio or television, it defends people’s privacy. Besides setting standards for offensive language in the audiovisual media, Ofcom also coordinates research to assess how perceptions of potentially offensive language differ based on context and demographic variables, so as to inform its decisions about language and style recommendations. It also investigates people’s attitudes towards taboo expressions. Two previous Ofcom studies on attitudes to offensive language (in 2005 and 2010) inspired a more recent survey in 2016, which included a larger number of words (150 altogether), involved a broader range of minority groups as participants and contemplated offensive body language for the first time. The main objectives of the research were: • to understand current public attitudes towards offensive language on TV and radio; • to establish a contemporary barometer of offensive language in terms of acceptability; • to give Ofcom an understanding of the contextual factors which influence the acceptability of offensive words on TV and radio—​both generally and in particular. (Cameron and Stevenson 2016: 3) 12 

In 2008, the Australian Parliament investigated Ramsay’s swearing on TV, after a program where he swore more than eighty times within fifty minutes.

Taboo language in books, films, and the media    305 A sample of 248 participants was gathered from all around the UK, and the methodology adopted comprised both face-​to-​face focus groups and in-​depth interviews, plus a quantitative online survey of 150 potentially offensive words and gestures13 followed by an online community discussion with the same participants. The importance of context emerged, as well as the effect of time of broadcasting, frequency of repetition of taboo expressions, audience expectations, the tone of the program, and the comfortable acceptance of live rather than prerecorded swearing. Mitigating strategies were also appreciated, like warnings, bleeps, or retroactive apologies (Cameron and Stevenson 2016: 21). The offensive punch of words and gestures was recognized as changing over time: for instance words like cretin and loony were considered to have lost direct reference to a disability or mental impairment. Looking at the most offensive culprits, the Ofcom study pointed to the following: amongst the general swearwords and body parts, the most offensive were cunt, fuck, and motherfucker (considered as highly unacceptable pre-​watershed but generally acceptable post-​watershed); slightly more tolerable were bastard, beaver, bellend, clunge, cock, dick, dickhead, fanny, flaps, gash, knob, minge, prick, punani, pussy, snatch, and twat, which were classified as strong words14 (generally unacceptable pre-​watershed but mostly acceptable post-​watershed); amongst words with sexual reference no item was considered totally unacceptable, whereas cocksucker, dildo, ho, jizz, nonce, prickteaser, skank, slag, slut, wanker, and whore were judged generally unacceptable pre-​watershed but mostly acceptable post-​watershed15; sexual orientation judgments had batty boy, chick with a dick, faggot, fudge-​packer, gender bender, and shirt lifter as the strongest, highly unacceptable words requiring solid contextualization16; on the other side of the spectrum, gay was of little concern, and bummer, fairy, and pansy potentially acceptable; generally unacceptable signs were the blow job, the two fingers with tongue (cunnilingus), and the wanker gestures, while the Iberian slap, the middle finger, and the two fingers were reported as milder (potentially unacceptable pre-​watershed); mental

13  General: bastard, bellend, bint, bitch, bloody, bugger, bullshit, cow, crap, damn, dickhead, feck/​effing, fuck, ginger, git, minger, motherfucker, munter, pissed, pissed off, shit, sod off, son of a bitch, twat. Body parts: arse, arsehole, balls, beaver, beef curtains, bloodclaat, bollocks, clunge, cock, cunt, dick, fanny, flange, flaps, gash, knob, minge, prick, punani, pussy, snatch, tits. Sexual references: bonk, bukkake, cocksucker, dildo, ho, jizz, nonce, prickteaser, rapey, shag, skank, slag, slapper, slut, tart, wanker, whore. Race and ethnicity: chinky, choc ice, coloured, coon, darky, dago, gippo, golliwog, gook, honky, hun, jap, jock, kraut, nazi, negro, nigger, nig-​nog, paki, pikey, polack, raghead, sambo, slope, spade, spic, taff, wog, wop. Sexual orientation/​gender identity: batty boy, bender, bum boy, bumclat, bummer, chi-​chi man, chick with a dick, dyke, faggot, fairy, fudge-​packer, gay, gender bender, he-​she, homo, lezza/​lesbo, muff diver, nancy, pansy, poof, queer, rugmuncher/​carpetmucher, shirt lifter, tranny. Mental/​physical condition: cretin, cripple, div, looney, mental, midget, mong, nutter, psycho, retard, schizo, spastic/​spakka/​spaz, special, vegetable, window licker. Religious insults: fenian, God, Goddamn, Jesus Christ, kafir, kike, papist, prod, taig, yid. Hand gestures: blow job, Iberian slap, middle finger, two fingers with tongue, two fingers, wanker. Older people: coffin dodger, old bag, FOP (fucking old person). 14  Beef curtains and bloodclaat were excluded since they were unknown to at least 60% of the subjects. 15  Bukkake and rapey were not familiar to at least 60% of respondents, so they were excluded. 16  Chi-​chi man was not sufficiently familiar.

306   Gabriele Azzaro health and physical disability words distributed as follows:  milder words (of limited concern) were cretin, div, loony, mental, nutter, and psycho; medium words (potentially unacceptable) counted midget, schizo, special, and vegetable; strong words (generally unacceptable) included cripple; strongest words (highly unacceptable at all times—​strong contextualization required) were mong, retard, spastic/​spakka/​spaz, and window licker; racial insults were scored as follows: milder words (of limited concern) were jock, hun, and nazi; medium words (potentially unacceptable) counted coloured, gippo, kraut, and pikey; strong words (generally unacceptable) included honky, jap, negro, polack, raghead, and spade;17 the strongest words (highly unacceptable at all times—​strong contextualization required) were chinky, coon, darky, golliwog, nigger, nig-​nog, paki, and wog18 (Cameron and Stevenson 2016: 44–​54). It is interesting that participants agreed on a consistent set of suggested guidelines, summed up in the following points: 1. the situational context should be considered in assessing the potentially offensive nature of language and gestures, since—​as one participant commented—​‘It’s hard to think of words on their own. We have to put them into the context they are used’; 2. The likely audience should be taken into account, and the potential audience is also important before 9pm on TV, or when children are likely to be listening to the radio: one respondent said ‘A radio play in the daytime is likely to have an adult audience. However, there may also be pre-​school children exposed to language here’; 3. The 9pm television watershed continues to act as an important way of protecting children, but it also helps sensitive adults; 4. Before the 9pm television watershed, or when children are likely to listen to the radio, offensive language should be relevant and serve a purpose—​and not be very strong, frequent, or gratuitous (recognizing that some strong language in some contexts may even be necessary or educational); 5. Potentially offensive language related to race, sexuality, gender identity, and disability should be treated with the most care. This kind of language was clearly defined as the most inappropriate and unacceptable of all; 6. great consideration should be given to what is generally acceptable to most viewers, while protecting minorities, or—​as one participant aptly put it—​‘Words and gestures that are aimed at particular groups are actually offensive against most citizens of the UK today as most of us live in communities where we know people from those groups and are friends of many’; 7. Broadcasters should comply with higher standards in prerecorded programmes, but more leeway should be granted during live programmes before the watershed; and 8. Warnings are important so that audiences know what to expect, and they should be as specific as is appropriate: ‘Warnings do make a difference; as a parent you can decide if your child is OK to be exposed to certain content. Similarly, if you dislike foul language you will know it is not for you’ (Cameron and Stevenson 2016: 57–​60). If the king legislates about thieves, these must flourish in the realm: in the presence of so much normative attention taboo language must be thriving. In the same way,



Choc ice, dago, gook, slope, spic, and wop were not widely recognized. Sambo was excluded for the reasons mentioned above.

Taboo language in books, films, and the media    307 parental punishment has no effect on adult personal swearing rates (Berges et al. 1983; Jay et al. 2006). Ofcom controls the private channels, but the government-​owned stations like the BBC have their own decency code. The BBC in particular has a more relaxed policy for indecency, namely the 9pm watershed policy, which aims at protecting children.19 It is interesting that the printed guidelines of the BBC on language style do not mention taboo words at all. The body which regulates broadcasting censorship in the USA is the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), ‘an independent US government agency overseen by Congress’. It was established by the Communications Act of 1934 and it regulates interstate and international communications by radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable (Federal Communications Commission 2017). The FCC lists three levels of taboo content: obscene, indecent, and profane. Obscene content must answer to three criteria established by the Supreme Court: 1. Obscenity must appeal to an average person’s prurient interest; 2. it must feature sexual conduct in a patently offensive way; 3. taken as a whole, it lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. Indecent content portrays sexual or excretory organs or activities in a way that does not meet the three-​way test for obscenity. Profane content contains grossly offensive language considered a public nuisance. All three criteria are fairly subjective and context-​bound, but they have been contested by several free-​speech groups as being too repressive. Such organizations claim that censorship is an infringement of the First Amendment protecting freedom of speech, and it will ultimately inhibit creative freedom. The National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) for instance is a group of fifty non-​ profit organizations spread across the States (such as the American Ethical Union (AEU) and the National Communication Association (NCA)). Its mission is ‘to promote freedom of thought, inquiry, and expression and oppose censorship in all its forms’ (http://​​about-​us). Taboo language is defended by other establishments at higher levels too. In 2012, the US Second Circuit Court of Appeals issued a controversial ruling in a lawsuit against the Fox channel (where all the major broadcast networks joined Fox). The aim was to bridle the FCC’s authority to restrict the use of profanity on public airwaves. In its ruling, the Second Circuit overruled the FCC’s attempt to censor so-​called ‘fleeting expletives’ in the late-​night ‘safe harbour’ hours, and excused the broadcasters from being fined 19 

The general editorial rules call for ‘careful judgments about the use of the strongest language post-​ watershed’ which must be ‘clearly signposted’. The strongest language (cunt, motherfucker, and fuck or its derivatives) ‘must be referred to and approved by the relevant output controller, who should consider the editorial justification’ (http://​​editorialguidelines/​guidelines/​harm-​and-​offence/​ language).

308   Gabriele Azzaro (Liptak 2012). As a consequence, media experts predicted an increase in explicit language on television. As a way of checking this, the Parents Television Council (2010) recorded and analysed all use of profanity on all primetime entertainment programs on the major broadcast networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, UPN, and the WB in 2005, and

Total percentage increase by channel 350% 300% 250% 200% 150% 100% 50% 0%



CBS Global

Figure 16.7  Broadcast taboo words.

NBC Per hour

All channels

Taboo language in books, films, and the media    309 ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, and the CW in 2010) during the first full two weeks of the fall television premiere season for 124 programming hours in 2005, and 128 in 2010 (excluding films, newscasts, and sporting events) (Fig. 16.7). Profanity on primetime broadcast entertainment programming increased 69.3% on all channels from 2005 to 2010, in spite of the reduction from six to five primetime broadcast networks in that time bracket. Interesting findings across all the networks were: 1. The harshest profanities proliferated most, and in explicit references to genitalia and bodily functions; 2. such increases concentrated in the 8:00 PM period (the ‘Family Hour’), and at 9:00 PM; 3. use of the bleeped or muted f-​word increased by 2,400%, from eleven instances to 276 instances, and use of the bleeped f-​word in the Family Hour increased by over 1,000%, from ten instances to 111. After the 9:00 watershed, use of the bleeped f-​ word increased from one to 156; 4. use of the bleeped s-​word in the Family Hour increased from eleven to forty-​two (281%), and use of the bleeped or muted s-​word from eleven to ninety-​five (763%); 5. There were also increases in the use of anatomical and sexual references, use of the word screw increased 121%, and use of the word boobs increased 90%. It is curious how CBS and NBC aired fewer taboo words at nine o’clock, but crammed more swearwords before and after. An example often quoted for moral and linguistic decay, is the famous ‘fuck scene’ in The Wire, where two policemen investigating a murder case fill over four air minutes with derivatives from the single expletive fuck, to express a wide range of emotions, from disgust to surprise, from shock to fear, joy, disappointment . . . (Simon 2006).20 Based on similar evidence, parental and moral-​ enforcement associations across the US wish for more stringent rules and greater power given to the FCC. But watching those four minutes with a free mind shines light on the scene from a different angle: imagine the sheer fun of the writers, the efforts of the actors not to laugh, the artistic originality of the humour involved; in this light, a monstrous offence might turn into sheer delight. In December 2011, Senator Stephen Conroy, the minister in charge of Australia’s broadcasting standards, shocked the nation while addressing the National Press Club in Canberra by using the F-​word live on national television during children viewing hours (assuming any sane child would sit through an hour of boring political questioning). Mr Conroy said ‘If a tax goes up, God, that is sovereign risk. But if a tax goes down, fucking fantastic.’ (Pearlman 2011). Australians are generally thought of as coarse, offensive speakers, but to my knowledge there is no evidence that they may use taboo language more than speakers of other countries or cultures.



310   Gabriele Azzaro The BBC guidelines stand out for balance: What started as a liberal crusade to raise awareness and stop the use of allegedly hurtful expressions has, for some, become a linguistic dictatorship. The best advice is ‘use your common sense’.’ Words like ‘crippled, spastic, Mongolism, idiot, retarded, and mentally defective’ are not acceptable. Also, colour or ethnic origin should be mentioned ‘only if relevant to the story’. The guidelines are sensible and broadminded, in what is openly defined as a complicated area. The punchline is ‘Use your head.’ Allen 2003

16.6 Conclusion All the classic functions of swearing which have been noted in oral taboo language are represented both in print and on air. Drawing on the detailed taxonomy of uses by McEnery (2006: 32), I will sum them up as follows: Literal: ‘He fucked your sister’. Insult: ‘Fuck you; fucking idiot; you fuckface’. Expletive: ‘Fuck!; fuck me!; fuck it!’ Idiomatic: ‘Fuck all; give a fuck’ (including Phrasal Verbs as in ‘they fucked off; stop fucking about/​around; he’s totally fucked up’. Predicative: ‘The reception was shit’. Intensifying: ‘Fucking great; get in the fucking car; they fucking did it’. Pronominal: ‘He knows fuck all; that fuck; get your ass over here; we’ve got shit to do’. Reclaimed: ‘What’s up nigger?; niggaz’.

A deep, personal sense of broken intimacy is at the heart of taboo expressions. By banning reference to religious, sexual, and scatological elements, we abide by our sense of respect for human privacy; a taboo concerns the most subjective, intimate realms of human individuality, elements which are not commonly shared or easily put on public display. Taboos defile or destroy some sacred domain of the individual’s unshareable intimacy (Azzaro 2005: 11). A general lessening of the grips of censorship are detectable in books, films, and post-​ watershed TV programmes as far as the English-​speaking world is concerned. A lot remains to be learnt from other regions, across different cultural levels and in distinct political environments.

Chapter 17

Tab o os an d ba d l anguage in th e mou t h s of p oliticia ns a nd in advert i si ng toby ralph and barnaby ralph

17.1 Introduction Swearing is a lot like farting—​it’s something most of us do, but some of us are less public about it than others. One of the rare scholarly works on the subject of profanity, Holy Sh*t by Melissa Mohr, claims that roughly 0.7% of daily words used are profanities, which may not sound like a lot, but means the average person swears roughly once every 150 words spoken (Mohr 2013). This is likely to be at least partly therapeutic, as swearing is a proven pain reliever and peacefully allows verbal rather than physical retribution (Kruszelnicki 2015). If profanity is so useful, therefore, it surely merits more discussion than it has received in the past. Michael Adams has argued that, despite the best efforts of educators and prescriptive linguists, taboo language is not going anywhere, is inescapable, and should therefore be considered as part of culture and discourse (Adams 2002: 353). Profanity can, in some circumstances, make the swearer seem in-​control, funny, or disarmingly like-​minded. However, while there are situations in which swearing can be useful for social bonding, there are others where it can have a detrimental effect on status and how others regard the swearer. It can indicate that they are ignorant, crass, insensitive, out of control, or even threatening. Cultural taboos, also, have a similar effect. Their breaking can identify an individual as in-​group, or lead to their alienation, depending on prevailing social currents and mores. The more that image is foregrounded as a concept in a given forum, the more that this becomes a danger.

312    Toby Ralph and Barnaby Ralph Two industries in which image is significantly central are politics and advertising. In fact, differentiating between the two can be somewhat problematic, in that politicians necessarily advertise themselves through their public actions, and, as any cultural theorist would argue at length, advertising is an inherently politicized process (Dines and Humez 2011). Both politicians and advertisers typically try to present themselves as ‘one of us’ but with the estimate that we swear more than once every one hundred and fifty words (Mohr 2013), why is there then such a paucity of evidence of politicians and advertising doing so publicly, and why is it so noteworthy when they do? Why are taboos—​ and their challenging—​also at once such a powerful strategy and a potential detonator for career implosion? This chapter will look at the use and abuse of profanity and taboos in both advertising and politics, offering a rationale for why it is so often avoided, as well as exploring in considerable depth what happens when it is not. It will offer numerous examples drawn from real life and frame these within the overall discussion. One caveat is that some of these examples are anecdotal, and this has been noted where applicable. It is obviously in the interest of politicians in particular to maintain a consistent image with inoffensively broad appeal, and part of that means either playing down or outright lying about things which make them appear less than polished. Few people would wish to be placed under the constant scrutiny that is a feature of public life and fewer still would emerge from it with their image untarnished. Conversely, it is clearly in the interest of partisan news providers to depict the political figures on the opposing side in as poor a light as possible, and hearsay is almost impossible to confirm.

17.2  Why profanity and taboos? To begin, it might be useful to examine some of the reasons for both the employment and evasion of profanity and taboo topics in advertising and politics. In an essay from 2015 entitled ‘How to use swear words in your fucking marketing,’ communications expert Doug Kessler expounded on the positives and negatives of swearing from a marketing perspective. He noted that the positives included creating surprise; expressing confidence, building rapport with like-​minded others, suggesting authenticity, startling for humorous effect, underscoring passion, and developing a voice in writing. However, the problems Kessler notes include the fact that the swearer might seem crass and that this may well harm the brand they represent. Brand identity is central to both politics and advertising, and he makes the point that, no matter how much one may swear in daily life, the world is not yet ready for ‘Nike. Just fucking do it’ or ‘McDonald’s. I’m fuckin’ lovin’ it’ (Kessler 2015). Taboos are not only limited to profanity, but also sensitive subjects. Politicians and advertisers have a tendency to flirt with the shifting borders of appropriacy, and one of the

Taboos and bad language in politicians and advertising    313 fixtures of campaigns of both types, particularly in the United States and Australia, has been a backlash against the limitations placed upon public speech. In other words, it has become an acceptable defence for politicians and advertisers who adopt stances which are generally considered to be socially unacceptable, such as homophobia, overt racism, or open misogyny, to say that they are taking a stand against what is often described as ‘political correctness.’ In this way, even prejudice and intolerance can be transformed into apparent virtues. That being said, today’s edgy joke is tomorrow’s hate crime, and few of the advertisements or political speeches of this type from earlier decades stand up well to scrutiny in the present day. Examples of these will be explored in Sections 17.5 and 17.7. Something else to consider, particularly in politics, is the public/​private divide. Political speech and advertising are subject to scrutiny from the press, the public, and various regulators. Words tend to be carefully considered by speechwriters, policy advisors, copywriters, account managers, and clients before being expressed. However, swearing by politicians is hardly new. After all, they are still human beings, and stressed ones at that. Most politicians and advertisers—​either consciously or reflexively—​display public and private faces, thus taboos and bad language are obviously less frequent in formal situations than in more spontaneous, closeted communication. Abuse, vituperation, and mockery are very much a part of political backrooms, but tend not to make the formal speeches. The situation is hardly new. In 1601, a controversial Jesuit called Thomas Wright was under house arrest at the residence of the Dean of Westminster. As a member of the losing religious team of the day in England, Wright was no stranger to political machinations and the difference between public and private faces. In his book The Passions of the Minde, the first edition of which was published that same year, he wrote: Certaine men entertaine their company with scoffing, nipping, gibing and quipping: they thinke to haue wonne a great victorie, if in discouering some others defect, they can make the company laugh merrily: they will seeme to make much of you, but to the embracements of scorpions follow stinging tailes. Wright 1604: 175–​6

Swearing and other forms of bad language are often regarded as undignified and, more importantly in the case of politicians, can indicate loss of control. These traits are undesirable attributes for those charged with leading nations. Whilst similar concerns apply to advertising, various codes of conduct and regulatory mechanisms are in place to supress the urge for copywriters to indulge in unfettered public profanity. They may, and often do, swear without reserve in the office, but this does not make it onto the page. However, politicians are in a different situation. They may feel that they are in private, but even their unguarded moments can become a matter of public record at any time. When public swearing breaks through the filters, it has the power to surprise and offend. Exposure and offence can even happen years after the event. This point in the present

314    Toby Ralph and Barnaby Ralph discussion, therefore, seems the right time to take a look at some examples of politicians whose hidden faces have been uncovered.

17.3  Behind closed doors: what politicians say about the public Although it may not always seem to be the case, politicians are ostensibly servants of the people. It is from the people that their power and position derive, but this also means that their actions tend to be dictated by the vagaries of public opinion. Everyone complains if their boss is an idiot, but what about when one’s boss is a million idiots? It should come, therefore, as no surprise that politicians frequently direct invective at the public when they think they’re out of the hearing range of the masses. When Morris Udall recognized his loss in the 1976 Presidential Primaries he said, ‘The voters have spoken—​the bastards’ (Dole 1998: 51). Even the much-​admired George Washington unleashed a stream of profanity after the Revolutionary War’s Battle of Monmouth Courthouse when he ‘swore that day till the leaves shook on the trees’ (O’Donnell 2016). Two-​time unsuccessful US Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, known for her careful maintenance of public persona, has faced persistent claims of letting the mask slip in private. These are based primarily on the individual recollection of the claimants, so are difficult to substantiate and, as with any politician, there are reasons for others to make accusations that would tarnish her image. Christopher Andersen states that, while waiting for photographers, she said to husband Bill, ‘Just keep smiling until these assholes get their pictures’ (Andersen 2004: 114). At an Arkansas County Fair, following a conversation with a family dressed in overalls and cotton dresses, James Stewart reports that she apparently remarked to her bodyguard, L. D. Brown, ‘Goddam L. D., did you see that family right out of Deliverance? Get me the hell out of here!’ (Stewart 1996: 105). Another person has claimed that, during an Easter Egg Hunt for developmentally challenged children at the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion, she asked, ‘When are they going to get those fucking retards out of here?’ (Kyle 2016). Whether or not these claims are true, either option leads to an interesting—​although distinct—​conclusion. If the accusations are accurate, then the gap between Clinton’s public and private identity would seem to be considerable and a deeply-​hidden hypocrisy is revealed through language choice. If not, then the claims—​ and many others of the same sort—​suggest that attacking character through representing an individual such as Clinton as profane is considered by political and ideological opponents to be an effective strategy, as well as a profitable hook for website-​traffic book sales. It is common for groups critical of Government funding programs to attack Government, but it is not always prudent. On 3 May 2010, with the thirty-​sixth G8 Summit approaching, Senator Nancy Ruth of Canada offered a raft of potentially vocal women’s groups and international aid advocates clear guidance that if they sought

Taboos and bad language in politicians and advertising    315 Government funds, overt criticism during an event with an international profile was not the most prudent way to secure it. ‘If you push it [the criticism], there will be more backlash,’ she explained. To underline this sage advice more directly, she recommended that they ‘[s]‌hut the fuck up’ (Toronto Star 2010). On 6 January 2016 the enduringly frank Australian Senator David Leyonhjelm abused a Twitter user, saying ‘@labourareliars I’d call you a cunt. And probably a rude name after that’ (Hunter 2016). That same week, the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Peter Dutton, declared that a journalist was a ‘Mad fucking witch’ in a text intended for colleague Jamie Briggs, but sent erroneously to the journalist in question, Samantha Maiden, Political Editor of the Sunday Telegraph. Ms Maiden responded, ‘You know mate, you’ve sent that mad witch text to the mad witch’ (Medhora 2016). Naturally, sometimes the public feels the urge to return the favour. The 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago was besieged by protestors chanting ‘Fuck you, Lyndon Johnson’ to the President on his birthday. At that same event Mayor Richard Daley hectored a speech by Abraham Ribicoff by shouting ‘Fuck you’. He later explained, somewhat unconvincingly, that he had been shouting ‘You fink, you’ and calling the speaker a ‘Faker’ (Cohen and Taylor 2000: 478).

17.4  To their faces and behind their backs: what politicians say about each other Lively political speech is common, and expletive-​laden exchanges are a fact of public life, no matter how prestigious the position an individual may occupy. What happens behind closed doors is often surprising to political outsiders. One example of this comes from President Lyndon B. Johnson, who would sometimes talk to Cabinet Members from his toilet seat. Referring to a speech by then Vice President Richard Nixon he opined, ‘Boys, I may not know much, but I do know the difference between chicken shit and chicken salad’ (Popik 2009). Technology has also allowed reporters to capture speech that the individuals concerned might prefer to stay private. An infamous exchange by car phone on Saturday 23 March 1987, between the Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett and the former Australian Liberal Leader Andrew Peacock was intercepted by scanner. It followed a strong State election result, and was highly critical of Opposition Leader John Howard, about whom both men were less than flattering. The call made front page news and led to the dumping of Peacock from the Front Bench. Some highlights from the transcript are given below: KENNETT: He got on the phone and said are you happy with the result, and I said ‘No I’m not’, and he said ‘Why?’ and I said ‘Without your front pages and total disunity I’d have had ten-​percent swing. I would have

316    Toby Ralph and Barnaby Ralph got myself another four and you’ve fucked it up for me and he went off his brain. [. . .] Hold your flow. I said, ‘Tomorrow John’ and he said, ‘I know where your sympathies lie’, and I said, ‘I couldn’t give a fuck. I have no sympathies any more. You’re all a pack of shits and tomorrow I’m going berserk’. Well he went off his brain and in the end I said to him, I said, ‘Howard. You’re a cunt. You haven’t got my support, you never will have and I’m not going to rubbish you or the party tomorrow but I feel a lot better having told you you’re a cunt.’ Oh shit!

PEACOCK: . . . KENNETT: Well, all I can say. I thought I should let you know where I ended up with your little mate . . . PEACOCK: Well, fuck him. I’m not worried. I just . . . I almost bloody cried. I was terribly worried. I was terribly worried. My fuckin’ anger yesterday as Margaret knows. First thing I came in last night I said ‘Oh, fuckin’ cunt! I said the whole fuckin’ thing could upset tomorrow’ I was really . . . And she was saying ‘What’s Jeffrey done?’ and I was saying ‘It’s not what Jeffrey’s done. It’s what everyone’s fucking done to Jeffrey.’ (Australian Politics 1987)

Clearly politicians swear, but prefer to do so when out of the public eye. For example, on board a VIP flight, fourteen months before he took his job, Malcolm Turnbull allegedly berated then Prime Minister Tony Abbott about his performance, ‘You’re fucking hopeless, you’re a fucking cunt, you should resign.’ It is claimed Turnbull said this in front of three Cabinet Ministers and five Coalition employees (Nine News 2017).

17.5  You can’t say cunt in question time: lexical choice and political profanity A legacy of Richard Nixon’s Watergate is the phrase ‘expletive deleted’—​born from the removal of offensive words from transcripts of the Watergate tapes in 1974. TIME reported, ‘Those who have heard him speak in private say that the swearwords he commonly uses are both blasphemous and obscene. [They] include four-​letter words that are salacious and scatological’ (Rothman 2016).

17.5.1  Shit Of the profanities regularly uttered, shit is sufficiently commonplace to pass with little comment today, although Tony Abbott was filmed responding to one soldier telling him about the death of another in Afghanistan. His reply was, ‘It’s pretty obvious that, well,

Taboos and bad language in politicians and advertising    317 sometimes shit happens, doesn’t it?’ (Dick 2011). Abbott was Prime Minister of Australia at the time, and the words caused a furore, but this was because of their apparent insensitivity rather than the choice of language itself. Reacting to criticism of Russian bombings in Syria, Donald Trump indicated he would bomb the oil fields controlled by the Islamic State, which he referred to as ISIS: ISIS is making a tremendous amount of money because they have certain oil caps, right? They have certain areas of oil that they took away, they have some in Syria, some in Iraq. I would bomb the shit out of ’em.

Far from exciting condemnation, this remark was greeted with loud applause (Engel 2015).

17.5.2  Fuck Sir Richard Turnbull, the penultimate High Commissioner to Aden from 1965 to 1967 suggested, ‘When the British Empire finally sinks beneath the waves of history, it will leave behind it only two memorials: one is the game of Association Football and the other is the expression “Fuck Off ” ’ (https://​​watch?v=R6OOsoqS Kaw& In the mid 1990s, Tony Blair became the Leader of the British Labour Party. In a public debate, controversial left-​winger George Galloway was teased about Labour moving to the Right under their new Leader. Galloway promptly rebutted ‘I don’t give a fuck what Tony Blair thinks’ (Waller and Criddle 1996). Fuck was ruled not to be offensive language in the context of political protest by Sydney magistrate Geoffrey Bradd in a ruling from 25 October 2016. April Holcombe, Cat Rose, and Patrick Hilderhand were three people charged with using offensive language at an event protesting against an anti-​same sex marriage organized by Reverend Fred Nile and his Christian Democrat Party. The pro-​marriage equality protestors called their opponents ‘fuckers,’ yelled ‘bigots fuck off ’ and personalized their abuse by shrieking ‘Fuck Fred Nile’ at the ageing Parliamentarian. Magistrate Bradd threw out the charges, arguing the swearing was used: ‘to dismiss the argument against marriage equality’ rather than cause offence. Penalty notices for offensive language are invalid under criminal procedure laws which prevent their issuance during ‘an apparently genuine demonstration or protest’. The court heard Ms Rose argue that fuck was ‘part of the common vernacular’, prompting a police officer to contend it was ‘not part of children’s vernacular’ and there were families at the park, but the magistrate found that whether the word fuck is part of a child’s vernacular ‘depends on the words that a child listens to from others’. The word was therefore only considered offensive if it was ‘calculated to wound the feelings, arouse anger or resentment or disgust, and outrage in the mind of a reasonable person’ he explained, adding that phrases such as ‘you fucking beauty’ and ‘fucking hell’ were unlikely to be offensive (Whitbourn 2016).

318    Toby Ralph and Barnaby Ralph The use of this particular profanity can also be a demonstration of power, however. When the Greek Ambassador Alexandros Matsas objected vehemently to American plans in Cyprus, President Lyndon Johnson responded ‘Fuck your parliament and your constitution. America is an elephant. Cyprus is a flea. Greece is a flea. If these two fellows continue itching the elephant they may just get whacked by the elephant’s trunk, whacked good’ (Deane 1976: 113–​14).

17.5.3 You can’t say cunt in Question Time. Germaine Greer argues that ‘cunt . . . is one of the few remaining words in the English language with a genuine power to shock.’ The prominent feminist and English Professor said: I love the idea that this word is still so sacred that you can use it like a torpedo: you can hole people below the water line; you can make strong men go pale . . . It is a word of immense power, to be used sparingly. The C words 2006

Christopher Pyne, a longstanding Minister in the Liberal Party of Australia fired a stealth torpedo in Question Time on Wednesday 14 May 2014, by apparently muttering, sotto voce to Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, ‘You’re such a cunt’. Speaker Bronwyn Bishop responded, ‘The Minister will refer people by their correct title.’ Mr Pyne replied ‘I will, Madame Speaker. I withdraw.’ Unfortunately for Minister Pyne, microphones picked up his observation, and it was replayed on radio and tut-​tutted about in the press. Even in Australia you can’t say ‘cunt’ in Question Time. A spokesman claimed he’d actually said ‘You’re such a grub’ (Jabour 2014), but the recording suggests this was not the case (Crane 2015). Pyne had form. On a popular breakfast television show he had a regular Tuesday discussion with Shadow Minister Anthony Albanese. After intense debate about leadership speculation within his Government, Mr Albanese said, ‘See you with a new Leader next week’. Pyne immediately and cheerfully farewelled his political opponent with the words ‘See you next Tuesday’—​a commonly understood allusion to the word cunt in consequence of it being an acronym, if ‘See’ is taken as ‘C’ (cf. C U N T, Crane 2015). The word was more amusingly embraced by former Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam. On 24 May 2000, he was debating the proposition ‘That Politicians Have Lost Their Sense Of Humour’ he recalled an earlier incident in the House. When Sir Winton Turnbull shouted: ‘I am a Country member’ Whitlam interjected, ‘I remember’ (Murphy 2014). Yet more elegantly, during the Second World War, Sir Archibald Clark Kerr, Her Majesty’s Ambassador to Moscow, had one Mustapha Kunt on staff. He wrote about this to Lord Pembroke at the Foreign Office on 6 April 1943.

Taboos and bad language in politicians and advertising    319 H. M. EMBASSY MOSCOW My dear Reggie, In these dark days one tends to look for little shafts of light that spill from heaven. My days are probably darker than yours, and I need, my God I do, all the light I can get. But I am a decent fellow, and do not want to be mean and selfish about what little brightness is shed upon me from time to time. So I propose to share with you a tiny flash that has illuminated my sombre life and tell you that God has given me a new Turkish colleague whose card tells me that he is called Mustapha Kunt.   We all feel like that, Reggie, now and then, especially when Spring is upon us, but few of us would care to put it on our cards. It takes a Turk to do that. Sir Archibald Clerk Kerr. H. M. Ambassador.

17.6  Popularity contests: politics and taboos Taboos are always relative, shifting in both context and force over time. Of these, none have undergone such changes as racism and misogyny. Casually racist entertainment of a type which seems impossible to modern audiences survived well into the twentieth century, whether in the form of Mickey Rooney’s outraged (and outrageous) Japanese caricature in 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s or The Black and White Minstrel Show, which continued to be made—​astonishingly—​until 1978. Misogyny has become even more entrenched. Politicians have always tried to be sensitive to changes in the climate of discourse, but their subsequent public adoption of it has tended to lag far behind community behaviour. In 2004, Senator John McCain told reporters: ‘I hated the gooks. I will hate them as long as I live.’ McCain had been tortured as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, but it was an unusual announcement for a man who would need the Asian vote four years later as the Republican Presidential candidate (Nevius, Sandalow, and Wildermuth 2000).

17.6.1 The N word Nigger, derived from the Latin Adjective Niger, was once a respectable word, but has become an utterly unacceptable term of racial abuse and a taboo, particularly in the mouths of politicians. Few politicians have a career progression that illustrates the changing attitude towards public expression of racism so evidently as Governor George

320    Toby Ralph and Barnaby Ralph Wallace of Alabama. Initially, he was a persistent racist. On 14 February 1958 in his first Gubernatorial campaign he asserted: We shall continue to maintain segregation in Alabama completely and absolutely without violence or ill-​will . . . I advocate hatred of no man, because hate will only compound the problems facing the South . . . We ask for patience and tolerance and make an earnest request that we be allowed to handle state and local affairs without outside interference. Lesher 1995

That same year he said to his campaign adviser and confidante, Seymour Trammell, ‘I was out-​niggered by John Patterson. And I’ll tell you here and now, I will never be out-​ niggered again.’ He referred to Governor John Patterson who won the Gubernatorial race with the support of the Ku Klux Klan (George Wallace 2000). There can be little doubt that his voters supported his racist stance. In an oft-​attributed quote it is claimed Wallace said, ‘I tried to talk about good roads and good schools and all these things that have been part of my career, and nobody listened. And then I began talking about niggers, and they stomped the floor’ (George Wallace 2000). In his Inaugural Speech as Governor of Alabama in January 1963, he said: It is very appropriate that from this cradle of the Confederacy, this very heart of the great Anglo-​Saxon Southland, that today we sound the drum for freedom as have our generations of forebears before us time and again down through history. Let us rise to the call for freedom-​loving blood that is in us and send our answer to the tyranny that clanks its chains upon the South. In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever. George Wallace 2000

By the 1970s, he had softened his stance. In an address to the Montgomery Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in 1979, he said, ‘I have learned what suffering means. In a way that was impossible, I think I can understand something of the pain black people have come to endure. I know I contributed to that pain, and I can only ask your forgiveness’ (McCarthy 1995). In a speech in 1979 he said, ‘I was wrong. Those days are over, and they ought to be over’ (Edwards et al. 2009: 80). West Virginian Senator Robert Byrd offers another, if less penitent, example. When young, he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. He disavowed racism as his political career blossomed, but three years after he had parted ways with them he wrote to the Imperial Wizard, ‘The Klan is needed today as never before and I am anxious to see its rebirth here in West Virginia’ and ‘in every state in the Union’ (Malkin 2001). During an interview with Fox News in March 2001, the eighty-​three-​year-​old said that race relations were: . . . much, much better than they’ve ever been in my lifetime . . . I think we talk about race too much. I think those problems are largely behind us. I think we try to have

Taboos and bad language in politicians and advertising    321 good will. My old mom told me, ‘Robert, you can’t go to heaven if you hate anybody.’ We practice that. There are white niggers. I’ve seen a lot of white niggers in my time; I’m going to use that word. We just need to work together to make our country a better country, and I’d just as soon quit talking about it so much.

An ABC article quotes the head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s President, Kweisi Mfume, as being ‘not particularly impressed by Byrd’s apology’ and that ‘the fact that Byrd felt comfortable enough on nationwide TV to refer to any group in that manner suggests that any progress he has made on race is relative.’ Byrd’s remark he judged ‘both repulsive and revealing,’ saying he assumed that Byrd’s apology was well meant, but also there comes a time when a person has to avoid making remarks that require apologies (ABC News 2001). After losing an election to JoAnn Bennett Grimsley, Patsy Capshaw Skipper—​the former mayor of Midland City, Alabama—​wrote on Facebook, ‘I lost. The nigger won.’ The constituent replied ‘I’m so sorry’ (Imchills 2016). Texas governor Rick Perry had a hunting area called ‘Nigger’s Head.’ After this was reported during the 2008 Presidential Primaries the name at the entryway disappeared very quickly indeed. Arkansas state trooper and Clinton bodyguard Larry Patterson from 1986 to 1993 claimed that he frequently heard Bill Clinton use ‘nigger’ to refer to both Jesse Jackson and local Little Rock black leader Robert ‘Say’ McIntosh. Further he stated that he heard Hillary say ‘nigger’ ‘probably six, eight, ten times . . . She would be upset with someone in the black community and she would use the “N” word, like, you heard they’ve got the presi­ dent’s brother on tape using the “N” word’ (Aman 2005). Dolly Kyle Browning—​claimed to be one of Bill Clinton’s lovers—​corroborated his use of the pejorative word. ‘Not only did he use the “N” word, he called him a “GDN” [goddamn nigger], if you catch my drift,’ Browning told Fox News in 1999. Browning explained, ‘He has used the “N” word before. Bill would make snide remarks about blacks behind their backs’ (Aman 2005). There are many in the Clinton camp who would deny these and similar allegations. Given the partisan nature of political life, it is generally impossible to be sure exactly what was said unless it was somehow recorded. However, it cannot be denied that, at the Martin Luther King Day celebration in Canaan Baptist Church of Christ, Harlem on 16 January 2006, Hillary Clinton displayed an astonishing lack of public appropriacy when she said, ‘When you look at the way the House of Representatives has been run, it has been run like a plantation, and you know what I’m talkin’ about’ (Bruce 2013: 226). As a Presidential candidate, Donald Trump was never afraid to offer a headline-​ grabbing contentious quote such as his tone-​deaf claim ‘I have a great relationship with the blacks. I’ve always had a great relationship with the blacks’ (Franke-​Ruta 2011).

17.6.2 Anti-​Semitism Richard Nixon believed races had traits, and was discovered expounding on this theory on the Oval Office audiotapes. The Washington Post reported that in a taped

322    Toby Ralph and Barnaby Ralph conversation dated 13 February 1973, Nixon opined, ‘The Jews have certain traits. The Irish have certain—​for example, the Irish can’t drink . . . The Italians, of course, just don’t have their heads screwed on tight. They are wonderful people, but . . . The Jews are just a very aggressive and abrasive and obnoxious personality’ (Nagourney 2010). Most politicians are not anti-​Semitic, or, if they are, they take care to avoid saying so. However, in 1984, after Bill Clinton unexpectedly lost his bid for a 1974 Arkansas congressional seat, witnesses claimed his wife Hillary yelped at Paul Fray, the campaign manager, ‘You fucking Jew bastard’ (Oppenheimer 2000). Fray, his wife Mary Lee and another campaign worker, Neill McDonald all confirmed the incident, and Fray told a newspaper: I was a little defensive about it. I looked to the floor thinking ‘How do I respond?’ I didn’t mind being called a son-​of-​a-​bitch, but when it came to attacking my culture, that’s a whole another ballgame. You’ve got to understand it was the heat of the moment. We knew we had lost. It was a case of people lashing out at one another and it just got to that point. Kyle 2016

Hillary Clinton denied the accusation. ‘I have never said anything like that, ever. I have in the past certainly, you know maybe, called somebody a name. But I have never used an ethnic, racial, anti-​Semitic, bigoted, discriminatory, prejudiced accusation against anybody. I’ve never done it. I’ve never thought it.’ Former President Bill Clinton said, ‘I was there on election night in 1974 and the charge is simply not true. She might have called him a bastard, I wouldn’t rule that out. She’s never claimed that she was pure on profanity. But I’ve never heard her tell a joke with an ethnic connotation. She’s so fanatic about it. It’s not in her’ (Kyle 2016).

17.6.3 Trump versus Mexico During a fraud trial against Trump University presided over by US District Court Judge Gonzalo Curiel, Donald Trump claimed, ‘I’ve been treated very unfairly by this judge. Now, this judge is of Mexican heritage. I’m building a wall, OK? I’m building a wall’ (Smith 2016). Trump was referring to his plan that, when elected to the Presidency, he would build a wall between Mexico and America, and make Mexico pay for it. Incidentally, the judge was born in Indiana, and was a US citizen. Trump, at least in public, appears to hold Mexicans in low regard, as evidenced by his campaign claims, having stated, ‘When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems . . . they’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists’ (Schwartz 2015). Furthermore, he claimed: The worst elements in Mexico are being pushed into the United States by the Mexican government. The largest suppliers of heroin, cocaine, and other illicit drugs are

Taboos and bad language in politicians and advertising    323 Mexican cartels that arrange to have Mexican immigrants trying to cross the borders and smuggle in the drugs. The Border Patrol knows this. Likewise, tremendous infectious disease is pouring across the border. The United States has become a dumping ground for Mexico and, in fact, for many other parts of the world . . . The Mexican Government is forcing their most unwanted people into the United States. They are, in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc. Walker 2015

17.6.4 A war on women Turning to the taboo of sexism, according to the anti-​Clinton book American Evita, the aforementioned Hillary would refer to her husband’s paramours, and some Arkansans as, ‘Bimbos, Sluts, Trailer Trash, Rednecks, and Shit Kickers’ (Andersen 2004: 139). Of Bill’s disgruntled lovers, she is further claimed to have opined ‘[t]‌hose women are all trash. Nobody’s going to believe them’ (Stone and Morrow 2015). Donald Trump has said more than a few questionable things about women. One of the most notable of these, although later claimed to have been said in jest, was about how he would react if his daughter Ivanka posed for Playboy Magazine. ‘I don’t think Ivanka would do that, although she does have a very nice figure. I’ve said if Ivanka weren’t my daughter, perhaps I’d be dating her’ (Evon 2015). It is commonly asserted that he said, ‘Women: You have to treat them like shit’ but no credible source can be found for this. However, in a 1991 interview with Esquire he claimed, ‘You know, it really doesn’t matter what [the media] write as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of ass’ (Rappeport 2016). Trump has been unafraid to use appearance to criticize opponents such as Republican Presidential candidate, Carly Fiorina, exclaiming, ‘Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president I mean, she’s a woman, and I’m not supposed to say bad things, but really, folks, come on. Are we serious?’ (Lawler 2015). Trump’s staff retweeted the misogynistic comment of a student from Texas regarding his Democratic opponent during the 2016 Presidential race. The student wrote, ‘If Hillary Clinton can’t satisfy her husband what makes her think she can satisfy America?’ The tweet was deleted, but not until his 2.8 million followers had lodged it firmly in the collective mind (Martosko 2015). There may have been merit to the claim, as Hillary Clinton is alleged to have shouted at Bill over his unfaithfulness ‘I need to be fucked more than twice a year’ (Flegon 1996: 170). Mr Trump also criticized performer Bette Midler with either a strong sense of irony or a startlingly skewed perception of his own image. ‘While @Bette Midler is an extremely unattractive woman, I refuse to say that because I always insist on being politically correct’ (Trump 2012). Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was at least able to make a joke about his sexual behaviour, claiming, ‘When asked if they would like to have sex with me, 30

324    Toby Ralph and Barnaby Ralph per cent of women said, “Yes”, while the other 70 per cent replied, “What, again?” ’ (Day 2015). The media have played no small role in breaking the taboo of sexism when referring to politicians. On 20 September 2010, radio producer Bill Cooksey of WRKO-​AM radio, Boston earned himself a place in the Sexism Hall of Fame by saying of Karyn Polito, the Republican candidate for State Treasurer in Massachusetts, ‘I think she’s hot . . . She’s tiny, she’s short. She’s got a banging little body on her. Facial-​wise, I give her about a seven. Body-​wise, I give her about an eight-​and-​a-​half. Tight, little butt. I endorse Karyn Polito’ (Ms. Foundation for Women 2010). When contemplating the possibility of Sonia Sotomayor becoming a Justice, G. Gordon Liddy offered, ‘Let’s hope that the key conferences aren’t when she’s menstruating or something, or just before she’s going to menstruate. That would really be bad. Lord knows what we would get then’ (Tumulty 2009). Talk show host Rush Limbaugh added ‘I think I’m going to send Sotomayor, and her club, a bunch of vacuum cleaners to help them clean up after their meetings’ (Williams 2015). During a Glen Beck program aired on radio across America on 8 October 2009, he commented on the appearance of former Secretary of State, Madelaine Albright, ‘Good heavens! I’m sorry I just looked up at Madeleine Albright and she’s . . . No, normally it burns our eyes out . . . and look at the neck skin on her . . . does she kind of look like a turkey? . . . Look at her eyes and her nose. She looks like a turkey’ (Bennett 2009). Back on the campaign trail, during her first stump speech, the meeting chairman somehow thought it appropriate to ask Congressional candidate Siobhan ‘Sam’ Bennett, ‘Sam, I want to ask a question all the men in this room have been dying to ask you: Just what are your measurements?’ (Marty 2010). Clearly, politics still has a long way to go in its treatment of women.

17.7  Advertising and profanity Swearing in advertisements is made more complex when campaigns are used multinationally. What is acceptable not only varies by psychographic, but by region. For example, condom ads that are legal in the United States can still be rejected by broadcasters, while in India, a deodorant campaign featured flirting, and was judged ‘indecent, vulgar, and suggestive’ by local authorities.

17.7.1 Advertising standards There are rules and codes that set out what is and is not acceptable, but there are always grey areas. The Australian Association of National Advertisers Code of Ethics claims that its purpose ‘is to ensure that advertisements and other forms of marketing communications are legal, decent, honest, and truthful and that they have been prepared with a

Taboos and bad language in politicians and advertising    325 sense of obligation to the consumer and society and a sense of fairness and responsibility to competitors.’ The code prohibits discrimination on the grounds of ‘race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, age, sexual preference, religion, disability, mental illness, or political belief.’ Additionally, Section 2.5 states that ‘Strong or obscene language shall be avoided’ (Australian Association of National Advertisers 2012). Similar codes apply in most countries, although there are regional differences that need careful consideration when planning multimarket campaigns. For example, the Advertising Standards Authority Ltd/​Committees of Advertising Practice, the advertising watchdog in the United Kingdom, has set out clear guidelines about the acceptability of swearing. They allow soft swearing, e.g. shag, piss, slag, and bloody, when targeted appropriately, but this becomes more complex in context. A pot noodle campaign using the slogan ‘The slag of all snacks’ was acceptable, but when the line was refreshed to ‘Hurt me you slag’ it was banned due to an allusion to sexual violence. There are four types of swearing: Expletive: used to articulate emotion, Abusive: directed towards others and often derogatory, Auxiliary: used in and as regular speech, and Humorous: which is similar to expletive but not derogatory (Andersson and Trudgill 1991). Vulgar language that’s humorous is acceptable in many situations, but if it is offensive it isn’t. Fuck has been approved in at least one case, but cunt has not. Australia’s Advertising Standards Board publish a list of swearwords used, and complaints upheld by year (Table 17.1).

17.7.2 The brand loophole Interestingly, despite strict control of language in discourse, different rules apply to brand names. In 1997 retailers French Connection adopted the brand name ‘fcuk’ claiming it to be an acronym for French Connection United Kingdom. They subsequently produced clothing with slogans such as ‘fcuk this’, ‘hot as fcuk’, ‘mile high fcuk’, ‘fcuk me’, which tends to make their justification appear opportunistic and highly questionable. Media selection can also make a difference. Urban Outfitters successfully defended their use of ‘Effin’, ‘***king’, and ‘fukkit’ in a marketing email. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA, UK) determined that while these were obviously derived from swearwords, and could thus offend, the email was unlikely to upset its particular recipients. Another interesting case was the ASA’s ruling on a billboard encouraging tourism to Australia, using the phrase ‘Where the bloody hell are you?’ The watchdog explained that soft swearing would sometimes be acceptable in newspapers or more targeted media, but should not be allowed on billboards because children could see it (Butcher and Dickson 2015). It is not necessary to swear to have an advertisement banned: double entendres can be equally difficult. Complaints against furniture retailer, Sofa King saying ‘Sofa King. Our prices are Sofa King Low,’ and the Gas Showroom’s ‘Let the Gas Showroom stick something warm in your hearth hole’ were both upheld.

326    Toby Ralph and Barnaby Ralph Table 17.1 Profanities upheld and dismissed by year Year





Damn. (Ardarth cigarettes)


Sh*t (Wheels Mag)



‘Stick it up your landlord’ (Logan Units Display Homes)



Christ (Dad and Dave Security Doors)

Nuts (Mr. Specs)


Crap (Jeans Extra)




Bloody (Power Brewing)



Bugger (Toyota)



Shit scared (Autobarn Bundaberg)



Bum (Kimberly-​Clark Aust Pty Ltd)



Piss (ChaosMusic Ltd)



Wankers (J Jackson)



Kick Arse (Rebel Sport Ltd)



Sweet FA (Virgin Mobile Aust Pty Ltd)



F### (beeped out) (Mitsubishi Motors Australia Ltd)



Dickhead (NSW Premier’s Department)



Bitch (Sara Lee Household & Body Care Aust)



Crap (Virgin Mobile)



Bastard (Jim Beam)


Fucked (Geoff Walsh Engine Parts Pty Ltd)




Freakn’ (Vodafone Network Pty Ltd)



WTF (Nova 106.9)


Fuck (Mistletone Enterprises) F*ck (Sydney Festival)



Vagina (Johnson & Johnson Pacific Pty Ltd)

2013 2013

OMFG Just Group Ltd  

Boobs (Bonds Industries Ltd) C-​Bomb (C-​Bomb hot sauce)

The codes don’t allow the use of asterisks as a technical circumvention of swearing or taboo. People understand that F*ck means Fuck, and that ‘the N Word’ means nigger, and making the reader complicit in the completion of the offensive word doesn’t avoid responsibility. As an example, a complaint against a club promoting a ‘Valentine’s F*ck Fest’ was upheld (O’Reilly 2014). The airline Virgin adopted similar tactics to promote their Upper Class Lounge with the headline ‘Sit, shower, shave.’ They also ran a promotion for trips to Phuket, as did Air Asia, headlined ‘Cheap enough to say, Phuket I’ll go.’ The Advertising Standards Board

Taboos and bad language in politicians and advertising    327 ruled (amongst other things) that ‘it used the name of a real place and as such the word could not be considered to be obscene.’ And further that ‘using this city’s name was an old joke and one that would not be considered offensive by a reasonable adult.’

17.8  Pushing the envelope: advertising and taboos The same taboos that bedevil political life are a cause of tension within the advertising industry. Similarly, as times change, attitudes change with them and yesterday’s amusing magazine page is tomorrow’s ammunition for industry vilification. Taboos are generally broken in advertising for two reasons: to normalize a product that can be seen as embarrassing, such as tampons, or to shock, in order to attract attention. Breaking such taboos can result in multiple complaints to the industry watchdog, but are frequently dismissed, because they do not breach a section of the Code. The social-​anthropologist Van Gennep (1904) identified three characteristics of taboos:  prohibition, sacredness, and contagion while Freud suggested another distinguishing aspect was emotional ambivalence (Ouidade and Obermiller 2012). While taboos abound, the most common ones tested by advertising involve sex and sexual relationships, racism, and products involved with bodily functions that are deemed to be of an embarrassing or private nature, such as tampons, condoms, and toilet paper. Taboos can extend to shock advertising which intentionally employs controversial or offensive concepts to sell. Derived from this definition, there are seven types of shock appeal that marketers can use to affect the audience: images that excite disgust, such as gore, references to sexual activity, obscenity, including profanity and racial epithets, distasteful activities such as breaking wind or picking one’s nose, challenging conventions of social decency, showing harm to animals or humans—​particularly children—​and, finally, making use of religious or spiritual symbols or people inappropriately (Urwin and Venter 2014).

17.8.1 Bodies that matter Marketing of sanitary pads and tampons was taboo until the 1960s. Indeed women would often get pads in an unmarked box at their pharmacy and embarrassment surrounding product use has proven hard to shift in some parts of the world: in Japan, for example, supermarkets still place tampons and pads in a paper bag at the checkout. However, by the swinging 60s, brands such as Kotex started using full page women’s magazine advertisements, showing stylish women and claiming: ‘Kotex is confidence’. A bunch of red roses in the foreground alluded subtly to menstruation. The body copy of a typical advertisement was informative, but somewhat oblique. ‘You’ll welcome the

328    Toby Ralph and Barnaby Ralph new Kotex Packaging. They have a much softer covering for greater comfort, pleated ends for a smoother fit, also a new inner shield which provides lasting protection in all 3 absorbencies’ (Green Feminine Hygiene Queen 2014). Even today, feminine hygiene products typically demonstrate absorbency using unrelated blue liquid on a neutral background. However, UK-​based maxi pad company Bodyform broke the taboo. They made a commercial that showed women in sports that caused some bleeding, then cut to the slogan ‘No blood should hold us back.’ It was the first time blood had been mentioned in tampon advertising, and consequently won a coveted Gold Lion advertising award. A broader campaign ‘Red.Fit’ encouraged women to stay active during periods, and recommended various products appropriate for doing so (O’Reilly 2017).

17.8.2 Sex  sells Sex, the near neighbour of—​and frequent cohabitant with—​sexism, has always been a mainstay of advertising. Researchers Gallup and Robinson, report that after more than half a century, it has found the use of sex to be a successful technique for advertising, ‘although one of the more dangerous for the advertiser. Weighted down with taboos and volatile attitudes, sex is a Code Red advertising technique . . . handle with care . . . seller beware; all of which makes it even more intriguing.’ This research has led to the popular idea that ‘sex sells’ (Streitmatter 2004). One of the earliest known uses of sex in advertising was Pearl Tobacco depicting a nude woman on their packaging in 1871. Soap quickly followed, with what appears to have been the first product to blatantly sell using sex. In 1915, Woodbury’s Facial Soap produced what was then regarded as a shocking advertisement, showing a man in evening dress lovingly embracing a woman with the headline, ‘A skin you love to touch.’ Interestingly, the advertisement was penned by a female copywriter. In 1916 the advertisement was refreshed with the man seemingly kissing her neck. In the 1930s, Woodbury’s changed to a naked model (Bathe all your skin for beauty in the ‘filtered sunshine’ of Woodbury’s—​gentle lather) and the following decade they upgraded their famous embracing couple, but made them far more passionate, showing them kissing, with the tagline ‘TNT for two!’ Van Heusen ran a magazine advertisement in 1951 headed ‘Show her it’s a man’s world’ with an illustration of a man, in shirt and tie, being served breakfast in bed, by a beautiful woman in a dressing gown who kneels and offers a breakfast tray in what appears to be grateful submission. Mr Leggs Dacron slacks showed their product on the legs of a man with one foot on the head of an attractive woman, the rest of whom is a tiger skin rug, claiming: ‘It’s nice to have a girl around the house.’ Tipalet featured a man smoking and breathing that smoke into the face and open mouth of a sexy woman in a revealing top. ‘Blow in her face and she’ll follow you anywhere,’ it claimed, revelling in the wordplay of fellatio.

Taboos and bad language in politicians and advertising    329 Volkswagen ran a much-​lauded campaign, including one full page advertisement showing their car with a badly dented front panel and smashed headlight. The headline read, ‘Sooner or later, your wife will drive home one of the best reasons for owing a Volkswagen.’ The body copy continued even more misogynistically, ‘Women are soft and gentle, but they hit things. If your wife hits something in a Volkswagen, it doesn’t hurt you very much. VW parts are easy to replace. And cheap . . . So when your wife goes window shopping in a Volkswagen, don’t worry. You can conveniently replace anything she uses to stop the car. Even the brakes.’ Fiat ran a billboard for the 127 Palio with a picture of their car and the copy, ‘If it were a lady, it would get its bottom pinched,’ causing a graffitist to respond, ‘If this lady were a car, she’d run you down.’ The advertising watchdog has reported on this phenomenon at length, with a sample below of the types of complaints received and acted upon in 1993, following legislative changes. They included ads where a German Shepherd was considered a ‘man’s dog’ as it could rip a woman’s jeans off with its teeth (Eagle Bitter), and a woman in underwear being sawn in half by a magician, but still ‘looking good’ (Berlei), which were both dismissed by the Advertising Standards Council (ASC). There was also a lot of media attention for ads which said that women wouldn’t show up to work because of a sale (Katies), which compared a pregnant woman to a car ‘there’s nowhere more comfortable than inside a wide body’ (Toyota), and which showed a man with his hand down a woman’s top ‘when you see this model in the flesh, you will express your desire for it on the spot’ (Fairfax & Roberts). All of these complaints were upheld by the ASC for demeaning the dignity of women (Advertising Standards Bureau 2015: 38). Bespoke suit maker Duncan Quinn is one brand that has been keeping the tradition of sexism alive. A 2008 advertisement depicts a woman in bra and panties, bleeding from the head, sprawled across the bonnet of a car, strangled by the tie of a dominant, confident besuited man who overlooks the scene. No headline was deemed necessary, just the brand name. Airlines have seemingly always used sex as a tool to lure their male-​dominated market. A typical advertisement for Eastern Airlines, showed a bevy of attractive women who had failed to be selected to become stewardesses. It read as follows: Presenting the Losers.