Magazine article National Forum

Word Up, Word Down

Magazine article National Forum

Word Up, Word Down

Article excerpt

The social attitude toward a particular taboo word is subject to change, however, as has happened with leg (see The Origins and Development of the English Language by Pyles and Algeo). The fact that leg was not to be uttered in polite society during the 19th century strikes us today as incredibly repressed, unenlightened, and constraining.

Changing Taboos

Yet it is obvious to me and to any other middle-aged person that, just as attitudes toward leg changed before we were born, taboo terms from our youth have undergone or are undergoing a change in their status. For whatever reason, a good many words formerly taboo have become socially acceptable; they now make their way into public discourse and media in all but the most formal circumstances. My observation is objectively verified by Timothy Jay in Cursing in America, 1992.

Semantically speaking, the taboo value of these words has lessened or disappeared. That is, in the internal lexicon of many speakers--the place in one's nervous system where words, their meanings, and guidance as to their appropriateness are stored--these words have lost their cautionary "red flag," as it were, allowing them to be expressed in a wider number of rhetorical situations without feelings of guilt on the part of the user.

To give one example, take the term screwed up, It is in such wide usage today that I recently heard a minister use it in a sermon, not for special effect but as a normal way of characterizing incorrect thought: "Their thinking is screwed up." He was not consciously aware, I am sure, that the screw in screw up is an earlier taboo word and a common euphemism for the even stronger sexual term, the notorious F-word. In the lexicon of his minister, to be screwed up has lost the earlier connotations that kept it out of "polite conversation," allowing it to cross the barrier into the domain of the sacred. But I feel sure this same minister would be appalled if a fellow cleric intoned that his parishioners' incorrect thinking "sucked" (For a history of these and other words, see Hugh Rawson's Wicked Words, 1989.)

Certainly, a generation growing up exposed to damn, hell, and other erstwhile taboo terms more regularly and in more situations will internalize and imitate these usages: that is simply how language works. The problems come when a word differs in its taboo value to the user and the hearer. Thus we elders, fulfilling our role as reactionaries--our ears and sensibilities buffeted by this barrage of speech departing from the old standards--cannot believe that younger people use such terms with impunity, and we search for a culprit, perhaps Hollywood.

Wouldn't society be better off, we wonder, if Rhett Butler had told Miss Scarlett, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a DIDDLEY DO"! Didn't the inclusion of damn in Gone with the Wind irreparably crack the dam of linguistic restraint, leading to the torrents of profanity and vulgarity in books and films of these past decades? How can the film Captain Ron, rated PG-13, include the exclamation f-ing, as in "We're gonna f-ing die!" as presumably acceptable for the hearing of fourteen-year-olds?

But while some words lose their taboo value, others accumulate restrictions. Evidently, a society will not dispense with the category of taboo language. In regard to current linguistic trends, therefore, one may argue that the basis of taboo has shifted from the physical body and the sacred to the body politic and conceptions of social justice. The same sense of outrage and defilement associated in the past with subjection to "filthy language" now appears to be associated with politically incorrect speech, that is, language lacking sensitivity toward different ethnicities, enablements, and orientations. While some words, the "dirty words" of the past, are being rehabilitated to fit into polite society, other terms are being sent into linguistic exile, or at least into the shadows.

Bleeper and Blop

To demonstrate these phenomena, I want to examine my historical relations with two such words. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.