Bad words: Did you know that these terms are not fit for use in polite society?

Some scholars see such words as distinct linguistic forms, while others include them within a broader comprehension of “taboo” language, including vulgar expressions, obscenity, or profanity

By Shashi Tharoor

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Published: Thu 16 Nov 2023, 7:45 PM

There are some words in English that this newspaper won’t print. They are considered “bad” words, not fit for use in polite society. Popular euphemisms for these “dirty” words are “cursing” and “swearing”. Some scholars see such words as distinct linguistic forms, while others include them within a broader comprehension of “taboo” language, including vulgar expressions, obscenity, or profanity. Cursing remains susceptible to religious restrictions, while swearing, specifically the use of expletives, is often deemed as “indecent” language.

The term “taboo” has its roots in Polynesian culture, originating from words like “tabu” or “tapu” in the Tongan language. It reached English during the eighteenth century via the explorer Captain Cook, in his account of his third global voyage, which included visits to Polynesia. During this journey, he observed various applications of the word “taboo” in the context of diverse “avoidance customs”. A taboo sometimes functions as a form of “thought policing”, dictating human conduct and also controlling thoughts. The initial Polynesian concept carried a distinct religious connotation. To use taboo words was offensive to God.

How do we grasp taboo words? Remarkably, there is a distinct lack of definitive understanding regarding the process by which a child learns them. Undoubtedly, no individual is inherently endowed with an innate awareness of these forbidden words. Rather, it is only as we reach a level of maturity that we become conscious of societal norms and become educated in the realm of taboos — often by learning of them through elders’ disapproval, and sometimes because, in an act of rebellion, we want to shock or offend by employing a taboo term.

The utilisation of “taboo language” seems to be an age-old facet of human communication. In Shakespeare's play The Tempest, when Prospero asserts that Caliban had no knowledge of any recognisable language until Prospero educated and civilised him, Caliban's response serves as both an accusation and a form of linguistic defiance. Caliban retorts, “You taught me language, and my profit on't/Is, I know how to curse/ The red plague rid you/ For learning me your language!” He employs the linguistic skills he has acquired to curse and thereby rebel against Prospero's oppression.

Employing “swear words” and engaging in the use of “taboo words” and expressions is a widespread practice. You come across them in books, cinema, rap music and in both private and public discourse, as well as in various forms of media. There’s a vast lexicon of emotionally charged, offensive language — words and phrases that are generally deemed unsuitable in particular contexts but are resorted to when people seek to convey intense emotions, issue threats, or engage in unpleasant exchanges with others. While swear words and taboo expressions can heighten the impact of our words, they are also capable of eliciting shock or offence.

Of course, Caliban’s actual words themselves do not possess inherent qualities of being “taboo”, “indecent”, or “profane”. Many words now considered unsuitable for public discourse were, in earlier stages of the English language, neutral, conventional terms to describe objects or actions. Taboo words are also subject to change over time. Some of them may diminish (“damn” has lost its power to shock) or even vanish as language evolves, while others may transmute into euphemisms. People also engage in self-censorship, refusing to use words that others may disapprove of. Instead of using these words, individuals often employ euphemisms as more polite substitutes for the taboo terms. “Gosh” and “Crikey!” evolved from needing to exclaim aloud without using the words “God”.

The categorisation of language as “taboo” is contingent upon cultural norms and not any inherent linguistic characteristics. Linguists have adopted an impartial and descriptive approach when addressing taboo language, confining themselves to recording which words are avoided in particular contexts. In the context of modern Western culture, “taboo” words are intrinsically linked with the principles of politeness, for social engagement revolves around conduct that is characterised by courtesy, respect, restraint, and taking utmost care not to offend.

“Bad” words are expected to be entirely avoided, or at least used sparingly in the presence of “mixed company”. If at all you resort to them, be judicious — and use them only sparingly for special effect!

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