What Makes Bad Words Bad? Taboo Language and Euphemisms

So let’s talk about limits. We like to be
able to talk about anything we want, and we can – we have the words to explain everything.
That’s what language is good at. But just because we can express ourselves doesn’t mean
that we should. There are a lot of topics we’ve learned to be careful of, and words
we should avoid. So just a warning – we’re using a lot of them today, so if you’re not
in the mood for some swearing, across a lot of different languages, this might not be
the best episode for you. But for the rest of you… I’m Moti Lieberman, and this is
the Ling Space. So like I said, in this episode, we’re going
to be both saying and showing a number of explicit swear words, in English and other
languages. If that’s not something you feel comfortable with, we’ll have a clean summary
of the linguistics behind it on our Tumblr, so check out the link in the description below!
But you should probably stop watching now. Okay, so. No matter what culture you look
at, there’s always some standards for how to behave as a proper person, ways of talking
with people to show you respect both them and the society overall. And when it comes
to language, that means using some words and constructions, and keeping clear of others.
We’ll be talking more about the positive side of politeness in the future, but for today,
we’re looking at taboos. Taboos in language are topics and words that
lie at the extreme low end of the politeness spectrum. Slinging these terms around can
make people feel embarrassed or ashamed, and so if you’re being polite, you keep them well
away from your mouth. Sometimes, these taboo words are just globally bad, never to be used.
But often, the words are only supposed to be said by certain people or in certain circumstances,
and never otherwise. Like, in Hebrew, the true name of god was only supposed to be said
by priests when they were blessing people in the temple. Any other time or place, they
weren’t supposed to use it, and non-priests were never supposed to use it at all. But outside of Judaic culture, that prohibition
doesn’t necessarily hold. And in fact, that’s the way it is with taboos overall: even if
every human culture has taboos, they’re not always the same ones. It’s not like any
of these things are actually bad – they’re all important to be able to talk about. A
word that’s terrible in one place can be fine in another. So if the Jews felt weird
about saying the name of god, the Romans sure felt fine about naming theirs out loud. But
across cultures, we tend to find the same themes cropping up as linguistic taboos: mainly,
body parts and bodily functions, like sex, excretion, or death, and people or things
that require respectful treatment, like family terms, religion, race, and politics. Within these categories, though, you can find
variation. Like, look at religious terms. In some cultures, like we’ve seen, you don’t
want to name any deities. And it can be like that in English, too – many people want
to avoid saying Jesus, for example. But you can have it extend to other parts of religion,
too. Say, like, in Quebec French, some of the most taboo words are items used in Catholic religious
service, like tabarnak, for “tabernacle”, or câlisse, for “chalice”. Or it can
extend to people related to religion, as well, like how in Japan, one of the worst things
you can call a woman is 尼 [ama], or “nun”. It’s really bad. Unless it’s within the
religious context itself – no one is going to feel weird about you saying Jesus or câlisse
if you’re in a church to pray. The intent behind it really matters. In other cases, simply calling people directly
by name can be really impolite. Languages like Javanese or Japanese use systems of honorifics,
to show respect for people; dropping them entirely is very familiar and can be really rude. But
if you want taboos on names themselves, take a look at Bariai, a language spoken in Papua
New Guinea. Here, using the names of your spouse’s parents is considered taboo. But
in Bariai, people are often named after objects or animals. And that gives you some problems
if you want to talk about anything that matches your in-laws’ names. So like, say your father-in-law is named Puaea,
or “crocodile”, and you want to talk about a crocodile you’ve seen. You can’t just use
the word – that’s off-limits, ‘cause it’s his name. So instead, you’d say bagale,
which is a borrowed word for crocodile from a nearby language. Which might be inconvenient,
but at least you’re not breaking any taboos. Of course, cross-linguistic influences on
taboos don’t end with word-switching. Often, words in one language will accidentally sound
like taboo words in another language. Look at Thai and English. If you’re Thai and
you know English, and you’re talking in Thai near English speakers, you might avoid words
like fag or phrig, even though those just mean “sheath” or “chili pepper” in
Thai. And you may find it even harder to use otherwise innocuous English words like yet
or key, because they sound a lot like the Thai words jed and khîi, which basically
mean fuck and shit. Even if they’re not bad in English, they’re still uncomfortable to
say – the taboo power is strong. And we really mean it – it’s strong. The
power of taboos can go really deep into our psyches. And we can show this using the Stroop
test. So here’s the basics of the test: you show people a series of words in different
colours, and you ask them to just name the colour the word is printed in. So you don’t
actually need to read the word – you just say the colour the word is in. So try it here.
Let’s put up some words, and all you need to do is tell me what colour you’re seeing.
All right? Not bad, yeah? But let’s see what happens
now… Much harder, right? So this is usually used to show just how automatic reading is
– the presence of a different colour word interferes with you saying what the colour
you’re seeing is. You can’t help reading, and that gets you confused, so you slow down. So what does that have to do with taboo words?
Well… a psycholinguist wanted to look at something similar. So let’s try the test again –
remember, all you need to do is say the colour. So these aren’t colour words, but
it isn’t hard, right? How about with these? Way worse, right? Our minds can’t help but
read those words and process them, and then we get shocked. We get forced into having
these reactions, and they slow us down from our task. Because they’re so strong, when we learn
a new language, we often want to learn these words first, either because they’re fun,
or to avoid insulting people. We know they’re bad, and so we’re interested in them. But
even if bad words are bad, sometimes we still need to talk about all this stuff, right?
So how can we do that? Well, one option that’s got a lot of history behind it is euphemisms. A euphemism is a way to make use of indirect
or prettier language to make a taboo or unpleasant topic easier to handle. And we have a whole
bunch of linguistic approaches to this, too. One method is just to straight-up change the
word. Like, we can just clip off part of the end, so instead of, say, Jesus, we get jeez.
Or we can abbreviate things: so we can get POS for “piece of shit”, or “the f-word”
instead of “fuck”. Or we can just mispronounce things, and swap
in a different, but similar sounding word. Sometimes, like “gosh” instead of “god”,
or “tabarnouche” instead of “tabarnak”, it gives you something new. But other times,
they match other words in the language, like “shoot” instead of “shit”, or “fudge”
or “fluff” instead of “fuck”. So with these, the context tells you which it is – “Oh
fudge” is probably the euphemism; “I made you some delicious maple fudge” is actual
fudge. We can also bring in other vocabulary that’s
more accurate rather than a weird substitution. Like, you can use a medical term, like “sexual
intercourse”, or “gluteus maximus” instead of “butt”. Or you can use just a pronoun and rely on
people to know what you mean. Like if I say “Miles and Lara are doing it”, you probably
know what that “it” is. Or in Japanese, if you say 彼のあそこ [kaɾe no asoko], or “his… there”,
what’s meant by there is pretty obvious. Another option is to use figures of speech
instead. So let’s look at the ones around death. We don’t like talking about death
much, and you seem blunt if you’re just like “Grandpa died.” So instead, we use
understatements, like “We put our cat to sleep”, or metaphors, like “we lost her
to a car accident”. Or we try being ambiguous, like “She’s gone to the other side”. These all feel
better and nicer than the straight-up dead option. Of course, the thing about euphemisms is that
once they get associated with something bad, it’s not really okay to use that euphemism
anymore, either. This is known as the euphemism treadmill. Like… let’s look at personal
hygiene. We don’t like talking about where we go to relieve ourselves. So that place
cycles through names: water closet turns to toilet, and then to bathroom, and then to
restroom, because no matter what word you use, the shine eventually comes off it if
you relate it to pooping. And that’s just one of our taboo topics.
Across languages, there are lots of things that we don’t feel like we can say. And these
taboos evolve over time, as we’ll talk about back on our website. But don’t worry – now
that we’ve talked about it here today, in the future, we’ll stay within our polite
limits. So we’ve reached the end of the Ling Space
for this week. If you weren’t thrown off by the colourful language, you learned that
all languages have taboo words, even if the actual taboos differ from place to place;
that there are themes that we can find in the kinds of words that get ruled out; and
that to get around these restrictions, we use euphemisms, even if we need to change
them up over time. The Ling Space is produced by me, Moti Lieberman.
It’s directed by Adèle-Elise Prévost, and it’s written by both of us. Our editor
is Georges Coulombe, our production assistant is Stephan Hurtubise, our music is by Shane
Turner, and our graphics team is atelierMUSE. We’re down in the comments below, or you
can bring the discussion back over to our website, where we have some extra material
on this topic. Check us out on Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook, and check out our store! We’ve got mugs, posters, and t-shirts. And if you want to keep expanding your own
personal Ling Space, please subscribe. And we’ll see you next Wednesday. A pli tard!

17 Replies to “What Makes Bad Words Bad? Taboo Language and Euphemisms

  1. Is it bad that the most salient thing I took from this video is "maple fudge"? Didn't even know this existed.

  2. Interestingly, it was just as hard for me to say the colors of the neutral words as the taboo words. Maybe having grown up with the internet I'm just very used to written taboo words as natural speech (even if I don't say them), or I just have a propensity to stop and understand all words before I'm mentally allowed to proceed.

  3. The moment you showed the word pink, I immediately said red. Even though pink is a tint of red, that's still pretty bad ( though it's probably because I assumed it would be red).

  4. I'm an English speaker who learned Thai later in life and I sometimes feel myself blushing when I end an English sentence with 'yet' when speaking with thais.

  5. These days, I see a lot of people on the Internet writing “Kill yourself” as a rude epithet. It’s probably a millennial thing, as I never heard anyone use it that way when I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s. (Yeah. I’m a Gen-X’er.)

  6. Words don't bully people, bullies do. -By M.Bruce Thomas

    One word that should wake everyone up is Etymology
    'The study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history'…
    Those who don't understand the word ignorant, which means lacking knowledge or awareness in general will be offended to hear that this all boils down to our personal ignorance of Etymology.
    Entire libraries have been burned to the ground, erasing all traces of documented history. You ever wonder why that happens? Me too.
    Now, just because a verb has a toxic-feel, a societal stigma, and is socially unfashionable due to a transition from an impartial term to one that is negatively loaded, does not mean that we can simply allow the word itself or it's impartial usage to spark outrage in us without simultaneously riding the euphemism treadmill.
    It's a dumbing-down process.
    My auto-suggest dictionary suggests EMINEM when I try to type Hominem or Homonyms. Dumbing me down.
    In Etymology, with a language that has 15 meanings for one word. (Homonyms) You cannot safely turn any words into acronyms without severely dumbing-down future generations of society. We would not be able to have this discussion at all due to the complexities. Saying the (R)-Word without spelling it all the way out or saying the actual word fully, is EXTREMELY restrictive and here is why:
    Below we have the (i)-word the (m)-word and the (fm)-words
    “idiot,” “moron,” “imbecile,” and “feeble-minded”
    Do we see the slippery slope?
    Imagine not being able to find out why the word queer went from a slur to a compliment and not being able to know what the R in **** even stood for. I implore you to do deep research on the history of the word queer and the word we fear. A joke is being played on us here.
    The word in question is epitomizing it's own definition. Making us “idiots,” “morons,” “imbeciles,” and “feeble-minded slaves”
    This is no accident. We live in a sick world and we speak a very twisted tongue. The English language is being used to manipulate us and we allow it.
    The word in question was borrowed out of sensitivity to replace others that words that had become slurs such as “idiot,” “moron,” “imbecile,” and “feeble-minded”. All of these words that were replaced were actually very useful, as each signified varying types and degrees of those conditions.

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