Monday, 23 April 2012


Taboo generally describes that which is unmentionable because, on a hierarchical scale, it is either ineffably sacred, like the name of God, or unspeakably vile, like cannibalism or incest. Freud reminds us, in Totem and Taboo (originally published 1912–1913) that “Taboo is a Polynesian word, the translation of which provides difficulties for us because we no longer possess the idea which it connotes” (1950, 18). Historically, taboos have tended to move from religious to secular, especially sexual to racial, topics, but they can manifest themselves in relation to a wide variety of things, creatures, human experiences, conditions, deeds, and words. The term is now used somewhat loosely of any social indiscretion that ought to be avoided, since strictly speaking, a taboo action should not be performed nor referred to, and a taboo word should never be uttered. Although the word itself is Tongan in origin, having been brought into English by the explorer Captain James Cook in his Voyage to the Pacific Ocean (1777), the broader notion of prohibition is fundamental and found in all societies. Originally spelled tabu in the Melanesian languages, the word had a complex social and anthropological meaning: the adjectival use referred to physical locales that were sacred, set apart for a gods, kings, priests, or chiefs, and therefore prohibited for general use. Cook noted in his account that “the word has a very comprehensive meaning; but, in general, signifies that a thing is forbidden” (II vii). Itcould also be used as a verb: Cook records that a man had “been discovered with a woman who was taboo’d.” (Cook’s description conforms to the taboos of his own time by not referring explicitly to sexual activity.) Linguistically taboo is rooted in word magic, especially in the belief that certain forces and creatures cannot or must not be named. These have come to include a great range such as the name of God, the Devil, death, damnation, disease, madness, being crippled, the varieties of excretion, and copulation, and in some societies, being fired, being poor, being fat, having a humble occupation, or references to underclothes. Taboos can present themselves in unexpected forms. One of the strangest is that the Germanic ancestors of theEnglish regarded the bear as a creature of such totemistic force that it was referred to only indirectly as “the brown one” or via such metaphors as “the honey wolf.” In several religions, such as Brahmanism, Judaism, and Islam, direct reference to the name of God is taboo. This is not the case with Christianity, although there are biblical injunctions, such as the Third Commandment, against “taking the Lord’s name in vain” (Exodus 20:7). Absolute taboos are rare and impractical, since they obviously impede communication and cannot be enforced in an increasingly secular and multicultural world. Consequently, the relationship between taboo and euphemism is symbiotic. As the entry for euphemisms shows, some euphemisms are time-honored, such as those for the name of God, while others are comparatively recent, such as those relating to fatness. Historically, there are few areas of continuous taboo. In medieval times, contrary to expectation, the name of God was used very freely in ways that now seem blasphemous, while “four-letter” words were used incertain literary genres and even in medical textbooks. In the Victorian era virtually all the categories listed in the previous paragraph were taboo. The exception was fatness, admired in the male embonpoint or paunch. Today taboo increasingly refers to prohibitions against socially unacceptable words, expressions, and topics, especially of a sexual and racist nature. They are also governed by context and medium, being most strictly observed in the press, the printed word, and broadcasting, but less so in oral usage, especially in male-to-male talk. A reminder of the earlier force of taboos occurs in this passage: “If a man had been able to say to you when you were young and in love: ‘An’ if tha —, an’ if tha —, I’d be glad.’” This is from Aldous Huxley’s edition of The Letters of D.H. Lawrence (1932, 773), quoting a famous passage from Lady Chatterley’s Lover, from which Huxley had to excise pisses and shits. Yet both these words figure in proverbs listed in M.P. Tilley’s major collection, A Dictionary of theProverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (1950). There are also biographical and individual factors governing taboos, especially that of age. Louis MacNeice explores this theme in “The Blasphemies,” a poem tracing changing sensitivity through decades of personal maturation. It begins with the child’s speculation:“The sin against the Holy . . . though what / He wondered was it?” “Cold in his bed,” he is terrified at the prospect that “I shall be damned through thinking Damn.” But ten years later he is “Preening himself as a gay blasphemer.” “Rising thirty, he had decided / God was a mere expletive, a cheap one.” Between forty and fifty “He grew to feel the issue irrelevant.”The poem ends with the taboo broken, but the question remaining: “The sin /Against the Holy Ghost—What is it?”In recent decades the notion of linguistic taboo has shifted from being actual to mythical. Revealingly, in the first linguistic instance given in the Oxford English Dictionary, LeonardBloomfield wrote in his classic study Language (1933): “In America knocked up is a tabu form for ‘rendered pregnant’” (xx ii), thereby breaking the supposed taboo in an example that now seems rather quaint. (In Victorian times even the word pregnant was taboo.) A double standard is particularly apparent in modern dictionaries, which commonly employ the usage label “taboo” of sexual and racist terms, even though these words are acknowledged to be incommon use. The modern use of corpora, or large bodies of evidence of actual usage, both spoken and written, has enabled lexicographers to make meaningful assessments of word frequency. These clearly show that the notion of “taboo” is a misnomer. Thus the LongmanDictionary of Contemporary English (3rd edition, 1995) is based on both the Longman Corpus and the British National Corpus to establish the 3,000 most frequently used words in spoken and written English. Although fuck is marked as “taboo,” its usage is rated as S3, one of 3,000 most frequently spoken words—while fucking is rated even higher as S1, one of the1,000 most frequently spoken words. Bastard, bugger, and bloody are rated as S3, while shit and ass are rated as S2. (None of these words achieves so high a rating in written usage, and the first three are far more common in British than in American English.) Furthermore, it should be noted that usage labels in modern dictionaries tend to be remarkable in their inconsistency. The increasing use of taboo to mean simply “offensive” or “grossly impolite” rather than“strictly forbidden” is also apparent in recent publications actually using the term in their titles. These include A Dictionary of Obscenity, Taboo and Euphemism (1988) by James McDonaldand Forbidden American English (1990) by Richard A. Spears. The latter often rates somewords (e.g., fuck) as “taboo in all senses,” but others (e.g., cunt) as merely “very vulgar.”However, the work gives quite elaborate caution notes. In recent decades, as taboos have moved from sexual to racial terms, the lexicographical accommodation of ethnic slurs has attracted much controversy. The Oxford UniversityPress was subjected to protests and eventually a lawsuit in 1972 over the inclusion of opprobrious senses of the word Jew. Two years previously the editor in chief of Webster’s NewWorld Dictionary pointedly omitted what were termed in the Preface “those true obscenities, the terms of racial or ethnic opprobrium.” Today, former taboos against religious exclamations are less stringently observed, while gross sexual terms are increasingly current. The category that now most conforms to genuine taboo is that of race.