What do taboo words mean?

Seven-Dirty-WordsGlad to leave my sick bed and return to the land of the living . . .

Here’s how this post started. Recently, my 17-year-old son did something dumb on the basketball court during his high school team’s game at a school in another town and earned his fifth foul. (For those with limited knowledge of the game, that means he “fouled out” and had to sit on the bench for the rest of the game.)  His response, as he approached the bench, was to yell damn it (or dammit depending on your spelling preference).  He was not looking at anyone when he said it, but a woman in the bleachers behind the bench — from the home team — was deeply offended, saying he’s just low class and, with tears in her eyes, demanding from his coach that my son apologize to her and the young girl sitting next to her (which the coach did). Until the coach told my son to apologize, he didn’t realize who the woman was talking to or what she was talking about.  A few others from the home team joined the woman in criticizing my son’s behavior. He did turn around and apologize to her. Once he became aware of the crowd’s reaction, he was so shaken he said he was a little scared to leave the locker room after the game.

I admit there are many things I could say — and have said — about this situation. But I want to focus here on the meaning of taboo words.  WARNING: This post is rated “R” for language! (It’s my first so grant me a little slack.)

I’m predicting that you react to my story in one of two ways:

  1. You perceive my son’s linguistic behavior as offensive — hence “taboo” — and the woman’s response as justified because the behavior is prohibited in this context.
  2. You perceive my son’s language as reasonable (at best) or indelicate (at worst) but not taboo, and the woman’s response as unjustified.

Writing in The Guardian about his experience of swearing at a sporting even in the UK, Mark Lawson says,

. . . both linguistic positions turn more subtly on the question of the intent with which a word was used and the extent to which it retains power to offend.

Let me take up each of these ideas. So what exactly was my son’s intent when he said damn it? In what appears to be one of the largest scale research studies on swearing, Jean-Marc Dewaele found that

swearing is as much self- as other-directed; the stronger the emotion, the more likely it will be expressed.

Knowing my son and hearing him describe the situation at his basketball game (I was across the gym and didn’t hear what was going on), I’m confidant that his use of damn it was self-directed — he used it to express his extreme frustration when he fouled out. Personally, I categorize his use of damn it as reasonable, while I would categorize his use of damn you while making eye contact with someone at the game as taboo. In the actual case, his intent was not communicative at all. That doesn’t mean his behavior didn’t communicate something to the woman in the stands. But it wasn’t his intent to communicate with her. That matters to me.

In Holy @&%*! Author Steven Pinker Thinks We’re Hardwired to Curse, Wired magazine writes:

The experimental psychologist [Pinker] takes a fresh look at the “poo-poo theory,” which proposes that swearing was actually the first form of language. He points to the fact that brain-damaged patients who lose the power of articulate speech often retain the ability to curse like a sailor. “Since swearing involves clearly more ancient parts of the brain,” Pinker says, “it could be a missing link between animal vocalization and human language.”

This connection between swearing and primal emotional response would explain why a 2009 study demonstrated that people who used taboo words had greater pain tolerance. (Follow this link to the interesting 60-second podcast at Scientific American).

The idea I have yet to write about relates to what exactly was the extent of offense when my son said damn it?  I mean dammit or damn it — or god damn it — isn’t even on George Carlin’s famous list of seven dirty words. But, living within the culture of the Deep South in the US for most of my adult life, I think many locals find damn more offensive than fuck. Summarizing the research on swearing, psychologists Timothy Jay and Kristin Janschewitz write,

Swearing is positively correlated with extraversion and is a defining feature of a Type A personality. It is negatively correlated with conscientiousness, agreeableness, sexual anxiety, and religiosity.

I suspect the relatively high level of religiosity among Southerners explains the relative offensiveness of damn. I can tell you that damn was only mildly offensive among the Midwestern US farming culture where I grew up; people avoided it in church or in the elementary classroom but not elsewhere. The thing everyone needs to understand is that the level of prohibition or offensiveness of a specific taboo word depends on culture: geography, religion, age, gender, ethnicity, socio-economic class, etc.  While I never heard a white person use nigger as a child in Nebraska in the 1960s, I have heard them use it in Alabama in the 21st millenium century.

So my son’s use of damn it, although not intended to communicate anything to the people in the basketball game where he fouled out, was said loudly enough that is was heard by people he could have predicted would find it highly offensive. Like many important life lessons, it was a painful one for him.  We talked at length about the consequences of using taboo words within professional settings, where the dominant culture of an organization will determine both how appropriate emotional expressions are in general and also which specific words are taboo. To explain what taboo words mean is tricky business.


I find the topic of taboo words fascinating. I’d like to read what Randall Eggert has to say in his 2011 book, This Book is Taboo: An Introduction to Linguistics through Swearing, but I just can’t make time right now.  Clearly, there is an audience for the subject. The archive at Language Log, including posts by many linguists, has at least a dozen entries for taboo language during 2012. In one post, Bob Ladd wrote about emotion and language following the wreck of the Costa Concordia off the coast of Italy last year.

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  1. Thanks for sharing. However, I would like to take the liberty to point out a mistake. “Knowing my son and hearing him describe the situation at his basketball game (I was across the gym and did not hear what was going on) I’m confidant that his use of damn it was self-directed”. Unless standing within earshot, you cannot be certain that the phrase or expression your son uttered was self-directed.

    1. I loved your article, and I didn’t consider your son to be offensive to that woman. Probably, she was simply depressed or had a low self-esteem. Among many other positive points on this article, I should mention that, possibly, you had wanted to say “21st century” instead of the “21 millenium”. All in all, it’s a great article, based on daily social life. Thank you for posting. I’ll take it into account for my Dissertation, as it’s based on taboo language among teens.

      1. Ana Maria, I encourage you to check out Eggert’s book. It provides a nice summary of research into linguistic taboos. It was published in 2011 and includes many references at the end of each chapter that might be helpful to you. Good luck on your research. And thanks for helping me correct the typo! Everyone needs an editor 😉

  2. In general, people need to lighten up about language.

    I also think that folks, like Noel, also need to give people the benefit of the doubt — that there was no insult meant, that sometimes things just come out — the self-directed response. It’s the assumption of mal-intent that bothers me about peoples’ reactions to awkward or unfortunate situations. While I’m not a pollyanna in my view of people and the world, I think most of us just go about our lives, trying to do the best we can to get through most situations. Very few of us are so malevolent that we pick up on opportunities to hurt feelings, etc. Toddlers begin to develop self and situational awareness, but that’s a process that continues throughout childhood and adolescence. And even adults slip up here and there. So what? Even if we’re with kidlets (ours or others), that doesn’t mean that the person who’s slipped up has done so with the thought running through their head, “muah ha ha ha… I can really mess with this child’s development or this person’s moral comfort by uttering a naughty word”… If that’s really what folks think then they’re certainly too self-absorbed to matter.

    For the parents who think their kids’ moral compass is going to be damaged by hearing a naughty word, I say join the real world… by the age of 7 or 8 your kids are exposed to lots of naughty language and concepts unless you smother them constantly. For the people who think that it’s some moral indiscretion to use the occasional naughty word in public (on purpose or accident) — grow up… sheesh. It doesn’t change the person you are just because you may hear the errant “dammit” (or worse). If you don’t think that language should be used, don’t use it. Obviously, those folks are going to avoid situations and people who use naughty language, but I think it’s silly for a kid to feel that much negative pressure because he let a naughty word slip as a result of the over done reactions by folks who push their values very freely onto other folks.

    1. The assumption of mal-intent bugs me, too! But the reality is that there are people who are offended by very different sorts of words than my son and I are. That’s an important life lesson.

  3. As a person born and bred in the “Deep South” (but having lived all over the country), I think you hit the nail on the head in speculating that “damn” (perhaps as short for “G*d Damn”) is more offensive to many in the Deep South than the F-word. Yet I have family members who drop the N-word regularly and think nothing of it (which offends me terribly).

    If I were your son and fouled out, I expect I would have said something similar (or dropped the F-word as I have in less public situations when frustrated with something). On the other hand, I have on occasion asked people to watch their language around my 3 year old son (a/k/a the Parrot).

    My guess? It was a good lesson for your son to realize his behavior–even innocent–affects those around him. I bet it will stick with him. You can’t plan those kinds of teachable moments.

    1. You’re right! I certainly prefer that he learn the lesson on a basketball court during high school rather than as a young professional in a client meeting . . .

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