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.