Taboo words are a part of language that is supposed to be avoided at all times, but are nevertheless used in practice. Most taboo words originate from taboo acts. Dictionaries have special labels for taboo words which warn the users that taboo words are not acceptable. Taboo words in dictionaries are defined in patterns which make them seem less offensive, and provide an alternative for them. Only taboo words which are considered to be the least offensive have example sentences in their entries in dictionaries. The most offensive group of taboo words are taboo words related to sexuality. Inconsistencies in labelling between dictionaries prove that the negative connotations of taboo words are not inherent in language, but culturally determined.
Taboo words are those words that are considered in bad taste by some people or should be avoided because they mention realities that are stark or vulgar. Taboo words usually refer to sex, religion and necessities such as the act of emptying the bladder or the bowels.
The general aim of this paper is to observe and report on the treatment of taboo words in standard language dictionaries, among words without taboo connotations. The paper will offer a short introduction into the problematics of taboo language, but will for the most part examine the treatment of taboo words in dictionaries- the way they are defined, the labels that designate them and the examples that accompany them. By comparing the entries for taboo words in five dictionaries, it will be shown which labels for taboo words exist and whether they are the same in all dictionaries; whether all dictionaries follow the same pattern when defining taboo words and with what purpose, and whether the treatment od taboo words in dictionaries can cause any problems for dictionary users. Through examining the entries for taboo words which contain examples, it will be determined which taboo words are the least insulting, and by comparing labels it will be determined which taboo words are the most insulting. Noting the inconsistencies between the dictionaries in defining and labelling taboo words will show that taboo words are not inherently offensive, but determined as taboo by the speakers of the language and the culture they belong to.
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Taboo words, also referred to as curse words, profanity, swearwords and offensive speech, are words that are not supposed to be uttered at all, or at least not in polite conversation, because they are regarded as inappropriate or immoral, or believed to be forbidden supernaturally. Typical examples of taboo words would be expressions like Damn! or Shit! (Akmajian et al. 306). Taboo words are used in order to make the language we speak more graphic or more concrete, just as metaphors do (Jay 137). They add emotional shading to language and can communicate strong thoughts, ideas, attitudes and opinions in a way non- taboo words cannot (Jay 137). They are used to express anger and annoyance, for insulting and often as intensifiers in phrases, such as in the sentence ”Whereââ‚¬â„¢s that damn book!” (Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary Online).
The word taboo comes from the Polynesian language and means ”forbidden” (Allan and Burridge 2). Taboo words are, as their name suggests, connected to taboo acts. The act of incest is taboo, and so is the word motherfucker- but there are other words that are taboo, while the action they denote is not. Talking about sex is often considered taboo, but the act of sex itself is not at all forbidden, or improper, if it is done at the suitable time and place, and with the appropriate person. Still, words linked to a taboo act are likely to become taboo words (Allan and Burridge 2). It is important to note that ”ââ‚¬¦what counts as taboo language is something defined by culture, and not by anything inherent in the language.” (Akmajian et al. 307). This means that taboo words and expressions reflect the customs and views of people belonging to a particular society or culture. (Trudgill 18)
Taboo language in the English language can be divided into three broader categories. The first category consists of taboo words related to religion. Typical examples from this category are expressions such as God!, Damn!, Jesus! and Hell!. Since words from this category refer to the supernatural, they evoke the emotions of awe and fear. This category represents the historical basis of swearing in the English language (Pinker). The second category consists of taboo words which denote certain body functions and effluvia. The taboo words from this category provoke emotions of disgust due to the fact that certain infectious diseases can be carried from one person to another through bodily effluvia (Pinker). Typical examples from this category are taboo words such as shit, asshole and fart. The third category consists of taboo words related to sexuality- sexual organs, different names for the act of sex and insults related to one’s sexual orientation or sexual habits. Examples from this category are the words fuck, pussy and dyke. Another category can be added to the ones already mentioned- a category that consists of insulting names for disfavoured (mostly because of their race or nationality) persons or groups. The words from this category provoke emotions of hatred and contempt, and the typical example is the word nigger.
Methods and material
The data for this research was obtained by searching through online dictionaries for taboo words and observing their respective entries. Five online dictionaries were chosen: Oxford Advanced Learner’s English Dictionary Online, Merriam- Webster Online Dictionary, Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary Online, Macmillan Online Dictionary and Longman English Dictionary Online. The reason for choosing online dictionaries was that the printed versions of these dictionaries which were available were not all from the same year and were not the current versions. Online dictionaries are constantly upgraded, which makes them suitable for a comparative study. These five dictionaries were chosen because they all come from respectable publishing companies and are edited by professional lexicographers. Only standard language dictionaries, and not specialised dictionaries (such as slang dictionaries), were used because the aim of the research was to see how taboo words were treated among all other ”normal” words. After choosing which dictionaries to use, the words that would be examined were chosen based on the literature consulted for this research paper, with the addition of words similar in meaning. The words were the following: (ass, asshole, fart, piss, shit, bastard, bitch, cock, cunt, dick, dyke, fag, fuck, motherfucker, pussy, screw, slut, whore, bloody, damn, darn, hell, Dago, Gook, nigger, Paddy, Paki and Spic – 28 in total. They were then divided into four groups: Body parts and effluvia (ass, asshole, fart, piss, and shit,); Sex and insults related to sexuality (bastard, bitch, cock, cunt, dick, dyke, fag, fuck, motherfucker, pussy, screw, slut and whore); Religion (bloody, damn, darn and hell) and Racial insults (Dago, Gook, nigger, Paddy, Paki and Spic). The research included checking and noting the labels and the definitions used in separate dictionaries, as well as the examples (or the lack of examples), and comparing them.
Analysis and results
This comparative study answered the following questions:
- Which labels and warnings are used in dictionaries to warn the users about taboo words?
- How are taboo words defined in dictionaries?
- Are there any differences between dictionaries in the way the words used in the study are labelled and defined?
- Are there any example sentences in entries for taboo words?
- Which group of taboo words/ which individual taboo word is the most strongly marked?
Labels. Every dictionary has labels assigned to words which inform the user of the status of the word and the register it is supposed to be used in. This research has shown that there are many ways of warning dictionary users about taboo words. The labels that are used to warn users about taboo words in Oxford Advanced Learner’s English Dictionary Online are: taboo, slang, informal, disapproving and offensive. The labels appear before the definition of the word; they are written in italics and bracketed. Alongside these labels, additional warnings can be found in the definition of the word. The additional labels are: very offensive, not polite, offensive, a swear word, and offensive to some people.
The labels that refer to taboo words in Merriam- Webster Online Dictionary are: sometimes vulgar, often vulgar, usually vulgar, obscene, usually obscene, usually disparaging, often disparaging and usually offensive. The labels appear before the definition of the word, in italics. Only one additional label was found in the definition of the word- a generalized term of abuse.
The labels for taboo words found in the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary Online are: informal, very informal, slang, offensive and disapproving. The labels appear before the definition of the word and are written in capitals. Only one additional label was found in the definition of the word and that one is slightly rude.
The labels that are used to warn users about taboo words in the Macmillan Online Dictionary are: impolite, offensive and informal. As in the case of the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary Online, the labels appear before the definition of the word and are written in capitals. The additional labels found in the definition were extremely offensive and insulting.
In the Longman English Dictionary Online, the labels for taboo words are: taboo, informal, not polite and slightly rude. The labels appear before the definition of the word in italics and in a different colour than the definition. The additional labels are: offensive, very offensive in combination with ”Do not use this word” and insulting. What this overview shows is that every dictionary has its own system of labelling taboo words, with different words used as warning for the users. This is not surprising because every dictionary has its own labelling policy which is applied to all the words, not just taboo words. Some of the labels do appear in more than one dictionary, like offensive, informal and taboo. Generally speaking, it can be concluded that users are warned in an adequate way that taboo words are not appropriate, not only because of the labels themselves, but also because of the graphical layout of the labels (written in capitals, italics, or in another colour). However, one potential problem for dictionary users can be detected just by looking at the labels- words like often, sometimes, slightly and usually often modify labels for taboo words. This can create confusion, especially since definitions of most taboo words are not followed by examples. The user himself, especially if he is not a native speaker, cannot know in which cases he is allowed to use this word and in which it could have severe consequences. The only dictionary which explicitly states that some words should not be used at all is the Longman English Dictionary Online, with the label ”Do not use this word” found in the definitions of the taboo words.
Definitions. When it comes to the way taboo words are defined, there are two types of definitions used in the dictionaries examined in this research. The first type of definition is the synonym definition, in which just the synonym of the taboo word is given, usually a scientific or a more polite term, without any additional explanation, as in the case of the word cock in the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary Online :
” COCK- (taboo, slang) a penis”.
The second type of definition gives a scientifical explanation of the phenomenon which the taboo word denotes, as in the case of the word fart in the Merriam- Webster Online Dictionary:
” FART- often vulgar: to expel intestinal gas from the anus”.
Both types of definitions appear in all of the five dictionaries examined and they represent the standard way taboo or offensive words are usually defined in dictionaries. The goal they share is making taboo words and concepts seem less offensive. (joint 128).
Examples. Another aspect of the treatment of taboo words in dictionaries that is worth looking at are examples of sentences or phrases that contain taboo words and words that collocate with them. There are many kinds of dictionaries, and not all of them provide examples for all the words they list, but by checking which taboo words have examples in most dictionaries, and which do not, it can be concluded which taboo words are the least offensive. If a dictionary offers an example, it actually shows the user how a word is supposed to be used and in a way gives permission for its usage. The word hell had an example in all of the five dictionaries examined, the words bastard, bloody, damn and darn in four, and the words shit and bitch in three. The rest of the words had an example in one or none of the dictionaries examined. This indicates that the words belonging to the group of taboo words related to religion are no longer considered very insulting, which can be confirmed by looking at the labels used for these words- informal and impolite prevail, and three dictionaries do not even give any warning for some of the taboo words from this group. The fact that the words belonging to the group of taboo words related to religion aro no longer perceived as very offensive is in contrast with the fact that the historical root of swearing in English is religion (Pinker). Linguist interpret this phenomenon as a result of the secularization of Western culture. (Pinker) The words shit and bitch belong to two different groups of taboo words: shit belongs to the group that refers to body parts and effluvia, and bitch belongs to the group that refers to sex and insults related to sexuality. Both of the words belong to everyday speech, and are mostly labelled as impolite or informal, but also offensive in some dictionaries.
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Most offensive words. Determining the most offensive taboo word and taboo word group was the next step in this research. By simply comparing the labels, it was concluded that the most strongly marked group was the group consisting of words related to sexuality- words referring to sex (fuck, screw), sexual organs (cock, cunt, dick, pussy) and insults related to sexuality (bitch, dyke, fag, motherfucker, whore). These words were mostly labelled as very offensive, vulgar and obscene. Cunt is the most offensive word in this group. It was labelled as taboo/ slang/ very offensive (Oxford), usually disparaging & obscene (Merriam- Webster), offensive (Cambridge), offensive/ extremely offensive (Macmillan), and taboo/ ”Do not use this word” (Longman). Cunt has been the most seriously taboo word in English for centuries, remaining so for the vast majority of users, especially women, since it conveys strong misogynist connotations (Allan and Burridge 52). The most offensive individual taboo word of the ones that were examined was the word nigger. All of the dictionaries strongly warn against this word, and Merriam- Webster calls it ”the most offensive and inflammatory racial slur in English”. In other dictionaries it is labelled as very or extremely offensive, and Longman states that the words should not be used at all. Other words from the group consisting of insults on a racial or national basis (Gook, Dago, Spic, Paddy) are also strongly warned against, and usually labelled as offensive or very offensive. This implies that the world is moving towards tolerance when it comes to questions of race and nationality (but also sexual orientation and religion), and these kinds of insults are now completely unacceptable.
Inconsistencies. There are certain inconsistencies between dictionaries in the way some taboo words are defined and labelled. This can be seen in the way the word slut is labelled in the dictionaries examined, as shown in Table 1.
Oxford ALD Online: disapproving, offensive
Merriam- Webster Online: very informal
Cambridge ALD Online: offensive, insulting
Macmillan Online Dictionary: taboo informal,
Longman English Dictionary Online: very offensive- ”Do not use this word”
Oxford, Macmillan and Longman consider slut more offensive than Cambridge does, while Merriam- Webster gives no warning whatsoever about this word being a taboo word. Since for every dictionary this word has a different degree of ”offensiveness”, it can be concluded that the treatment of taboo words in dictionaries proves one of the initial claims made about taboo words- there is nothing inherently offensive or insulting in them. What makes them taboo is culturally, or even individually, determined, which is why even dictionaries cannot be uniform in the way they label taboo words.
This research paper has examined the entries for taboo words in five standard language dictionaries. The purpose was to see how taboo words were treated among other words that are acceptable in polite or formal conversation. Users are warned by the labels in dictionaries that taboo words should be avoided. The graphical layout of the labels is also used for this purpose. The labels are mostly different in all the dictionaries due to different labelling policies, but some are found in all of the dictionaries. A potential problem for dictionary users, especially second language learners, is the fact that labels are often accompanied by words such as sometimes, usually, slightly etc. In this case, the user cannot deduct from the labels when it is acceptable to use a certain taboo word and when it can have severe consequences. When defining taboo words, all of the dictionaries that were examined use two patterns: defining the taboo word with a more polite or scientific synonym, or by a scientific explanation. The common goal of these two patterns is to make taboo words and what they designate seem less offensive. Through examining the entries for taboo words which contain examples, it was determined that only taboo words which are considered the least offensive have example sentences. The least offensive taboo words are the ones related to religion. By comparing labels it was concluded that the most offensive taboo words belong to the group related to sexuality, and that the most offensive individual taboo word is the word nigger. Inconsistencies found between the dictionaries in the way they label the same taboo words prove the assumption that there is nothing inherently insulting or offensive in taboo words- they are taboo because of the speakers of the language and the culture they belong to. A suggestion for further research is to historically track labels used for taboo words to see if the way they are perceived has changed and how and monitor if they will change in the near future.
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