A taboo word is a word that certain people might find dangerous, holy, magic or shocking.
Because of their shock element, taboo words are often used in situations where people want to express strong emotions such as pain, anger, etc. by swearing.
Taboo language in general includes a wide variety of free speech issues such as hate speech, fighting words and sexual harassment.
Problems for non-native speakers
The use of taboo words (also known as four-letter words) is very complicated and not to be recommended for foreign speakers, for a number of reasons:
- Many words and expressions do not translate identically into another language and consequently sound absurd if translated.
- To further complicate matters, even though some words will be swearwords in both English and the student's mother tongue, it is highly unlikely that the strength of the swearword will be the same in both languages, which could cause embarrassment for all concerned.
- The use of certain swearwords can give the impression the speaker is claiming membership of a particular social group and the existing members of that group may resent a foreign language speaker claiming such membership.
- Even if a foreign speaker works out exactly how to use the swearword in one social setting or particular situation that does not mean the word will be acceptable in other social settings.
Types of taboo words
In the following examples, the asterisk shows the ‘strength’ they have as regards being considered shocking.
Taboo words can be divided into four groups:
- those associated with religion, such as Jesus! **, Damn! * or Hell! *;
- parts of the body, such as arse *** (BrE) or ass ** (AmE);
- sexual activity, such as fuck *** or bastard **; and
- the toilet, such as piss **, crap ** or shit ***
Swearwords and swearing
See main article swearword
It is important for EFL learners to recognise these words in order to understand if they are being insulted, etc., although the context is usually very clear!
Some people use euphemisms to avoid seeming excessively rude: Fish!; Fiddlesticks!; Sugar!; Rats!; Thank goodness! (instead of Thank God!*);
As comedians like to point out, people sometimes use taboo words when referring to their friends ("How are you, you old bugger?" or "You lucky bastard!"), and seeming terms of endearment when threatening: "You talking to me, mate?"
Tmesis /ˈtmiːsɪs, ˈmiːsɪs/ or /təˈmiːsɪs/ consists in inserting a word in the middle of another. In English there are two words which are usually inserted in this way: fucking and bloody. The insertion must be done right before the stressed syllable: ‘abso-bloody-lutely’, ‘ri-fucking-diculous’.
- AnOther Magazine, Psychologist Steven Pinker on Swearing, November 23, 2011