Difference between revisions of "Taboo word"

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Revision as of 15:06, 30 May 2010

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.[1]

Problems with using taboo words for non-native speakers

In the following examples, the asterisk shows the ‘strength’ they have as regards being considered shocking.[2] The use of taboo words (also known as four-letter words) is very complicated and not to be recommended for foreign speakers, for a n umber of reasons:

  1. Many words and expressions do not translate identically into another language and consequently sound absurd if translated.
  2. Even worse, some words will be swearwords in both English and the student's mother tongue but it is highly unlikely that the strength of the swearword will be the same in both languages leading to embarrassment for all concerned.
  3. 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.
  4. Even if a foreign speaker works out exactly how to use the swearword in one social setting that does not mean the word will be acceptable in other social settings.

Types of taboo words

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

The same taboo words can be used as swearwords or expletives, often, but not always, changing their original literal meaning: Jesus!, Fuck!, Shit!

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!*);

Taboo words are extremely flexible grammatically and can be used (often with a change of meaning) as adjectives, verbs, nouns, etc.: Fuck ***, but – It’s fucking hot! *** = It’s very hot!

Taboo subjects in teaching

While on the subject of taboos, it's worth mentioning the three subjects which some teachers would regard as taboos: sex, religion and politics.

Most EFL teachers will be foreigners in their students' countries and may, in some cases, be the first or only contact the students will have had with other cultures, lifestyles and so on. Consequently it can be very tempting for both student and teacher to wish to sound each other out on certain aspects which may be considered either cultural or personal.

Although it's true that some people can get into pretty heated arguments about seemingly insignificant topics like a football match; discussions involving such things such as:

  • sex
  • religion
  • politics and related issues such as a particular case of sleaze in a political party
  • a public debate on religious education in schools
  • abortion

touch on people's fundamental beliefs and, as such, are almost guaranteed to stir things up, often among students themselves, but sometimes between the student and the teacher, however non-committal and neutral the latter's stance.

While, as teachers, we thrive on communication in class, there are many other ways we can get our students to talk - and if they are particularly argumentative, there are other plenty of things to argue about which will leave students feeling they've achieved something without having had their beliefs challenged.

Nevertheless, if you are feeling brave, and you have a good prior knowledge of your students' opinions then these subjects can be most simulating.

Having said that, however confident you are of your ability to control group dynamics - whether in a one-to-one context or with a class - don't forget that what may have worked well in one class setting might go wrong in another.


  1. Pinker, Steven. The Stuff of Thought. Allen Lane, 2007. ISBN 978-0-713-99741-5
  2. Swan, Michael. Practical English Usage Oxford University Press 1980 ISBN 0-19-431197 x

See also