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Taboo is a socio-cultural phenomenon. Any taboo, be it some action or a spoken word, is a socio-cultural rule/regulation/restriction imposed to adhere to the norms and practices of a particular society, community, or culture.
The idea of something being taboo is not a new practice at all. Actions, customs, behaviour, and words have been labelled taboo since ancient times, where they mainly arose due to a lack of ideas, superstitions & coincidences, and unscientific & unsophisticated ways of thinking among the masses. With time, the concept of taboo extended to a wide variety of social and cultural affairs, & then generalised to the practice or expression of anything considered rude, offensive, or harmful.
In truth, anything can be tabooed or restricted by any authoritative entity with the power to impose them.
Taboo in language and communication pertains to restrictions and inappropriateness of using certain words in specific contexts. The concept of context in taboo is particularly important, especially in language and communication, as their usage under different contexts and circumstances illicit different responses.
Language is the primary medium of communication in human society. The cognitive neuroscience of speech and language activates specific brain areas that process signals, comprehend meaning, generate signals, emotions, thoughts & ideas, and aid in articulating such thoughts & emotions. From a philosophical perspective, words and language exact a substantial modicum of power on all human beings!
No wonder institutions of power look for all possible ways to gain control of all channels of spoken and written language! And again, it is no wonder why taboo words generate such different kinds of responses across different perspectives & circumstances.
The idea of taboo has its origins in ancient cultures and societies. Superstitions, coincidences, imposition of authority by imposing restrictions, and subjective biases – are some of the most common socio-cultural factors underpinning the origin of taboos in ancient times.
Social taboos norms such as casual interactions between men & women, taboos associated with sex & sexual organs, excreting organs, excrements & uncleanliness, death & diseases, religious and customary taboos such as not allowing menstruating women in holy sites have been prevalent across societies for ages.
The expressions used to denote taboos, practices, and actions have come to be associated with the same kind of abhorrence, offence, and sensitivity as the actions themselves. So much so that the very usage of these terms is considered inappropriate and derogatory under certain circumstances; again, note that context, circumstances, the nature of communication, and the parties involved are crucial factors that determine the impact of taboo words.
Different taboo words signify different meanings and are used to convey different thoughts & emotions under different circumstances.
Many words are considered taboo across different communities. However, such considerations depend on the existent norms, cultures, and practices in respective communities. Those norms and perceptions, in turn, play a significant role in categorising taboo words and their level of offence & inappropriateness.
Ningjue (2010), in the article Taboo language on the Internet: An analysis of gender differences in using taboo language (Kristianstad University), shines a light on five kinds of taboo words.
Cursing involves using offensive terms and taboo language to express frustration, anger, hatred, disrespect, disregard, and any strong, negative emotion. The curse may be intended for a person, event, object, or entity. Some common examples are fuck, damn, shit, crap, eat shit & die, etc.
Profanity is specifically associated with the intention of disrespect and sacrilege. Religious profanities such as goddamn, Jesus fucking Christ, holy shit, holy fuck, , are overtly common and considered particularly derogatory due to their association with sacred terms.
These profanities have come to be associated with shock, disbelief, and amazement when used in relevance to events that generate such thoughts & feelings.
Obscenities involve expletives and colloquial terms associated with sexual and excretion functions and organs. Words such as cocksucker, cunt, dickhead, pussy, motherfucker, tits, , again serve to express strong, impulsive, and negative emotions.
Again, when spoken in a casual or comic context or when not being used to offend or criticise, these same taboo words come across as funny or even convey assertion & confidence.
Epithets are insensitive terms used to mock the features & characteristics of a person purposefully. They can be racial, gender-specific, ethnic, or sexual and may also be associated with one’s appearance, disabilities, etc.
Negative emotions and outbursts generally drive the use of this category of taboo language. Examples are nigger, bitch, whore, white trash, wop, faggot, etc.
Verbal Sexual harassment comes under the category of taboo language and depicts any unwarranted, inappropriate, demeaning, and offensive language that references sexual actions & organs, a person’s clothing, etc.
Some common examples are Kiss my ass, fuck me, dumb ass woman, fuck you up, etc.
Readers may have already cultivated some ideas regarding the varying socio-linguistic
perspectives of different kinds of taboo languages. The next section elaborates further.
The purpose of taboo languages has changed throughout history. With the rise of scientific exploration & investigation, superstitions’ prominence has decreased, and so has their association with taboo words.
Today, taboo words serve as vocal outlets of offence, strong & negative emotions, and, under the right circumstances, even as sources of humour.
Profanities and obscenities are more common among the uneducated & unsophisticated lower social strata, the key reasons being a lack of education & desensitisation to the nuances of politeness, appropriateness, and social morality. On the other hand, taboo languages are looked down upon by the rich elite, the educated, and the sophisticated, who, however, still use them when their emotions run high & the constraints of social norms are removed.
Things become starkly different when taboo terms appear in adult conversations. While still considered inappropriate in formal and professional contexts, their impact depends heavily on the context and circumstances of the discussion, the intention of usage, as well as the characteristics of the persons involved.
Humans are intrinsically fascinated with the forbidden, the restricted, and the taboo. Also known as The Forbidden Fruit Effect, this is why taboo languages have become an integral part of our socio-cultural fabric despite all their impoliteness and inappropriateness.
Taboo is an extremely controversial subject across all media channels. Cinema and literature are full of such instances where writers, publishers, directors, actors, and producers courted disaster by indulging in taboo topics.
Taboo language in books, cinema, and all other forms of media is subject to heavy censorship. In all such cases, taboo terms and phrases were instruments for extracting vitriolic emotions and depicting unpleasant & controversial topics.
Books like Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, etc. cinemas like Reservoir Dogs by Quentin Tarantino, The Wolf of Wall Street by Martin Scorsese, Scarface by Brian De Palma, etc. are renowned for their use of taboo language.
The reasons behind such usage are different in many regards: books like Lady Chatterley’s Lover talk about subjects that were considered highly taboo & inappropriate in the era of the book’s publication; on the other hand, books and movies in more recent times use taboo language to imitate normal day-to-day informal interactions and as statements against censorship, oppression, and fascism.
The shock and awe of obscenities & profanities are tools for stirring human emotions and drawing attention to unpleasant subjects & events. It draws attention, erases ignorance, raises awareness, and makes people think.
Debates and controversies surrounding the use of taboo language and the call for their normalisation or desensitisation are widespread and numerous.
When looked at critically, the idea of free speech is highly incoherent. This incoherency stems from the fundamental variability in nearly every aspect of a human being and society. And as a result, societies have censorship mechanisms in place for monitoring and auditing anything that crosses a certain line.
Be it actions, content, or language, crossing that line is taboo.
But there’s more to language policing than just stopping people from suffering the indignities of coming across taboo language in any form.
In a bid to uphold social order and moral decency, many governments and religious authorities misuse their power and exert oppressive control over the masses through burdening restrictions.
The line between social responsibility and infringement on the freedom to express is blurry. Restrictions and language policing have repeatedly crossed this line in countries such as Sudan, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkmenistan, and Afghanistan.
All the shock and harshness associated with taboo words, alongside the high frequency of their usage across different circumstances, have inadvertently led to an evolution in the very nature & depiction of offensive languages.
Euphemisms are words that have supplanted way too offensive taboo terms. Religious and theological profanities are avoided in a roundabout way using terms such as gee, gosh almighty, gosh darn, etc. Obscenities associated with taboo terms like cunt & pussy, as well as the inappropriateness and awkwardness of such discussions, have led to the rise of terms like pudding, fanny, pecker, honeypot, jewels, etc.
Euphemisms and euphemistic terms are natural evolutions of terms and language considered too rude or derogatory to be used wantonly. They neutralise the unpleasantry and awkwardness & aid in preserving the decency, dignity, and privacy of a subject.
As our society becomes more and more desensitised to the offensive impact of taboo language, language policing and the evolution of taboo euphemisms are changing. The taboo language is now used in world cinema, adult novels, and electronic games. Context and intention are now primary factors determining the nature of offence and vilification behind the use of taboo languages. Gone are the days of scholarly squeamishness and social intolerance associated with random, unoffensive use of taboo language.
Human perceptions of the natural world have changed, and so have the idea & definition of a decent & moral society. Euphemisms and word tabooing practices are now militant practices purported by the masses, which run parallelly to the regular, scholarly and predictable processes of change.
Taboo languages have become emotive triggers of change, having evolved beyond their constrained and restrictive origins.
Despite being taboo, taboo language has not just prevailed but evolved through the ages. It is their taboo nature that makes them so tempting and fascinating. Taboo languages are emotional outlets for the masses, irrespective of their background, and when used in the right context, they can even be instruments of string humour.
The setting, circumstances, and intentions have become critical factors, more so than the ideas & subjects depicted by taboo language. All taboo words do not elicit the same response and cause listeners to emote differently as per the nature of their usage. Using taboo language in any speech is a complex communicative act that is not impolite & even humorous in a casual setting but can become highly offensive if the settings are not right & intentions are not decent.
It is necessary to possess a context-sensitive knowledge of taboo language usage that amounts to a set of etiquettes of swearing. Such etiquettes involve clear ideas and knowledge about rudeness & inappropriateness in light of a specific setting as well as sensitivity and empathy with the circumstances & the conditions of the speaker.