Taboo or not taboo?

For use with Talking Point worksheets

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Taboo or not taboo?

Post by TalkingPoint » Sat Jun 24, 2006 3:54 pm

Read the text and complete the Quick Quiz below it.

Taboo or not taboo? (That is the f**king question!)

Taboo words exist in most, if not all, languages in the world. But why are some words considered to be ‘taboo’?

Bad language in English can be divided into three broad categories. Firstly there are the religious words. Many people consider these words to represent holy or sacred subjects and so they are offended when the words are used out of context or in a disrespectful way (i.e. when names are ‘taken in vain’). Hence words such as ‘God’, ‘Jesus’ and ‘Christ Almighty’ become taboo.

The second category of taboo (or ‘swear’) words concerns the functions of the body, specifically lavatorial words connected with things produced by the body. People generally do not like to speak openly about toilet functions – human dignity is linked to this and is partly preserved by the privacy surrounding our activities in the toilet. Thus, disregard for this social nicety is perceived as offensive by many. Words such as ‘piss’ or ‘fart’ are therefore taboo, (though their medical equivalents are not).

The third category of swear words tends to contain the strongest words in the language. These words are all related to sexual acts and the sex organs. Most of them are punchy in style – often only one syllable long - and are intended to shock or offend in the most emphatic way. These words are generally avoided in polite conversation as well as on TV and radio and in the newspapers, although as time goes by and society changes more and more swearing can be heard and read in the media.

Some taboo words are very old. Words such as ‘blimey’ (moderately strong) come from the old English phrase of disbelief ‘God blind me’, which used to be considered to be extremely strong in days gone by, when society at large was more religious. Other taboo words have very mild equivalents which can be used relatively safely instead, and enable the user to express strong emotions or reactions without actually using swear words. ‘Flipping’ can be used instead of ‘f*cking’ (for example: ‘Don’t be so flipping stupid!’). ‘Sugar’ can be used instead of ‘sh*t’ to express displeasure (for example: ‘Oh, sugar! We’ve missed our train.’)

Apart from taboo words there are also taboo gestures. ‘Giving someone the finger’ is considered taboo in many countries though is not considered equally offensive in all countries (i.e. it may be considered rather rude in one country but exceedingly offensive in another). In Britain it is considered extremely offensive to raise two fingers (the index and middle fingers) at someone, though only if the back of the fingers are displayed to the recipient. If the palm side of the hand is facing the recipient when the fingers are raised the gesture is interpreted as one of victory!

Generally speaking, the strength both of taboo words and gestures varies so much from country to country it can be a tremendous challenge to try to use either or both effectively, though it may be useful to be able to recognise them.

Quick Quiz: Read the clues below and write the solutions on a piece of paper. Then take the first letter of each answer and rearrange them to find the hidden word connected with this Talking Point.

1. __________ are some words considered to be ‘taboo’?

2. People generally do not like to speak openly __________ toilet functions.

3. These words are generally avoided on TV and __________ and in the newspapers.

4. ‘Oh, __________! We’ve missed our train.’)

5. In Britain it is considered __________ offensive to raise two fingers at someone.

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