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American Speech 77.2 (2002) 195-206

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Taboo or Not Taboo:
That is the Question

Robert S. Wachal
University of Iowa


WRITING IN THENew York Times in 1996, Richard Dooling declared, "Vulgar sexual terms have become acceptable in the last two decades while all manner of racial or ethnic epithets have become unspeakable."

In an interview in the New York Times, Tom Lehrer said something similar: "When I was in college, there were certain words you could not say in front of a girl. . . . Now you can say them, but you can't say 'girl'" (Purdom 2000). Most current dictionaries label girl for 'adult female' either patronizing or mildly offensive.

This study aims to shed light on two questions related to the common perception expressed by Dooling: (1) Given the increasing use of taboo words for body parts and functions in the mass media, are dictionary status labels keeping up with apparent community standards regarding such words? (2) Given the political correctness movement, have dictionaries reflected the heavier taboo status of slur terms for ethnic groups?

To derive a list of taboo words, I surveyed 75 undergraduate students at the University of Iowa in 1996 for the terms that they and their friends use. Augmented by four-letter words I observed in the mass media and by ethnic terms cited by H. L. Mencken (1962), the resulting list contains a total of 67 terms—40 for body parts and functions and 27 for ethnic groups. The 20 American and British dictionaries used as sources for status labeling are listed along with their abbreviations in appendix A.

Table 1 consists of words for body parts and functions noted taboo by college students in the mid-1990s. There is ample evidence that many of these terms are common in the mass media. Appendix B contains some I collected from television and radio. A special case is the HBO series The Sopranos: in a single two-hour episode, I observed 100 uses of fuck, including two uses of motherfucker, and 9 uses of (bull)shit.

Other offensive words that occur in the mass media are the curses damn and hell,and bastard, bitch, son of a bitch, and SOB. A special report issued by the Media Research Center ("A Vanishing Haven" 1996) cited taboo words used on television during the "family hour" (8-9 P.M. EST) during four [End Page 195] weeks in the fall of 1995 with the following results: ass (29), bastard (10), bitch (13), freaking (1), friggin' (1), piss (2), SOB (2), screw (1), and suck (7).

In "What a Difference a Decade Makes" (2000), the Media Research Center compared 1989 and 1999:

The language used on network television has changed dramatically. The overall use of profane language has skyrocketed over 500 percent since 1989.

In 1989, "hell" (56 uses) and "damn" (52) were easily the most commonly used curse words, making up more than two-thirds (67.9 percent) of the total. In 1999, though each was used far more often ("hell" 298 times; "damn" 220), together they constituted under half (44.2 percent) of the total.

The use of "shit" on CBS's Chicago Hope was a sensational, extreme example of a widespread trend. "Ass," used only 12 times in '89, was the second most frequently used word in '99 (265 times). "Bitch" went from two uses to 60; "son of a bitch" from twelve to 54; "bastard" from fifteen to 43; "crap" from five to 41; "sucks" from zero to 40; and various obscured and euphemistic forms of "f**k" from one to twenty-nine. (There were about 30 percent more program hours in '99 than in '89, but the percentage increase in the use of each of these words easily exceeds that figure.)

Taboo words also appear in edited and printed sources. In appendix C are some I have collected from newspapers, a magazine, and a newsletter. A special case is one of the "Talk of the Town" columns from the New Yorker (1999). In a section titled "Ritual Humiliation Department," a Friars Club...


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pp. 195-206
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Archived 2005
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