DANIELLE CURRAN issues a challenge: ‘Go ahead, swear….do it…I dare you!’

Contemporary English speaking society has evolved new taboos on gender, sexuality, disability, religion, race and ethnicity. As language evolves and new laws are brought into action the meanings of taboos adapt frequently thus making the subject of taboo language much more complicated than it looks on the surface (Allan & Burridge, 2006).

Bad language or taboo language is often associated with minority or lower social class groups (Milroy, 1998). According to Allan & Burridge (2006: 27) those who use taboo language are often ‘deemed mentally unstable’. However, in his writings George Orwell stated that ‘a dirty joke is a sort of mental rebellion’ (1998: 29). This statement could underlie society’s linguistic approach to subjects which contemporary society deems taboo. Peer groups cement their social ties by using common taboo/slang words (Allan & Burridge, 2006). Football fans engage en-masse in offensive chants against the opposing team. The lyrics of these are often socially unacceptable, with words such as ‘yid’, ‘nigger’, ‘paki’ or animal noises, used specifically to offend and upset the opposing players.

On social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook a specific language has evolved with its own slang/taboo dialect. Words such ‘tweeps’, ‘twiends/twatts’, or on Facebook the initials ‘C.B.A’ and ‘W.T.F’ all denote their own sublime message (Crystal, 2006). Taboos in language change as culture changes. The language and the taboo/slang words used often highlight a society’s current moral ‘high-ground’. As the world and consequentially the language become multicultural there is a growing body of legislation which protects individuals against inappropriate taboo/slang language (Battistella, 2005).

George Orwell argued that the tools put in place by society to achieve these aims are acting as a form of control on our language. If Orwell were alive today, it is possible he would see political correctness as a form of social control. Initially brought into action to eradicate taboos referring to racism, sexism etc. its mission was to change language for the better. However, political correctness has been described by George H. Bush as a way; ‘to look for insult in every word, gesture and action’ (cited in Battistella, 2005: 92).

In his famous novel 1984, Orwell wrote of a specific government-sponsored vocabulary which ‘consisted of words that had been deliberately constructed for political purposes,” (1998: 377). He also claimed that ‘the great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink” (1946: 153–4).

With political correctness on one side attempting to regulate our language use and taboo language on the other, allegedly ‘telling it like it is’, it is no surprise that people often feel under pressure to choose language carefully. What do you think?

 DANIELLE CURRAN, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester (UK)


Allan, K., Burridge, K,. (2006) Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring of Language. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Barzan, J. (1987) A Word or Two Before You Go. Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Battistella, L, E,. (2005) Bad Language. New York: Oxford University Press.

Crystal, D,. (2006) Language and the Internet. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Milroy, J,. (1998) ‘Children Can’t Speak or Write Anymore’. In Language Myths, ed. by Bauer, L., and Trudghill, P,. (London: Penguin), pp. 58-65.

Orwell, G,. (1946) Politics and the English Language. London: Horizon.

Orwell, G,. (1998) All Propaganda is Lies, 1941-1942. London: Secker & Warburg.

Orwell, G,. (2004) Nineteen Eighty-Four. Iowa: World Library.


One thought on “DANIELLE CURRAN issues a challenge: ‘Go ahead, swear….do it…I dare you!’

  1. Timothy Gillan says:

    As you have mentioned, taboo language can often be used by particular social groups or peer groups, and in these groups it can serve as a medium of acceptance, not necessarily acceptance into a group in general but in relation to the hierarchy of some groups. Within these groups, and in more general terms, it can be for some the truest expression of one’s emotions and opinions, which other language would not satisfy.

    The line between expressing yourself and offending people has become somewhat blurred, although there are clear examples of when someone is merely being offensive, with the intention to be. The role of ‘political correctness’ is then to filter out what is deemed to be offensive, however many people do feel that it treads on the toes of the right to have freedom of speech, and ultimately attempts to stop people from fully expressing themselves, which deteriorates the idea of individuality.

    Whether or not this is an intentional move by society as an Orwell-esque mind control, is perhaps a bit farfetched, but there is a witch hunt for offensive language, and rightly so, however it can become lexically suffocating with the quick pejoration of so many words nowadays.

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