Taboo Language. What is all the fuss about? asks JESSICA LAWRENCE

The dreaded swear word, considered as ‘dangerous’ and ‘immoral’ by many (Battistella 2005: 78). The fears surrounding this kind of language are widespread and not by any means new. A well-known example of a word that was considered ‘taboo’ causing outrage is Eliza Doolittle’s famous line in George Bernard Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion’ in 1914; ‘Not bloody likely!’ (Battistella 2005: 72). But why is it that certain words cause shock and offence? Why is it that a select few words are deemed wrong or bad?

It seems that many words that are considered ‘taboo’ stem from topics that are considered uncomfortable or hard to talk about. This is highlighted by Allan and Burridge, who explain that “sexual activity us tabooed as a topic for public display and severely constrained as a topic for discussion’ (2006: 144). Other topics that are commonly censored within society are disease, death and killing. Misfortune, even today, is considered as taboo, giving way to euphemistic phrases to avoid ‘bad’ language (Allan and Burridge 2005).

Mohr, however, argues that during the 21st century, so called ‘sexual swearing’ has become less of a taboo, due to people becoming more used to seeing and discussing the human body, in movies, magazines and on TV (2013: 231). Perhaps this is a positive thing; due to the decrease in censorship of certain topics and words, it has allowed a more relaxed attitude when it comes to swearing, leading to the possibility of research into the field of swearing. Today, a range of professionals, from brain scientists to sociologists research into the science of swearing. One result of this is that it has allowed proper research into Tourette’s syndrome, as when it was discovered in the 19th century, doctors had to rely on using euphemisms and work against public perception that understanding swearing was not an acceptable field of study (Mohr 2013).

It’s not surprising that there are several arguments against the use of swearing and taboo language, but there are possibly just as many arguments for the tolerance of swearing. One of the central themes of these arguments is that swear words are only words, like any other word, and it’s the concept underlying the word that needs to be discussed and understood. Another is the freedom of speech of those who choose to use these words. Also, many argue that the use of swear words is essential in some respects in the media such as film and TV, in order to reflect how people actually speak and create realism within the arts (Battistella 2005: 78).

So should we be treating swear words any differently? Despite the increasingly more relaxed attitude towards swearing in the 21st century, it’s fair to say that it is not socially acceptable to use swear words in all contexts, times and places. In some situations, it is fair to say, swear words are not appropriate. According to Allan and Burridge (2005: 30), “whether or not language behaviour counts as good manners will depend on a number of factors. These include: the relationship between speakers, their audience, and anyone within earshot; the subject matter; the situation (setting)”.

Although there are plenty of arguments for and against the use of swearing, it seems to me that when and if to swear is a personal choice – which relies mostly on the common sense of the speaker –  generally most people wouldn’t have a problem using swear words around their friends, or on Facebook, but would presumably avoid using any offensive language if speaking to their parents, teachers, or in any academic writing.

JESSICA LAWRENCE, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Allan, K., Burridge, K. (2006). Forbidden words: taboo and the censoring of language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Battistella, E. L. (2007). Bad language: are some words better than others? New York: Oxford University Press.

Mohr, M. (2013). Holy shit: a brief history of swearing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.



3 thoughts on “Taboo Language. What is all the fuss about? asks JESSICA LAWRENCE

  1. Jessica Metcalfe says:

    What is your view on taboo language? Do you think it’s a big deal? Personally, I think it’s a matter of time and place! If you’re with your friends and know their views on swearing, there shouldn’t be a problem!

  2. Cinzia Warburton says:

    You mentioned that taboo language is inappropriate in certain social situations, so was wondering: what is your opinion on the watershed? Do you think that it is a good idea? Do you think that at some point we may get so comfortable with swearing that it will be acceptable to swear at any time on TV? Or will it be the complete opposite, and just ban swearing on TV altogether?

  3. Azaria Cross says:

    I really like the information you provided on the reasons as to where taboo language originated from and that it’s based around uncomfortable human topics such as poverty, illness, wealth etc. and in an article I read by Chunming (2013) called ‘A Sociolinguistic Study of English Taboo Language’ it suggests that the avoidance of taboo language in both English and America for many years showed a certain level of sophistication and civilisation. I think the argument that nowadays people are more relaxed regarding issues of the body and therefore taboo language is very interesting since it suggests that due to modern day lifestyles people have become desensitised to certain aspects of life, one such being the human body due to advertisements etc.

    I think this also coincides nicely with the ideas you showed from Allan and Burridge that the closeness of a relationship between two people who are conversing can drastically affect how much or how little taboo language is used. An experiment by Ellemers, Spears, and Doosje 2002 finds that people do indeed change their language and behaviour depending on who they are talking to, therefore there is supporting evidence to back up your statements.

    However, when you mention the arguments for the use of taboo language I think one interesting area to explore is if the making a topic taboo can actually harm and worsen the topic area more than if it wasn’t taboo. For example, would banning talking about race and ethnicity only highlight the fact that these people are different?

    In your final paragraph you mention how you think the use of taboo language is down to personal choice, however, would you not agree that social context has a huge part to play in how much you’re allowed to swear? For example, in school students are told off and often punished for using swear words, therefore would you agree that these social standards actually take away a person’s freedom of speech?

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