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The conservative group One Million Moms recently circulated a petition complaining about profane language in a Burger King commercial. The swear word in question? “Damn.” That struck some commentators as funny. But a few decades back, many more people would have been shocked to hear that word on TV. As linguist Allen Walker Read has explained, which words are and aren’t acceptable varies radically by place and time. He points to some remarkable cases of confusion this has caused in American/British conversations.

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Read describes taboo words as “serving as scapegoats ministering to the deep-rooted need for symbols of the forbidden. They analyze a certain emotion and thus leave the remainder of the language free from it.”

Read suggests that, in the U.S., a high point for limitations on acceptable words came in the first half of the nineteenth century. Compiling his dictionary in 1834, for example, Noah Webster rejected “teat,” “dung,” and “stink,” in favor of the more acceptable “breast,” “excrement,” and “ill smell.”

Another bad word around that time was…“pants.” Read points to numerous newspaper articles referring to trousers with words like “unmentionables” or “inexpressables.” In one 1848 account, “Mr. B. dressed himself in a new bright blue coat and a pair of large and showy unwhisperables.” (It apparently wasn’t until the early twentieth century that similar euphemisms came to refer to underwear.)

To explain another taboo of the era, Read quotes an 1839 account by a British traveler in the U.S. A young American woman the traveler was friends with scraped her skin on a rock. When he asked, “Did you hurt your leg much?” she was shocked, eventually explaining that “the word leg was never mentioned before ladies.”

The young woman in the story suggested “limb” as an acceptable alternative. Read found other sources that recommended “wires” or “benders”—as in, “Young ladies are not allowed to cross their benders in school.”

But Read points out that the contrast between England and the U.S. wasn’t a matter of American prudishness. It simply reflected differences in which words were taboo. He notes a conversation in 1934 in which an American ambassador warned against the use of the word “stomach” in England: “It isn’t done, you must say tummy.”

Of course, some differences in acceptable words reflect actual differences in meaning. A guide for American soldiers serving in England during World War II warned that “To say ‘I look like a bum’ is offensive in their ears, for to the English this means that you look like your own backside.” Similarly, Read writes, the difference in the meaning of the word “fanny” across the Atlantic means that “when in an American novel we find ‘he gave her a slap on the fanny’ the English think that’s a very strange thing to happen.”

So it’s probably best not to feel too superior to those who want to avoid hearing “damn” on TV. Language needs taboo cuss words, and whichever ones you find unacceptable most likely would be just fine in other times and places.

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ETC: A Review of General Semantics, Vol. 61, No. 4 (December 2004), pp. 444-455
Institute of General Semantics