Linguistic Taboos

Posted: February 3rd, 2013 under education, philosophy, school.
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Wicked Pissah ShirtSkye came home on Friday very upset about reactions she received from some of the staff members at her middle school regarding a t-shirt she’d been wearing which simply said “Wicked Pissah,” a common phrase in New England, which means really awesome or really crappy. Her teacher thought the word “pissah” might not be considered appropriate for school and sent her to the office. The lady in the office reprimanded Skye for wearing a shirt with this phrase, considering “piss” to be a “bad” word. She said it would be a distraction, as well as offensive to others. She ordered Skye to either turn her shirt inside-out, zip up her sweatshirt, or change to a shirt provided by the school. Skye was unable to work the zipper on her sweatshirt, so she turned her shirt inside out. The office administrator told Skye to come back afterward to make sure that she’d fixed it.

Skye later told me that Harry Styles, member of the English-Irish pop boy band One Direction, turned 19 that same day, February 1. Teenage fans at her school celebrated by drawing whiskers and black noses on their faces to represent Harry and his fondness for cats. I found it interesting that none of these kids were reprimanded or asked to remove their face paint, even though Skye mentioned how much of a distraction it was in her classes and that several of the teachers seemed annoyed by it. However, not one classmate complained about or was distracted by Skye’s shirt, nor did any teacher (except the one who sent her to the office) comment negatively about her shirt. One, in fact, thought it was quite humorous.

I understand the need for certain rules in school regarding language and dress code (to a point). However, who decides what is “appropriate” and when are certain words considered “bad?” Why is it perfectly acceptable to say “Oh fudge!” Every time I hear it, I know exactly what word it’s replacing. What the hell is the difference? Is it because “fuck” means something different that “fudge?” In that case, why isn’t “sex” a bad word? On the same note, people constantly replace “god” with “gosh,” “Jesus Christ” with “jeezum crow,” “damn” with “dang,” “shit” with “shoot,” “hell” with “heck” (or even spelling it out as “H, E, double hockey sticks”)…you get the idea. How does changing a couple of letters change the feeling and intent of the speaker? The mind of the listener is going to automatically be drawn to the “taboo” word. How about the use of synonyms? Do we really need euphemisms like “crap” or “poop” to replace “shit,” and “butt” or “bum” to replace “ass?” What is the difference? How does a word that means the exact same thing as another suddenly become offensive?

This caused me to go back to notes I took from an interesting book I’d read nearly two years ago by Steven Pinker called “The Stuff of Thought.” Following are some excerpts I found particularly compelling:

The emotional meaning in words ranges from attractive to neutral to offensive. The affective saturation of words is especially apparent in the strange phenomena surrounding profanity. It is a puzzle why, when an unpleasant event befalls us, the topic of our conversation turns abruptly to sexuality, excretion, or religion. Woody Allen recounted regarding an adversary who infringed on his rights, “I told him to be fruitful and multiply, but not in those words.” ~p. 18

No curious person can fail to be puzzled by the illogic and hyprocrisy of linguistic taboos. Why should certain words, but not their homonyms or synonyms, be credited with a dreadful moral power? At the same time, no matter how illogical it may seem, everyone respects taboos on at least some words. ~p. 20

The fear and loathing surrounding taboo language are not triggered by the concepts themselves, because the organs and activities they name have hundreds of polite synonyms. Nor are they triggered by the words’ sounds, since many of them have respectable homonyms in names for animals, actions, and even people. The unprintable can become printable with a hyphen or asterisk, and the unsayable sayable with the flip of a vowel or consonant. Something about the pairing of certain meanings and sounds has a potent effect on people’s emotions. ~p. 325

Linguistic taboos are absurd. Why do people feel the need to use euphemisms? Polite synonyms that replace taboo terms lack a certain something, because the emotional force of the speaker’s reaction is no longer being conveyed. This is why we use the “taboo” language that we do, and this language shouldn’t be construed as “bad” or wrong. Furthermore, we should not be so concerned about offending others by our choice of words.

I believe schools should be strictly focused on properly educating our kids (in which they have been failing miserably) rather than being overly concerned about offenses taken and opinions held by a certain few individuals. It is not the place of the school staff to make and uphold rules to punish those who are not hurting others, causing disruptions or interfering with teaching and learning.


  1. Very well-written post, Kirsten. I was quite proud of Skye as she recounted her story. She was understandably pissed off at the office personnel who reprimanded her. I think she should have shared the blame with her teacher who made it a big deal by sending her to the office, and then cowered behind the logically empty excuse of, “I have to follow the rules.”

    Schools, as you said, have a mandate to educate our youths. They should not seek conformity or punish expression, so long as the expression does not interfere with educational instruction.

    The woman in the school office who ridiculed Skye for not understanding what was wrong with her shirt, and whispering, “P-i-s-s is a bad word,” needs to grow the fuck up. We teach our girls that there are no “bad” words, only words used improperly and inappropriately, depending on context.

    If we have to constantly undo the effects of public school, what’s the point of sending them in the first place?

    Comment by Brent Danley — February 3, 2013 @ 7:22 pm

  2. Thank you Brent. I agree completely with you that there are no “bad” words, only words used improperly and inappropriately, depending on the context.

    Comment by Kirsten Uhler — February 3, 2013 @ 7:38 pm

  3. Kirsten,

    I completely agree!! It drives me crazy when people get all “stuffed shirt” over words. No matter what they are. The meaning is in the intent and the context. Period. I’ve always taught my children that there are no bad words or good words. Only words that are appropriate for certain social situations. In college one of my professors called it “code switching” where the vernacular that is appropriate for use among friends, family, same social group etc may not be appropriate for the office, school, or in a mixed age group.

    We also talk about how others will perceive you and your skills, intelligence, etc by how you speak. That more than anything would be a reason to curtail the curse words and watch the slang/grammar. Especially at school or in the workplace. But assigning a moral judgement to words is in and of itself completely ridiculous.

    Comment by Nichol — February 3, 2013 @ 7:59 pm

  4. Fuck skool.

    Comment by Steven Pam — February 3, 2013 @ 8:40 pm

  5. I completely agree. So many people swear when the teacher is listening so those rules aren’t followed anyway. It only bothers the teachers. I think “swear words” should be considered regular words. In fact, I was having a discussion with one of my peers and they completely agree that “swear words” are just words that society has put meanings to to immediately be made “bad” words.

    I love this post, Mom. :)

    Comment by Skye Danler — February 4, 2013 @ 2:43 pm

  6. Nichol – Very good point about the way people perceiving our intelligence by our use of “inappropriate” or curse words, slang, and improper grammar as well. Different situations and social groups certainly influence one’s use of language and actions.

    Steven – Exactly! ;-)

    Skye – I’m proud of you for your maturity and thoughtfulness. It’s unfortunate that our society can simply determine words to be “offensive” and “bad.”

    Comment by Kirsten Uhler — February 20, 2013 @ 6:05 pm

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