forbidden words

which is the name of the book i was invited to review by the cambridge university press (!), applies to pretty much anything at one time or another. its authors, kate burridge and keith allan, do an admirable job of acknowledging this and the role of context in discourse. unfortunately, they do a fairly poor job of a few other things.

i'd also like to point out that on the back of my advanced copy, in capital letters, it reads
do you think they did that on purpose? the authors do seem to delight in using taboo language (and quoting sade extensively!) throughout, but i doubt this "NAD" was intentional, since there are quite a few things other wrong with this book as well.

first of all, the authors seem confused about who their audience is. they seem to be writing a linguistics text book, and they coin new terms: orthophemism (straight talking), and dysphemism (wrong or bad talking) to go with the more familiar euphemism (sweet talking). but they also diverge into long and unnecessary histories, like the one on the use of the word "taboo" itself, that don't seem to have any place in a scholarly argument.

every chapter after the first two or so introduces a new domain of discourse in which some type of speech is restricted. these range from cursing to bodily functions ("sex and bodily effluvia," excuse me) to naming and addressing. each chapter begins with an unnecessarily lengthy compilation of examples where simply the title would suffice for even a novice reader. broad section headings like "why names are tabooed" begin with broad statements like "the taboo on names is a fear-based taboo," but then devolve into more long series of examples and block quotes and attempts to fit all observed phenomena to the same explanation: speaking humans attempt to preserve well-being.

call me a pessimist, but the idea that all prohibitions on language can be explained by an appeal to our common good-will seems overly simplistic at best. it also, in what seems like a somewhat circular move to me, relies on a theoretic notion based on the colloquial 'face' (public persona) that we each try to maintain in the interest of that well-being. they write, "by default we are polite, euphemistic, orthophemistic and inoffensive; and we censor our language use to schew tabooed topics." really? by default? if no taboo language existed, we would all be polite? the simultaneous creation of politeness and its binary opposite, impoliteness, is never discussed. it seems to me that there are far more things we shouldn't say at any given time than things we should.

dysphemism is defined as "a word or a phrase with connotations that are offensive either about the denotatum [thing being named] and/or to people addressed or overhearing the utterance." this could, of course, be just about anything. so presumably the book must go on to define every single discursive context and, thereby, the words that are taboo within such context. but this is clearly too much to ask. the authors occasionally appeal to a standard mixed-gender middle class setting, which they claim gives rise to the "MCPC," the middle-class politeness criterion. again with the circularity. saying that "she's a hot chick" is taboo because it's often used offensively is circular and unenlightening. how can we define the MCPC in a systematic way except to appeal to our own middle-class intuitions about polite language? no one needs a book for that.

in the final chapter, "taboo, censoring, and the human brain," the authors cite psychological and psycholinguistic evidence that "taboo words are located in a special place within our brains." first of all, don't get me started on whether or not language is an object that can be 'located' anywhere.
this may account for the fact that attempts to stamp them out meet with little or no success. bad language is not just some nasty habit that we can be broke of, like smoking in restaurants or nail-biting. forbidden words flourish all the more vigorously on a diet of individual censoring and public disapproval. linguistic prohibition, like other kinds of prohibition and censorship, is doomed to failure in the longer term. like the worm in the bud, forbidden words feed on censoring imposed by hypocritical decorum. but when we look at the exuberance of expressions that proliferate around the forbidden, it is also clear that we are having a lot of fun.
i'm serious. that's from the last paragraph of the book.

first of all, for a neutral textbook-type of writing, the whole text is shot through with agressive descriptivism. (a side note even mentions that burridge proposed the removal of the apostrophe from the english possessive to scorn from all sides. duh! this is prescriptive liberalism! just as bad, if not worse, than any other kind of prescriptivism!) it's excessively anti-censorship while being excessively pro-self-censoring (remember, we censor ourselves to be good! the government and prescriptivists censor us because they're bad!)

but political agenda aside, the lengthy quote above still reveals what i believe is a fatal flaw in most lines of reasoning about various particular types of discourse. though the passage states that tabooed behaviors are here to stay, it still treats them as something that intervenes from the outside. taboo is a worm in a bud. it flourishes like a parasite.

i'd like to propose a more interesting and useful type of discourse analysis. why don't we analyze proper speech for the things it lacks? what is it we strenuously avoid saying, even though we know we could? language isn't, as burridge and allen claim, an object that is attacked by taboo, dirty language and censorship. these things have always already been a part of it. they form an essential part of, lets say, our reasons for having more than one word for an object. if such a one-to-one correspondence existed, there would be little need for language as we know it. an analysis that tries to tease dysphemism and euphemism apart and treat one as the natural default and one as the interloper is both hopeless and too complicated for words.

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