If you ever want a book so chock-full of fascinating and perplexing ideas that it’ll probably take you years (at best) to finish, I’d highly recommend Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought.
To illustrate this point, I was reminded earlier today of a passage from the book which I believed would make a great post about the topic of taboos. An hour later, I still hadn’t found the passage, but had discovered another which was both equally relevant and equally intriguing.
What’s so impressive about that?
Pinker’s book isn’t even about taboos.
The Stuff of Thought
Pinker begins the passage by drawing our attention to a critical distinction:
The shifting associations to the name for a person are an example of the power of a word to soak up emotional coloring— to have a connotation as well as a denotation.
Soon, he moves on to the subject of taboo language, pointing out the three primary categories in which we find taboo language:
Not only do we turn to certain words for sexuality, excretion, and religion when we are in an excitable state, but we are wary of such words when we are in any other state. Many epithets and imprecations are not just unpleasant but taboo: the very act of uttering them is an affront to listeners, even when the concepts have synonyms whose use is unexceptional. The tendency of words to take on awesome powers may be found in the taboos and word magic in cultures all over the world. In Orthodox Judaism, the name of God, transcribed YHVH and conventionally pronounced Yahweh, may never be spoken, except by the high priests in the ancient temple on Yom Kippur in the “holy of holies,” the chamber housing the ark of the covenant. In everyday conversation observant Jews use a word to refer to the word, referring to God as hashem, “the name.”
Pinker then brings up a question which has always baffled me:
While taboo language is an affront to common sensibilities, the phenomenon of taboo language is an affront to common sense. Excretion is an activity that every incarnate being must engage in daily, yet all the English words for it are indecent, juvenile, or clinical. The elegant lexicon of Anglo-Saxon monosyllables that give the English language its rhythmic vigor turns up empty-handed just when it comes to an activity that no one can avoid. Also conspicuous by its absence is a polite transitive verb for sex— a word that would fit into the frame, Adam verbed Eve or Eve verbed Adam. The simple transitive verbs for sexual relations are either obscene or disrespectful, and the most common ones are among the seven words you can’t say on television.
The Real Issue
Here, I think, we find a question which can be asked about nearly any kind of taboo.
The common response to a taboo word is to say that it’s ‘not a nice word’, and therefore, it shouldn’t be said.
The response doesn’t (and can’t) deny the reality of that which the word represents. It just says, ‘I don’t like the way you’re talking about it.’
For example, you might dislike using the word shit. But doing so doesn’t mean that you are denying some truth about the human digestive system (since, as we all know, Everybody Poops!). Which leads us to an even more important question:
A) what’s being described is a real thing, and
B) we don’t like the sound of the words used to describe it, then
why not come up with a new word which isn’t either indecent, juvenile, or profane?
I still think the core issue may be deeper. However, this post has already gotten long enough. I’ll try to continue on with this train of thought tomorrow.
In the meantime, what do you think?
Photo Credit: RiPO (Creative Commons)
This week’s topic (also known as the Weekly Curiosity) is taboos. Check back each weekday at 12:34pm for a new post exploring this idea. In the meantime, here are three ways you can join the quest: