The shifting compass of what’s taboo

The shifting compass of what’s taboo
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First Published: Sun, Aug 03 2008. 11 06 PM IST
Updated: Sun, Aug 03 2008. 11 06 PM IST
The British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC) was founded in 1922, and even in the first decades there came up a concern for the appropriateness of the content for family listening. The broadcast reached every home, and there were adults and children listening. So, BBC issued guidelines for its programmes. That meant there would be some degree of monitoring and censorship. Some topics were considered controversial and so, forbidden. These included profanity, royalty, race, physical disability and sexual deviation.
The BBC also made a list of words that were taboo in its programmes. Many four-letter words relating to body parts and functions were forbidden. The acceptable words for body functions were of Latin origin, such as urinate and copulate, but four-letter substitutes were in wide currency and had to be kept out. The Bible exhorts people not to take God’s name in vain, and so words such as goddamn it, gosh, golly and Jeez were also taboo. So were swear words such as damn, dash, darn, hell and heck. The last in the list was the Sanskrit yoni.
There are many other simple words referring to common objects that have become objectionable. In the England of Queen Victoria, leg was a taboo word. A table had limbs, not legs! Screw is another example. In Shakespeare’s play, Lady Macbeth tries to persuade her husband to pluck up courage to murder Duncan saying, “Screw your courage to the sticking place.” Imagine the plight of the actor who erred and delivered the line: “Stick your courage...”
Naked is a word in the BBC list. The Latinate synonym, nude, does not carry the taboo. But, strangely, one of the most successful BBC programmes is titled The Naked Chef . It made a celebrity of the chef, Jamie Oliver.
Two events brought about a change in people’s attitude to swear words. One was the famous exclamation by Eliza Doolittle in Shaw’s Pygmalion: “Walk! Not bloody likely. I am going in a taxi.” Audiences were stunned into silence, and then burst into laughter. That really marked the end of Victorian prudery. In the remake of Pygmalion as My Fair Lady, the producer felt “bloody” would hardly cause a flutter, and made Eliza shout a more rude and shocking line to urge her horse at the racetrack.
The other event was the publication of D.H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover. There was a generous sprinkling of four-letter words in the book, and the publisher was taken to court under the Obscene Publications Act. In a landmark judgement, the court found the publisher “not guilty”. This was an endorsement of the changing social attitudes towards sexually explicit swear words.
Taboo words are now much more common and much less objectionable in the media than in the mid-20th century. Stand-up comedy on TV thrives on four-letter words. For public telecasts, these words are bleeped out, and in print they are replaced by asterisks. When children’s programmes have swear words, it is expected that the producers would recommend parental guidance (PG). In the US, the Supreme Court upheld the ruling of Federal Communications Commission that programmes with such language should not be aired when “there is a reasonable risk that children may be in the audience”. This is generally taken to mean before 9pm.
In many parts of the world today, words suggestive of racial slur or similar bias are much more offensive than profanity or sexual terminology. The word Negro has passed through many stages, and today the accepted term is African American. In 1999, there was a widely reported incident in Washington. Mayor Anthony Williams asked David Howard, a staff member, to resign because in a private meeting he had used the word niggardly. Niggard is a synonym for miser, and has nothing to do with nigger. Still, Howard resigned. Howard was allowed to come back, but he asked for a different job. When the commotion died down, commentators remarked that this was political correctness gone berserk.
Examples can be found in Indian politics, too. One of our politicians said the leader of an activist group in a neighbouring country was an international pariah. There was a volley of protest, as pariah is the name of the drummer caste in south India. The offending statement was withdrawn, and the politician agreed to try and persuade publishers to delete the word from their dictionaries.
Members?of Parliament have their own lists of taboo words. But the list is not definitive. The Speaker can make decisions on each word, looking at its meaning and the context. Unparliamentary words have to be withdrawn, and expunged from the records.
The word taboo was introduced into English by Captain Cook, who borrowed it from the Polynesian language of the island of Tonga. The original form of the word was tapu, the act of forbidding something. Brewer’s Dictionary suggests that Cook’s men violated some of the taboos of the region, and that led to the death of Captain Cook at the hands of the Hawaiians.
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He will look at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.
Comments can be sent to plainspeaking@livemint.com
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First Published: Sun, Aug 03 2008. 11 06 PM IST