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No word can be completely forbidden. If no
one is ever allowed to say a word under any

circumstances then children never hear it
when they’re growing up so they never learn

it and after a couple generations everyone
who remembered it will have died and it won’t

be a word in that language anymore. In fact,
the more people know a word the stronger the

rule against it can be, because if everyone
knows a word then when someone says it everyone

can immediately participate in punishing them.
But for people to learn the word in the first

place there have to be some circumstances
where it’s permissible, or at least tolerated.

What all this means is that I’m probably
not going to be telling you any words you

don’t already know, at least in English,
so if you came here for any huge surprises

on that front you might be disappointed. But
I still think it’s really interesting and

counterintuitive that there are so many words
that we have in our language but that you’re

not really supposed to use, and not only that
but the presence of words like that seems

like it might be universal to all languages.
There’s a lot of ways of categorizing these

words but I think the most useful way to sort
them is by why people think you shouldn’t

say them in the first place, which gets you
about three types of forbidden words.

Uh, before I go on, fair warning, I’m going
to be saying, like, all of these words, or

at least all the ones in English. I won’t
be using them exactly, but I am going to be

saying them so that we all know what we’re
talking about. So uh, viewer discretion advised.

Alright, the first type of forbidden words
are the ones for which it’s probably the

easiest to understand why people would want
to avoid them: blasphemous words. These are

usually names for some sort of supernatural
entity, a god or spirit or angel or demon

or something like that. It’s really common
in cultures around the world for people to

think that saying the name of something like
this will call its attention to you and, perhaps

depending on how respectfully you said it,
possibly anger them. Therefor, if you want

them to like you, it’s probably best not
to call their attention to you frivolously,

and if you want them to ignore you it’s
probably best to just never say their name

at all. We don’t really have words like
this in English any more, but boy did we used

to. In the middle ages saying words like “God,”
“Jesus,” “hell,” or “Devil” was

taken very seriously by both the church and
the state and was often illegal. But my favorite

example of this type of word is from Hebrew.
Religious jews from ancient times and up to

today go way out of their way to never, ever
say Yahweh, which is basically the most direct

possible name for God in Hebrew. They don’t
even write it unless they’re making a copy

of the bible, which makes it probably the
strictest prohibition on a word I’m going

to talk about in this video.
I could give more examples but this category

is pretty self explanatory, so let’s move
on to the second type of forbidden word. This

one is easily the one that’s most confusing
for me. You see, in a lot of languages, maybe

even all of them, there are taboo words that
refer to something having to do with either

sex or excrement, either referring to those
things directly or referring to things that

the culture deems somehow related. Words like
this in English include shit, piss, fuck,

cock and cunt, just to name a few of the worse
ones. Oddly enough though these words are

rarely used in their literal sense. When someone
says “fuck” or “fucking” they’re

actually talking about sex maybe one time
out of a hundred. The rest of the time they’ve

probably either stubbed their toe or they’re
losing at Mario Kart.

What interests me most about these words is
that everyone agrees that they shouldn’t

be said in certain circumstances but very
few people have clear beliefs about why. It

seems kind of like wearing pants in public:
everyone does it because everyone else does

it. Anybody can imagine a society where no
one wears pants, and nothing necessarily seems

wrong with it, but nobody wants to be the
first person to try it.

I’d really like to be able to tell you about
the historical circumstances that lead to

words like this, but unfortunately there’s
not much much research into that area. A decent

amount has been written about the origin of
these particular English words, but similar

words exist in loads of other languages and
I honestly have no idea how much of what happened

in English is applicable to other languages.
So, with that disclaimer, here’s about what

happened in English.
In the beginning (and by “beginning” I

mean about 1500) these words didn’t have
any stigma at all. They were direct but not

vulgar, kind of like today’s words “penis”
and “vagina,” words which, by the way,

didn’t exist at the time and were only borrowed
form Latin in the 1600s.

So what changed between then and now? A lot,
but three main things:

Firstly, there were a lot of people, especially
around the protestant reformation, who thought

that naming things having to do with sex directly
would inspire lust and, therefor sin, so they

did their best to talk about them in a super
round-about way.

Somewhat after that but also kind of simultaneous
with it people started avoiding talking about

sex and excrement all together. This was especially
true in the victorian era, when even the word

“leg” was considered by some to be too
sexually suggestive for public use.

Thirdly, some people saw it as class marker.
The middle class in England at the time used

their avoidance of these words as a way to
differentiate themselves from the lower classes

who they thought used them more freely.
Squeamishness around sex and poop as well

as class divisions certainly aren’t unique
to the English speaking world, so I wouldn’t

at all be surprised if these are where swear
words come from in other languages as well,

but on the other hand it’s a sample size
of one so who knows.

Now we come to the last type of forbidden
word, which unlike the other two I actually

fully endorse the prohibition against. These
words are slurs: words that refer to some

category of people while also attaching a
strong negative value judgement to those people.

The most common and widely studied of these
words refer to ethnic and racial groups, so

I’m gonna focus mostly on them in this video,
although similar words refer to sexual orientation,

gender, religion, disability and all kinds
of stuff. Words like this in English include

chink, coon, spic, gook, paki, and of course
“negro,” variously pronounced “nigger”

or “niggah.”
Anyway, there’s actually a few slightly

different theories as to what exactly makes
these words so bad. Most of them revolve around

the idea that these words are somehow connected
to both a group of people and a series of

negative stereotypes about that group of people.
I think that’s pretty clear from the fact

that some people use the N-word to refer to
black people without any negative judgement

intended, while others use it to refer to
people who fit properties traditionally associated

with black people regardless of that person’s
race. For some the word only means the category

of people and for others it only means the
stereotypes, but for most people it’s at

least connected to both.
But how exactly it’s connected to both is

a matter of debate. Some scholars have argued
that the category of people and the negative

value judgement are all contained in a slur’s
literal meaning. It’s kind of like how the

word penguin refers to flightless black and
white animals with wings and beaks and flippers

that lay eggs and live in Antarctica. If you
use the word penguin to refer to something

it suggests that you think that penguins are
a thing, that these traits (which aren’t

necessarily logically related) tend to cluster
with each other in the real world, so something

with a few of them is probably a penguin and
will therefor have the other qualities of

a penguin as well. In the same way, some people
think that slurs refer to categories that

include both the ethnic group and the stereotypes
about that ethic group, so that using the

slur suggests that these properties naturally
belong together.

Not everyone agrees with this analysis though.
Another theory is that slurs literally refer

only to the category of people but that they
also carry some sort of evaluative connotation.

Kind of like how “exit the building promptly”
and “get out now!” literally mean the

same thing but imply radically different emotions
on the part of the speaker. In the same way,

this theory says that “there’s a gay guy
over there” and “there’s a f***** over

there” literally mean the same thing but
one implies that the speaker has negative

attitudes towards gay people and the other

There’s a lot of subtle variations on both
of these theories, and they tend to struggle

with the fact that different people clearly
use these words in different ways. For instance

the phenomenon of members of the targeted
group using a slur as a mock insult amongst

themselves to acknowledge their shared community
has been talked about at length by many people

much smarter than me. Different theories explain
all this in slightly different ways, but one

thing that they all agree on is that most
of the time the people who these words target

feel attacked when people not in that group
direct it towards them, which makes sense

when you consider that a lot of people have
used and continue to use these words for the

specific purpose of attacking them. I hope
you don’t need a rigorous linguistic analysis

to see the logic in that.
That said, I hope the educational value of

this video outweighs any discomfort I might
have caused by saying all these words, not

just the slurs but also the religious swears
and profanity. I’m sorry if anything I said

in this video bothered you or offended you,
and I promise my next video won’t feature

such a touchy topic. See you then!
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Three Types of Forbidden Words

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