Thursday, November 30, 2006

Forbidden Words: An In-Depth Look at How We Censor Our Language
I was waiting to post about the Allan & Burridge book Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring of Language until it came out in the more affordable paperback form, which it did a week and half ago, but I was distracted by actually reading the book, so now I'm slightly late. But now I have more to say!

The interesting thing about the book is that it isn't exactly what I expected. It deals less with the strictly linguistic, or perhaps sociolinguistic, side of taboo language than I was expecting. What it does go into is a huge amount of fascinating detail about the origins of the underlying taboos themselves, followed up by examples of how the taboos worked themselves into the everyday language, and how some of those taboos and their linguistic remnants have held over into the modern day even though most people like to think of themselves as too smart to believe in any of that stuff anymore.

It also gives some interesting insight into the use of euphemism vs. "politically correct" speech. In general, the chapter on political correctness was informative, because it went into the origins of the idea of "policital correctness," as well as tracing the way the use of the idea and the terms associated with it has changed greatly over the years and depending on who's using it. I haven't read the Lakoff book on reframing the political debate, but it might be especially good to now, to compare it with this chapter.

In addition, I really enjoyed the beginning chapter on the history of taboo and censorship, and the chapter on language "purity." The idea that people decided to declare what was and was not correct usage of English based on Latin rules, when English didn't really descend from Latin, never ceases to amuse me. Of course, as an ESL teacher who would like to teach students how to use English like a real speaker, as opposed to an out-of-date, prescriptivist textbook, it's less amusing and more frustrating, but the writers at Language Log touch on that issue a lot more eruditely than I do, so I'll just say that the chapter on this was another good argument against stupid, arbitrary rules.

A strange side-effect of reading this book for me has been my desire to share all the weird little facts the authors bring up, and then running into the problem of those topics being, well, taboo. Because I had been immersed in the book's discussion, it didn't seem all that shocking to talk about such things, but once I tried to bring them up in a conversation with someone else who didn't have the same context, well... An amusing proof of how powerful taboos are over what we're willing to talk about.

Some weird and random facts I picked up from this book:
- A woman exposing her vagina used to be thought a powerful weapon to repel the devil, and for that reason, many churches in Europe can be found with carved depictions of women exposing themselves over doorways. (Now I want to go to Europe, just to see.)

- Masturbation used to be the standard prescribed treatment for female hysteria, from Hippocrates to the 1920s. It was not prescribed for men.

- Truffles (the mushrooms, not the chocolates) secrete the same hormone as men do through their armpits, making them the only aphrodisiac food with scientific backing.

- Typhoid fever makes people smell like fresh bread, and tuberculosis like stale beer.

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