Journal article Open Access

The Utility and Ubiquity of Taboo Words

Jay, Timothy

ABSTRACT—Taboo words are defined and sanctioned by institutions of power (e.g., religion, media), and prohibitions are reiterated in child-rearing practices. Native speakers acquire folk knowledge of taboo words, but it lacks the complexity that psychological science requires for an understanding of swearing. Misperceptions persist in psychological science and in society at large about how frequently people swear or what it means when they do. Public recordings of taboowords establish the commonplace occurrence of swearing (ubiquity), although frequency data are not always appreciated in laboratory research. A set of 10 words that has remained stable over the past 20 years accounts for 80%of public swearing. Swearing is positively correlated with extraversion and Type A hostility but negatively correlated with agreeableness, conscientiousness, religiosity, and sexual anxiety. The uniquely human facility for swearing evolved and persists because taboo words can communicate emotion information (anger, frustration) more readily than nontaboo words, allowing speakers to achieve a variety of personal and social goals with them (utility). A neuro-psycho-social framework is offered to unify taboo word research. Suggestions for future research are offered.

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