Arts & Culture
12:21 pm
Sun September 2, 2012

Watch your tongue: Why some words are taboo

Taboo words can be so powerful they won’t be uttered.

Michigan Radio's Rina Miller talks with Anne Curzan, a professor of English at the University of Michigan, who specializes in linguistics.

According to Curzan, taboo words tend to cluster around matters such as sex, death, and religion. In fact “occupy” used to be one of those words.

“In the 17th and 18th century this word  fell out of use because it had sexual connotation,” said Curzan.

In the Victorian era “leg” and “breast” were considered impolite to use around the table. Curzan says that’s when the phrase “white meat” and “dark meat” appears.

“Because it was a way to avoid saying ‘thigh’ and ‘breast’ at the table,” she said.

“In my house you weren’t allowed to use the word ‘suck’ to mean something was bad, but you could use the word ‘suck’ to mean like a baby was sucking a bottle, that was fine, which shows you how complicated taboo words are, because there you’ve got exactly the same word, but one meaning is taboo in my house hold, and one was not,” said Curzan.

Listen above to hear other examples of taboo words.