A note on verbal taboo (1)

In every language, there seems to be certain “unmentionables” – words of such strong affective connotations that they cannot be utilised during polite discourse. In English, the first of these that come to mind are, of course, words dealing with excretion and sex. We ask movie ushers and petrol station attendants where the “lounge” or “rest room” is, although we usually have no intention of lounging or resting. “Powder room” is another euphemism for the same facility, also known as a “toilet”, which itself is an earlier euphemism.

Indeed, it is impossible in polite society to state, without having to resort to baby-talk or a medical vocabulary, your true purpose for needing to use the “rest room” (it’s not where you “wash your hands”).

Money is another subject about which communication is in some ways inhibited. It is all right to mention sums of money, such as “ten thousand dollars” or “two dollars and fifty cents”. But it is considered bad taste to inquire directly into other people’s financial affairs, unless such an inquiry is necessary in the course of business. When creditors send bills, they practically never mention money, although that is, of course, what they are writing about. There are many circumlocutions: “We beg to call your attention to what might be an oversight on your part”; “We would appreciate your early attention to this matter”; “May we look forward to an early remittance”

The fear of death carries over, quite understandably in view of the widespread confusion of symbols with the concepts they symbolise, into fear of the words having to do with death. Many people, therefore, instead of saying “died”, substitute such euphemistic expressions as “passed away”, “gone to meet his maker”, “departed”, and “gone west”. In Japanese, the word for death, “shi”, happens to have the same pronunciation as the word for the number four. This coincidence results in many linguistically awkward situations, since people generally avoid “shi” in the discussion of numbers and prices, and use “yon”, a word of different origin, instead.

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