A note on verbal taboo (2)

Words having to do with anatomy and sex – and words even vaguely suggesting anatomical or sexual matters – have, especially in American culture, remarkable affective connotations.

Ladies of the last century could not bring themselves to say “breast” or “leg” – not even when speaking about chicken – so the terms “white meat” and “dark meat” were substituted. It was thought inelegant to speak of “going to bed”, and “to retire” was coined instead. In rural America there are many euphemisms for the word “bull”; among them are “he-cow”, “cow critter”, “male cow”, and even “gentleman cow”.

But Americans are not alone in their delicacy about such matters. When D. H. Lawrence’s first novel, The White Peacock (1911) was published, the author was widely and vigorously criticised for having used (in innocuous context) the word “stallion”. In a 1962 presentation of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel in front of the British Royal Family, “Our hearts are warm, our bellies are full” was changed to “Our hearts are warm and we are full”.

These verbal taboos, though sometimes amusing, also produce serious problems, since they prevent frank discussion of sexual matters. Social workers report that young people of junior high school and high school age who contract venereal disease, become pregnant out of wedlock, and get into other serious trouble of this kind, are almost always profoundly ignorant of the most elementary facts about sex and procreation. Their ignorance is apparently due to the fact that neither they nor their parents have a vocabulary in which to discuss such matters: the non-technical vocabulary of sex is too coarse and shocking to be used, whilst the technical, medical vocabulary is unknown to them. The social workers find, therefore, that the first step in helping these young people is usually linguistic: they have to be taught a vocabulary in which they can talk about their problems before they can be helped further.

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