I swear I like taboos

February 23, 2007

Swearing, epithets and other linguistic taboos are a fascinating yet poorly understood aspect of language, and I have yet to meet a person who isn't intensely curious about the phenomenon. The topic is far from frivolous: its implications range from the limits of free speech in a democracy to the processing of emotion in the human brain. In researching this topic for a forthcoming book, I found that the deepest and most enjoyable works in this area were two books by the linguists Keith Allan and Kate Burridge. So I was puzzled by Roy Harris's curiously dyspeptic review of their Forbidden Words (Books, February 9).

Harris finds nothing to like in their delightful book, and complains about their terminology, their willingness to analyse the topic in original ways, their psychological orientation and their (wise) decision to ignore Freud's wacky theories. He accuses them of using the term "taboo"

too loosely, yet I can make no sense of his claim that the most widespread taboo is "that against falsehood". Harris's glib and grouchy dismissal does your readers a disservice.

Steven Pinker.
Harvard University

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