Taboo, take three

March 2, 2007

Taboo, take three As you have published two letters in successive weeks complaining about my review of Forbidden Words by Keith Allan and Kate Burridge (Books, February 9), I would like to put the record straight.

Contrary to what the authors claim (Letters, February 16), not a single chapter of their book is based on any original programme of empirical research into language avoidance that they have themselves carried out, apart from two rather curious and marginal exceptions that I duly mentioned. If there had been any such programme, readers should have been told what it was.

Their self-justification evades my criticism of their catch-all use of the term "taboo" to cover whatever kinds of social disapproval they feel like discussing, while simply ignoring wide areas of "what we cannot say" that are subject to moral and legal restraints.

Steven Pinker, writing in their support (Letters, February 23), professes to be unable to "make sense" of my point about telling the truth. That is interesting in view of his failure to disclose to readers that he contributed to the publicity blurb on the back cover of Forbidden Words , part of which is paraphrased in his letter. So presumably, although he does not admit it, he read my review as an indirect attack on his sponsorship of the book. His one-line dismissal of "Freud's wacky theories" as not even worth discussing in connection with language avoidance makes it clear enough what brand of academic blinkers he wears.

I think most of your readers can safely be left to read the book and judge for themselves whether my review hit the nail on the head or not.

Roy Harris
Emeritus professor of general linguistics, Oxford University.

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