Susan Lister, who teaches Spanish out in California, is always sending me interesting ideas about language to ponder. This morning I found a quotation from the semanticist, Mario Pei, in a note from her:
“The trouble with taboo words and their replacements is that the replacement quickly tends to develop its own taboo, whereupon it, too, has to be replaced. Objections to taboos and euphemisms are of no avail whatsoever. Both constitute a definite part of usage, and both will continue, presumably, as long as language (any language) exists.” Mario Pei, “Problems of Semantics,” in Language Today: A Survey of Current Linguistic Thought 59, 72, ed. by Mario Pei, Funk & Wagnalls, New York, 1967.
The comment might seem obvious but it reminded me of a TV news interview I did last year on which I was asked to comment on the banning of the word Bruce in a high school in the Scranton-Wilkes-Barre area. Did I hear you ask, “Why Bruce?”
The high school administration had introduced a language code that prohibited N-word and all its synonyms. The kids in the high school simply created a new euphemism not on the list by commonizing the name (making it, essentially, a bruce) of an Afro-American kid who had recently graduated. They then went blithely on their racist way.
The administration of that high school had been unwittingly dragged into the struggle against taboo words and so, once it was informed of the new replacement, the administration promptly banned it, seeing no other face-saving alternative.
I asked the interviewer if he had heard the euphemism for bruce. He said, “No,” so I told him it should have emeged already but the the end of the week it will be in place.
Where will it all end? I told the interviewer that a high school administration can chase euphemisms for taboo words to the ends of the Earth. For as surely as the Earth has no end, there is no end to the words in the English language. The Oxford English Dictionary contains 240,000 likely replacement candidates but it is only the tip of the iceberg. In fact, speakers can create new words any time they wish and they do.
I also mentioned that it makes no difference whether racial slurs are banned. Removing the word for an attitude has no effect on the attitude. Removing the attitude, however, does remove the taboo words associated with it. Words only alert us to the attitudes; they do no control them.