About Taboo English® — “Bad” words?

Studying “bad” words?

Taboo English® is a satirical English education project, dedicated to the examination of how profanity is used by native speakers of English. In other words, we give non-native speakers of English a shitload of words and phrases that native speakers use all the fucking time, so they can learn about “bad words” in English. We draw data especially from pop music, movies and online stuff for insight into how language is used, for social commentary, but mostly for shits and giggles. Designed for ESL learners, but fun for everyone. Taboo English seeks to be kinda sorta what The Onion is to newspapers and The Daily Show is to TV news. Any learning that occurs by users of Taboo English is strictly accidental.

Introductory Remarks

This must be made clear, right from the start: I am from New Jersey. My parents were born & raised in Newark, NJ, the city that invented profanity. The exact date profanity was invented there has been obscured by history, but it’s safe to say it happened sometime between the time we killed all the Indians and invented HBO.

I grew up in a family where the use of colorful language was commonplace. I didn’t even know that “shit” was a bad word until the day I said it at Montessori and had my mouth washed out with soap. It was the beginning of a stellar academic career, one that would culminate in a degree in fucking linguistics. But enough about me.

Newark, the city that invented profanity.

Over the past thirty years in the US, we’ve witnessed a tremendous explosion in the use of taboo English. It’s clearly a phenomenon not only too in-your-face to ignore, but also worthy of examination, and certainly from a multidisciplinary approach. As a teacher of language and culture, I’ve heard EFL students use such language occasionally, and I’ve been questioned about the meaning of the words which are used ubiquitously in movies, music and on the Internet.

What, exactly, are we to tell them? “It’s not important, don’t worry about those words?” “Um, just worry about improving your grammar?” “Shut up, asshat, and sit down?”

An important precept of theoretical linguistics was made explicitly clear to me at the beginning of my training: It’s a linguist’s job to describe how language is used, not to prescribe how it should be used. This difference is important. The former utilizes the tools of the scientific method — data are analyzed, and hypotheses are drawn from that data which are revealing and predictive.   The latter, prescriptivism, is all about telling students how to use language, but epically fails to account for the numerous ways these rules are regularly “broken” by native speakers.

Fig. 1 Mysterious movie prop with cool shit written on it.

To me, as a student and teacher of language, the descriptive approach is enormously appealing — what could be cooler than figuring out the system so that you can discover the meaning of something?

You’re Indiana Jones checking out Sanskrit scrawlings on the wall of a hut in a traditional village. You can understand that shit. It’s an adventure. It’s exhilarating. And, like Indy himself, it’s cool. You think John McClane could figure that shit out? Or Dirty Harry? Why, they’re pussies compared to Indiana Jones.

The prescriptive approach is just the opposite — it’s rote memorization rewarded or punished by a test of dubious educational value. You’re either right or wrong. No adventure. No epiphanies. Not a lot to see here. These are not the droids you’re looking for. Move along.

And so, I’m delighted to write this introduction to Winston’s new project, and excited to join him as he starts his delightful adventure. I invite everyone to join him in examining all those “bad words” we’ve all heard and sometimes use, and start thinking of ways to explain how Taboo English is used so that students can understand it.

Non-native speakers are extremely curious about “living English,” and want to know what the hell these words & phrases mean. Someone’s got to tell ’em. In pop music, movies and the stuff they hear from native speakers, there’s a vast wealth of language that teachers won’t talk about and traditional publishers wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole.

So, Taboo English is our forum for presenting examples and explanations of this special category of English. The language used here will be explicit, profane, vulgar, and chock full of fun. We won’t be afraid to laugh and joke about anything, so this site will be informative, insightful, and perhaps even revealing. It’s not our goal at all to make ESL students everywhere use Taboo English any more than they already would, and I especially hope that learners won’t be using these words to offend others in the classroom. But to ignore this language would be like dismissing advertising or cinema as unworthy of academic attention, or like failing to include a discussion of water when teaching marine biology: They are each so inexorably tied to their surroundings that it’d be a disservice to ourselves and our students if we’d just turn our heads and pretend that this language doesn’t exist.

No advances in education, or in anything else, were ever made by “playing it safe.” Life is risk.

Tom Kenny

Nagoya, Japan

Fig 2. Captivated learner




Our Founder

Taboo English is cheerfully maintained by Dr. Winston O. Boogerhead, Ph.D., professor emeritus of linguistics and coprolalia.