X-words

A cartoon for this weekend from New Scientist of May 1, with a stern warning about the word ass ‘donkey’ — from one donkey to a younger donkey:

X-word, for various letters X, is a common form of taboo and slur avoidance. It seems to have started with F-word (F ‘fuck’ but also ‘faggot/fag’) and S-word (S ‘shit’) and then spread to other tabooed words and to other words that are innocent outside of special contexts (discussion here of some other F-words: F for fascism/fascist, feminism/feminist, fossils, folk [music], food; there are more). Language Log has returned many many times to discussions of X-words, ranging over most letters of the alphabet and covering some ordinarily decorous words as well as a full company of taboo and slur vocabulary.

The New Scientist cartoon — note that the magazine is published in the U.K. — has A-word (here A ‘ass’, but elsewhere in British sources ‘arse’), which has certainly been used in the U.S. for avoidance of ass as a mild taboo word (‘buttocks, anus’). In both British and American English, ass has more decorous meanings (‘donkey’ and the slang sense ‘fool’), but of course there’s no compelling reason for British speakers (talking British donkeys included) to avoid ass ‘donkey’, since the relevant taboo word is arse, which is pronounced, as well as spelled, differently from ass.

Of course, British speakers are familiar with American usage, so perhaps the taboo has slopped over from arse to ass. And donkeys might be especially sensitive on the matter.

2 Responses to “X-words”

  1. Peter Harvey Says:

    Don Quixote rode on Rocinante and Sancho Panza followed on his ass.

  2. rhhardin Says:

    What’s taboo is a familiar register when familiarity isn’t licensed.

    The taboo words exist just for that reason, to violate a register convention; which is what is offensive. Or affirm the convention, when it is licensed.

    X-word is a convention that avoids assuming familiarity and so avoids offense. In fact using the X-word form in a familiar setting would be very odd.

    The referent never was offensive; only the convention broken.

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