Taboo Words (sometimes known as swearwords, curse words, or profanity) are those words and phrases which some people find shocking or offensive. They can often cause problems for TEFL teachers and learners of English.
In general, the best advice is to avoid both using and teaching taboo words in the classroom. A number of teachers have lost their jobs through using and teaching taboo words and it is not to be recommended unless specifically requested and sanctioned by the school owner or DoS.
Note that in the discussion below a number of taboo words are used in full. If you feel this could be offensive then please do not read on.
Categories of Taboo Words
In English, taboo words generally fall into 4 categories.
1. Taboo Words to do with Religion
Used in their religious context (e.g. in Church or discussing religion) these words are fine to use. For example a priest may talk about Jesus Christ or being damned by God.
However, some people find their use outside formal circumstances as offensive and shocking, e.g. when you criticize someone by saying, “Jesus Christ! You are so god-damned stupid!”
2. Words to do with Sex or the Body
Often these words have an acceptable euphemism to describe the sex act or body part. In “polite” company one might talk of making love or breasts. However one may also refer to the same things as screwing or tits when speaking amongst ones friends.
3. Words to do with the Toilet
Like words to do with sex and the body, these words often have euphemisms or polite terms instead of the alternatives which are often considered taboo or shocking in other circumstances. One may talk about going to the lavatory rather than taking a piss for example.
4. Words describing People
A number of words which were originally used to describe individuals or groups without any pejorative meaning have become insults and taboo over time. These fall into several categories:
- Ethnicity/Race/Nationality – frog, kraut, coon, kike, wop, paki, etc
- Sexual Orientation – poof, queer, etc
- Intelligence – retard, etc
- Physical disabilities – cripple, spastic, etc
Calling someone a retard is offensive nowadays, and yet a number of years ago it was in standard use to describe someone with a very low IQ. Likewise the word, nigger, was originally used as a simple descriptor and not used in a pejorative manner at all several hundred years ago. (It is derived from the Spanish and Portuguese word for black).
The word, spastic, originally not offensive at all has become highly offensive in British English whilst remaining neutral in American English.
In recent times certain taboo words have been “reclaimed” by specific groups. Examples here include queer used by some LGBT people, nigger used by some black people and spastic by some disabled people.
Strength of Taboo Words
Taboo words or swearwords are often classified using a star system with 1 star being mildly taboo and 4 stars being extremely taboo. For example:
* damn, blast (BrE), hell
** Jesus, Christ, bastard, jerk (AmE)
*** balls, fuck, shit, wanker (BrE), spastic, retard
**** cunt, nigger
However, it must be remembered that context plays a major part in this. Amongst some groups using words like balls and shit is barely noticeable. Others may well feel that saying Christ Almighty in a non-religious context is highly offensive
Use of Taboo Words
Because taboo words have the power to shock, they are often used in situations full of emotion such as in an argument, making love, playing sport, in pain or when one is under a lot of stress.
In addition, taboo words are often used amongst close groups of people to signal affiliation with that group. A group of friends may call each other wankers or jerks for example without any offense being given or taken. A stranger who joins this group and uses the same terms may well cause offense as they are trying to claim membership of the group to which they do not belong.
If a white person uses the word, nigger, it can be extremely offensive and yet some groups of black people will use it freely amongst themselves with no offense at all.
Context, of course, plays a major part in the use of taboo words. A group of people at a house party may well use taboo words amongst themselves without any restraint. If strangers or children were with the group then they would be likely to moderate their language. If the same group were in a church or perhaps in a job interview then they would almost certainly never use taboo words.
The importance of context cannot be overestimated, hence the shock and immediate apology when a newscaster accidentally uses a taboo word live on air. In the video here Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn uses the word, fucking, on live television and this is followed by immediate apologies from the interviewers; in almost any other context the use of the word would have gone almost unnoticed.
Problems for learners of English
One of the main difficulties for learners of English is understanding the strength of the words they are using. This can arise when the students compare the taboo word to the equivalent in their MT which may have a very different strength.
In Italian, for example, the expression vaffanculo – usually translated into English as fuck off – is used with much more ease than its English correspondent and it bears less resonance amongst Italians who use it in their everyday language so frequently that the word has virtually lost its offensiveness. In fact, recently an Italian Court dismissed a case for “insult and offense” brought to it by a public officer who had been told, “vaffanculo” by another public officer. The Court ruled that there had been no injury or offense and ruled that the expression was merely impolite.
Another problem is with appropriateness (tied in with the use of taboo words to claim membership of a group, above). Two teachers may meet socially and talk about a film being, “fucking brilliant”, however in the classroom if the student (or teacher!) talked about a book being, “fucking brilliant” then this would be inappropriate language for that situation.
For this reason it is often best for learners of English not to use these words unless they have a very thorough command not only of English but also of the wider use of English and language register which requires not only a very good knowledge of English but also extensive experience in using it.
Taboo Words in the Classroom
It can often happen that students will ask their teachers about swearwords and taboo words; they may well watch American or British films and hear these words and genuinely want to know more.
As a teacher you should tread warily here. Firstly do not launch into explanations there and then. It is wise to check with your DoS or school owner and let them know that the students would like to learn more on this subject and make sure you have their permission for the lesson. Quite simply, too many teachers have lost their jobs because they did not do this and it turned out the school owner was totally against the idea.
If you do go ahead with a lesson on taboo words, make sure that you include elements not only on learning and using the vocabulary, but also and importantly:
- context – when it is appropriate to use the taboo words and when it is not
- strength – which words are more or less offensive than others
Another typical scenario is for a student to “test” the teacher. They may well be perfectly familiar with a common swearword but to get a laugh from their friends ask quite innocently, “What does fuck mean?” in the middle of the lesson.
The best response here is to ponder the subject for a moment and then say you don’t really know the best way to explain it but you’ll ask the DoS or school owner for their advice and let them know that a student asked the question. Often this will result in the “testing” student beating a hasty retreat.
With people being easily offended by the use of taboo words and it often being difficult to know (even sometimes for native speakers) which words will cause offense and which will not, it is the best policy to avoid using and teaching taboo words in the EFL classroom.
If they need to be taught, however, make sure you have the blessing of your DoS or school owner. In 2009 a TEFL teacher in Australia was sacked after he gave his class a worksheet on the grammatical use of fuck in various contexts. (The case went to court and in 2011 he was deemed to have been treated unfairly although sacking was a reasonable outcome from the lesson.)
Finally, taboo words in the classroom comes under a general list of sensitive subjects which should be avoided by the TEFL teacher. These include sex, politics and religion in general.
Sensitive Subjects in TEFL – what you should be careful about mentioning in class