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Euphemism & Dysphemism: Language Used as Shield and


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Keith Allan Kate Burridge

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Discourse & Society

Book review: KEITH ALLAN and KATE BURRIDGE, Forbidden Words:

Taboo and the Censoring of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 2006. 303 pp. EDWIN BATTISTELLA, Bad Language: Are Some
Words Better Than Others? New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. 230
Sky Marsen
Discourse Society 2008; 19; 411
DOI: 10.1177/09579265080190030602

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Book reviews 411

Chapters 5, 7 and 8, for example, readers would have benefited from a more
explicit and thorough discussion of how identities and desire are the product of
the specific cultures discussed in the essays.
Despite these caveats, this book delivers what it promises, namely, ‘to examine
the ways in which language mediates the sociocultural production of sexual
identities and desires in situated contexts of use in which sets of linguistic and
cultural practices circulate and are deployed’ (p. 8). Each chapter in this book not
only offers empirical evidence about the relationship among language, culture and
sexuality, but also raises new questions about the nature of such a relationship.
How do different types of masculinities and femininities shape sexual identity?
In what contexts does sexual desire become paramount for the construction of
sexual identity? How do social institutions permeate the linguistic expression
of desire and sexuality? Hopefully, this collection will be followed by further
publications in which these and other questions are explored in a wider range
of linguistic and cultural settings.


Bucholtz, M. and Hall, K. (2004) ‘Theorizing Identity in Language and Sexuality

Research’, Language in Society 33: 469–515.
Cameron, D. and Kulick, D. (2003) Language and Sexuality. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.
Campbell-Kibler, K., Podesva, R.J., Roberts, S.J. and Wong, A. (2002) Language and
Sexuality: Contesting Meaning in Theory and Practice. Stanford, CA: CSLI.
Harvey, K. and Shalom, C. (eds) (1997) Language and Desire: Encoding Sex Romance and
Intimacy. New York: Routledge.
McIlvenny, P. (ed.) (2002) Talking Gender and Sexuality. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Marisol del-Teso-Craviotto
Department of Spanish and Portuguese,
Miami University, USA

KEITH ALLAN and KATE BURRIDGE, Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring
of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 303 pp.
EDWIN BATTISTELLA, Bad Language: Are Some Words Better Than Others?
New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. 230 pp.

As language scholars know, most communication depends on figurative speech,

rhetorical tropes and connotational markers (Gibbs, 1994). In fact, literal
meanings are produced by only a small fraction of our everyday exchanges,
those which require precision. Within this framework of implicit and indirect
discourse is the category of linguistic etiquette: euphemism, swearing, polite talk,
slang and political correctness designate ways in which lexical choice not only
describes objects in the world, but also, and most importantly, reveals speaker
attitude (Allan and Burridge, 1991; Lutz, 1989).

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412 Discourse & Society 19(3)

Keith Allan and Kate Burridge’s Forbidden Words (2006) and Edwin Battistella’s
Bad Language (2005) deal expertly with the topic of language taboos and the
social appropriateness of linguistic expression, from different angles. Forbidden
Words looks at socially appropriate and inappropriate language within the
general framework of social taboos in their anthropological context. It examines
the historical development and functions of institutional and interpersonal
censoring of utterances that are associated with taboo objects and behaviours.
Bad Language, by contrast, focuses on issues of language policy and curriculum
development. It addresses the question of whether evaluative attitudes towards
language usage, such as regional dialects and ethnic speech, should affect policy
decisions with regard to teaching, and otherwise socially promoting, ‘standard’
English as the ‘correct’ or ‘good’ version.
Allan and Burridge base their discussion on the concept of X-phemism, a term
they created to designate lexemes that belong to sets of cross-varietal synonyms,
i.e. to sets of lexemes that denote the same object but connote different attitudes
towards it. X-phemisms are placed on a lexical continuum with euphemism
(sweet-talk) on the one end, dysphemism (impolite talk) on the other, and
orthophemism (straight-talk) somewhere between the two (p. 29). According to
this classification, for example, /poo/ is a euphemism, /shit/ a dysphemism and
/faeces/ an orthophemism, denoting the same physical substance (p. 32).
Not surprisingly, Allan and Burridge’s research indicates that the majority
of taboos, cross-culturally and diachronically, revolve around the body, its identity
and transformations: tabooed objects centre mainly on functions of reproduc-
tion and excretion (sexuality, sex organs, excrement), disease and death, and the
status of the speaker in relation to the interlocutor. It is significant also that the
taboo nature of utterances is malleable and changes over time. For example,
the authors point out that euphemisms often turn into orthophemisms and,
sometimes but more rarely, into taboo expressions. Taboo expressions may also
evolve into orthophemisms. The verb /occupy/, for example, meant /copulate/
in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It was re-introduced in its current
meaning when it was no longer used as a dysphemism (p. 43).
Two inter-related points seem especially striking in the research on taboo
and antisocial linguistic expression: the first is the emotional intensity that
accompanies utterances relating to the taboo topics of sexuality, excretion and
disease; the second is the hard-wired nature of such utterances in the brain.
Taboo language is associated with stigma (for both addressor and addressee),
and can lead to a range of repercussions, from loss of face to exclusion from
communal activities and corporal punishment. The emotional power of taboo
language is also evident in the seeming hypocrisy that underlies many of our
expressive choices – political correctness and ideological point of view being two
examples of this. Indeed, choosing to designate an action either as ‘collateral
damage’ or as a ‘ terrorist act’, and an army either as ‘liberating’ or as ‘invading’
(Allan and Burridge, p. 51) is a way of, implicitly but powerfully, evaluating
and classifying behaviour, without explicitly acknowledging one’s ideological
assumptions. This hypocrisy of speakers, as well as policy-makers, is also noted

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Book reviews 413

by Battistella, who points out that ‘critics of political correctness themselves use
language to shape the debate. This is unintentionally ironic since the objection to
political correctness is that it manipulates language in order to shape attitudes
and behavior’ (p. 94).
As for the second point, there is evidence to link taboo language with the
limbic system, which includes the emotion-processing areas of the brain (Jay,
2000). This is most clearly seen in cases of Tourette’s syndrome where subjects
experience a compulsion to vocalize obscene words and phrases. Interestingly,
clinical research shows that it is precisely the taboo nature of the utterances that
induce subjects to select them. In experiments described by Allan and Burridge
(pp. 247–8), subjects who realized that their utterances were not considered
obscene, and thus did not have the antisocial effect they believed, stopped
vocalizing them.
Direct, clearly expressed and concise, Bad Language is a valuable resource
covering central issues of concern for a specialist audience of educators and
policy advisors. It provides clear answers to its guiding questions, ‘How do certain
language varieties come to be characterized as uneducated, vulgar, immoral,
foreign, ethnic, provincial, ephemeral, convoluted, or politicized? How is other
language, by contrast, characterized as respectful, accessible, clear, direct,
authoritative, and democratic?’ (p. 17) and supports the claim that searching
for clear-cut dichotomies between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ language is a dangerously
misplaced and unproductive quest.
Forbidden Words is more ambitious in scope and target audience. Its zesty style
and numerous examples illustrating principles make the book attractive as an
introduction to its topic for specialists in other areas, or students. In its attempt
for transparency and clarity, however, Forbidden Words may tire the specialist
reader who could find the numerous repetitions (e.g., the phrase ‘taboos arise
out of social constraints on the individual’s behaviour’ is repeated three times
in the first chapter), and over-explicit clarifications (‘speaker is widely used by
academic linguists to refer to writers as well as to producers of spoken language’,
p. 33, emphasis in text) rather tedious.
Despite their differences in perspective, both books are effective in correcting
some major misconceptions about the nature and functions of language. For
example, Battistella addresses the distinction that routinely informs debates on
language evaluation – the distinction between realism and relativism (Schmid,
2001). He describes how relativist approaches to language are often mistaken
as anti-intellectual and nihilistic, and argues against this misconception by
explaining that distinctions and useful value judgments can also be made by
those who embrace the relativist tenet that ‘received wisdom is not beyond
challenge’ (p. 15).
Also, Allan and Burridge convincingly support the claim that jargon and
slang serve perfectly respectable purposes and that their reputation as ‘bad
language’ is unjustified. They note, for example, that ‘jargon is efficient, eco-
nomical and even crucial, in that it can capture distinctions not made in
ordinary language’ (p. 58). Their book offers ample examples of the contextual

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414 Discourse & Society 19(3)

appropriateness of what, in some circumstances, would be offensive expression,

and they argue against the ‘implicit assumption that language is a monolith,
with a fixed set of approved meanings and values’ (p. 98).
By correcting such widespread and misleading assumptions about the nature
of language, both books also re-position the role of linguistics as a key player in
the study of cognition and its relation with emotion and social interaction.


Allan, K. and Burridge, K. (1991) Euphemism and Dysphemism: Language Used as Shield and
Weapon. New York: Oxford University Press.
Gibbs, R.W. (1994) Poetics of Mind: Figurative Thought, Language and Understanding. New
York: Cambridge University Press.
Jay, T. (2000) Why We Curse: A Neuro-psycho-social Theory of Speech. Philadelphia:
Lutz, W. (1989) Doublespeak. New York: Harper and Row.
Schmid, C. (2001) The Politics of Language. New York: Oxford University Press.

Sky Marsen
Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences,
Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

CAROLINE COFFIN, Historical Discourse: The Language of Time, Cause and

Evaluation. London: Continuum, 2006. 224 pp.

Historical Discourse was primarily written as a reference for curriculum devel-

opment. With the current controversies over state interference with the history
syllabus (see, for example, Clendinnen, 2006) however, it is also a timely and
illuminating set of analytical tools for the critical examination of the various
competing accounts of history. The book is a consolidation of Caroline Coffin’s
ethnographic research within the classroom context since the 1990s, and it has a
strong empirical basis, established from an extensive corpus of over 1000 history
texts in various forms written by teachers, literacy consultants and students.
As such, her detailed qualitative explanation is supported by quantitative results
that she helpfully provides in the Appendix.
Reflecting on her findings, she begins by arguing that learning to write about
history is not a straightforward process, but one that requires students to acquire
the linguistic resources to articulate chronology, causality and assessment,
which constitute the main themes explored in the book. She finds that the simple
dichotomies between narrative and argumentative writing held by traditional
educators are, in fact, rich systems of meaning potential that are adapted for
various cultural and social purposes. She describes them instead in terms of
‘genres’ based on Martin’s (1992) framework characterized by its teleological
assumptions and a clear delineation of stages in the texts. The first half of the
book provides an account of recording, explaining and arguing genres with clear

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