Competitive SCRABBLE® tournaments are working on banning racial and ethnic slurs, The New York Times reported. The mission to remove over 200 racial slurs from being permitted in competition began in the North American SCRABBLE Players Association (NASPA). Why do we consider some words taboo?
So-called “dirty words” often divide players of word games. While some argue that all words of a language should be acknowledged and usable in a crossword or a SCRABBLE game, others think that doing so encourages their harmful use. Additionally, just in public use, the words that we consider taboo vary from person to person.
Racial and ethnic slurs have had their day in court at Hasbro, the company which owns the rights to the SCRABBLE game in North America, and the slurs emerged defeated. In a statement released last week, Hasbro said it would remove all slurs from its list of words for SCRABBLE tournament play.
“The game that Hasbro sells in retail stores has not included slurs in its dictionary since 1994,” the article said. “But the players association, one of the most prominent governing bodies in competitive SCRABBLE, had still allowed them.”
Despite any personal views on the subject, the decision by Hasbro and NASPA raises the question: What makes some words so “bad”? Why do we restrict or ban some of them?
Federal regulations require restricted or prohibited use of certain taboo words. But which ones, and why?
“The regulations rest on the idea that these words are harmful, especially to young people, and that young people should be protected from them,” said Dr. Anne Curzan, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English at the University of Michigan. “The definition of what counts as taboo and what words are especially harmful has, therefore, become not just something for us to sort out ourselves by regulating each other’s language at home or in schools. It’s also landed in court, including the Supreme Court.”
According to Dr. Curzan, federal law prohibits the use of any “obscene speech,” which she said is defined as “speech that’s offensive in terms of depictions of sexual conduct.” It also restricts the use of “indecent and profane speech” to between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. However, subjects on live television broadcasts occasionally slip up, whether intentionally or not, and so a short delay between recording and broadcasting allows time for a word to be “bleeped.”
Cursing and Getting Leggy
Another important factor of what makes a word taboo or not is, simply, time.
“It’s a shared social convention that makes these words taboo,” Dr. Curzan said. “Some profanity has weakened over time: ‘Devil’ used to be a much stronger term, as did ‘damn.'”
Additionally, some words that used to be considered vulgar are now nowhere near it.
“For example, ‘leg’ was seen as an impolite, if not a bad, word, in the 19th century; ‘limb’ was the polite term,” Dr. Curzan said. “Speakers used ‘bosom’ for ‘breast;’ and now ‘breast’ is the polite term compared with other options, one of which isn’t allowed on TV. From the Victorian Era, we get the terms ‘white meat’ and ‘dark meat,’ euphemisms to avoid saying the words ‘breast’ and ‘leg’ or ‘thigh’ in reference to food.
“‘Occupy’ was taboo in the 17th and 18th centuries because it referred to having sexual relations.”
The Most Explosive Word in the English Language
On the other hand, Dr. Curzan said, many epithets have actually increased in how profane or offensive the public in general sees them. That doesn’t mean that they weren’t already harmful words—only that the public perception of them has changed.
“They were always offensive, but standards have changed about public acceptability in the post-civil rights era. The word euphemistically known as ‘the n-word’ has been the object of significant debate; I’d argue that it’s the most explosive word in American English. It comes up in courts around issues of ‘fighting words’ and hate speech.”
According to Dr. Curzan, that word came into English from the Latin word for “black,” and is first cited in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in 1574 as “a neutral reference to people with dark skin from sub-Saharan Africa.” However, despite any “neutral intentions” of the OED definition, its popular use became derogatory, demeaning, and explicitly racist by the 18th century.
“Some African Americans have reclaimed the word, usually in a modified form with a final ‘a,'” Dr. Curzan said. “It’s then used as a positive term within the African American community; a term that can reinforce solidarity [and reduce the power of that word to injure]. That reclamation was never meant to make the term available for use outside the African American community.”
However, it’s a reclamation that Dr. Curzan said “remains highly contested” within the community. Either way, it will have one fewer place to call home: SCRABBLE tournaments.
Dr. Anne Curzan is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English at the University of Michigan. She earned a BA in Linguistics from Yale University and an MA and a PhD in English Language and Literature from the University of Michigan.