Thursday, April 23, 2009
Stephen Pinker talks about swear words and "taboo" words in his latest book, The Stuff of Thought. I don't have it in front of me now, so all of these next lines are based on my memory of the book. He sets up a hierarchy of taboo words, from shit to piss to snot to spit, with the former being more taboo than the latter. He observes that these words are roughly in the order of danger to other human beings, as vectors of disease, and in the order that other people tolerate them in public (i.e., people might be unhappy if you spit in public, but shitting in public is more frowned upon).
Language gives insight into human nature. The fact that "shit" is more taboo than "sweat" or "fart" is a reflection of how much more harmful feces can be, as a disease vector.