Submitted by Dyske on February 8, 2007

Ass

Why is the word “ass” considered a curse word inappropriate for children? “Fuck” for instance is understandable because it refers to an act inappropriate for children to engage in. (I personally don’t care, but I understand why other parents would care.) For similar reasons, I understand why any words that refer to our sexual organs would be considered inappropriate for children. “Bitch” is also understandable because it degrades women by associating them to dogs.

When I look up the etymology of the word “ass”, all I see are references to buttocks and rear end. So, who decides or decided that “ass” should not be used by children?

It appears to me that some people at some point in history started using “ass” to mean a sexual object, and the usage gained in popularity. Suppose some famous comedian or writer starts using the word “buttocks” to mean the same, and it gains in popularity. Are we then to classify it as a curse word and prevent children from using it? Does it make sense to give into that kind of arbitrary forces?

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LICK BRADEN THOMSONS ASS

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The word “Assnarri” was used in the Second Century to ridicule African Gnostics who believed Christ was a form of Set or Seth. Set's Godhead was an ass or a jackal. This belief seems connectected with three African writers, St. Augustine, Tertullian and Apulieus. Tertullian and St. Augustine became Christians as adults. All were native to the same part of Madaurus in Carthage, Apuleius, a pagan is author of the wickedly clever "The Golden Ass". In addition to the grammarians Nonius and Maximus, St. Augustine, fifth century CE, studied there. Through a letter which he addressed later to the inhabitants whom he called “fathers”,we learn that many were still pagans.Thanks to the encouragement of Tertullian, Madaurus, had many martyrs who are known by their epitaphs; several are named in the Roman martyrology on 4 July. Three bishops are known: Antigonus, who attended the council of Carthage, 349; Placentius, the council of 407 and the Conference of 411;and Pudentius, sent into exile by Huneric with the other bishops who had been present at the Conference of 484.

In Pinning the Tale on the Donkey, Columbia University' s Richard W. Bulliet provides this information on the ass sex connection.

In two separate works written in the early third century, Tertullian relates this peculiar anecdote, which took place in Carthage. An apostate Jew and arena employee--one of those who allowed themselves to be mauled by wild animals--publicly paraded a picture of a man dressed in a toga and carrying a book, but with the head and distinctive ears of an ass. The hoof of an ass protruded from the toga. Beneath the picture was the following label: DEUS CHRISTIANORUM ONOCOETES (God of the Christians Onocoetes).
Astonishingly, Tertullian writes, "we laughed at both the label and the image" (risimus et nomen et formam). Not only did he find it funny to see the God he believed in so zealously depicted with a donkey's head; he also found the scandalous joke so memorable that he wrote about it twice.
The Belgian scholar Jean-G. Priaux, starts from the premise that the meaning of the unusual word must have been immediately apparent to Tertullian and other bystanders and within the plausible vocabulary of an arena lout. Comparing the word with vulgar sexual terms used by other authors of the period, he comes to the conclusion that the onlookers probably understood the label to be a play on the word embasicoetas, a synonym, more or less, for the words cinaedus and asellus. All three words refer to male prostitutes or libertines who offer their services to men and women. The special denotation of the unique term onocoetes, then, would have been a male prostitute equipped like a donkey, that is, with a thick penis over two feet long.
I hope this helps. ;)

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Hello Togidubnus

I agree. Arse is bum whereas Ass is donkey. (In England anyway). No confusion.

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What's all this with ass anyway? It's arse. Ass has become a whimsically sanitised version of a good old English word. It always tickles me to hear Americans using ass when it is the anus that is being specifically referred to. On porn sites (I have it on good authority) you will see anuses being violated in as many ways as it is possible to image and more, and they are still referred to as asses. How coy, how quaint.

We regularly use arse here. You'll hear it in regular conversation here even on day time radio. "Pain in the arse" is a phrase I would regularly use in front of my mother; "get off your fat arse" is always amusing in anyone's company. It's a robust, wholesome word, and it's funny.

Did you know there are no swear words in Welsh?

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I'm not sure exactly how this came about, but most curse words seem to be either sexual (fuck, dick, cunt), scatological (shit, and I would include ass as a scatological curse, not a sexual one), or blasphemous (goddamn, Jesus H Christ, and even zounds - which is a shortened form of "god's wounds").

it's a norman thing, anglo-saxons used the simpler

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I'm surprised no one has questioned the assumption, by the original poster and others, that English would somehow be better off without "taboo" words. I couldn't disagree more! I do agree that it's odd that some words are taboo and others are not, even when they refer to the same thing. But what a blessing to have so many ways to express oneself! I don't care what anybody else thinks; I think swear words are fucking awesome.

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Another interesting read! I've noticed that context can also be taboo - perhaps due to the connection with taboo words. I don't swear, and so instead use (or have used) words like "shoot," "dang," "fudge-nugget," or "flip" in place of swear or curse words when adding emphasis or when expressing surprise, fear, or pain. Many times my "clean-mouthed" friends or family have scolded me for using substitute words because "the way you say it means the same thing." I have come to find these arguments amusing, because I then ask if it's ok if I use "hamburger" in place of the substitute word in question - since it is not at all phonetically similar. I'm usually told to just not say anything, which is again amusing.
I suppose this emphasizes the idea that vulgar words are such because of a "vulgar class" that primarily uses them. There is an expectation to use cleaner, more refined and polite words or expressions to communicate. This of course strengthens "crude" words, which naturally leads comedians, authors, and actors (many who earn a living from a sort of "shock value") to use them.
Also, these swear words are most often used out of context of their original meaning. Considering that, along with the idea that the original meanings are not usually discussed in everyday conversation (I can't remember the last time I had a good, long discussion about fecal matter), it's understandable that people wouldn't want such crude, vulgar, and more "animalistic" topics or words in their conversation. It may be a snobbish attitude, but I can see a desire for more "elevated" communication as a motivation for discouraging the use of certain words or topics in public discussion.

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Sorry, there was a mistake: "... following 2 phenomena"

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I think ghoti's (I assume this is pronounced "fish's") comment of there being a definite subset of "Words You Can Never Say on Television"--to steal from George Carlin--in the Japanese language. They do get bleeped out, and the mouths of those saying them will get blurred out or masked by some silly graphic. What's interesting about the two genitalia words that have been pointed out is that like other languages, there are a myriad of euphemisms for the male member than the female in Japanese, and so off the airwaves one will find that "manko" is much more taboo a word than "chinko". In fact, the latter has sneaked into parts of complete acceptable vocabulary: "nodo-chinko" (literally "throat dick") is the commonly used word for uvula.

As for "shit", it seems to me that the word "kuso" has far more cultural depth, probably stemming from the fact that Japan was mostly farmers at one point (the Chinese character is a combination of the characters for "rice" and "different"). Aside from its use as an expletive, it has the same impact as "manure" most of the time. I can remember asking someone for the Japanese for "eat shit", and was taught it, only to be told immediately that the Japanese transliteration won't have the same impact as its English counterpart.

What I have found, among other things, are the following 2 phenomenon:
1. While repetition is not necessarily aesthetically pleasing, Japanese at the same time do not have quite the same distaste for repetition like the West does. They repeat commercials, background music, and especially words. What's the point? There is less need to create synonyms, and thus the seemingly endless supply of sophomoric put-downs that exists in English gets boiled down unfortunately into "baka", "aho", and a handful of others. Truth is, there are a ton of really fascinating Japanese put-downs, but many get written off as dead words, or have the conversation-stopping effect of English words like "nincompoop" or "simpleton"
2. There is many a *subject* that is taboo here (one could argue that the subject of female genitalia is more taboo than male, hence the greater acceptance of "chinko"). For instance, the religious affiliations of celebrities or mafia ties are obviously never approached on TV. So we don't hear that the father of Ryoko Tani, the gold medalist in judo, is a mobster, or that Hideki Matsui's grandmother founded a religious sect. As for Yakuza, most Japanese I know don't like using the word in mixed company or public places, and will sign the word by either drawing a line with their finger diagonally down across their cheek (classic Scarface) or they will show their hand with their pinky bent (a practice still in existence). Moreover, the old Japanese words for "leprosy", "deaf", "blind", and wartime nicknames for Koreans/Chinese etc. are blocked from the press, and have even recently been edited out of Japanese bibles, because they are so indelibly linked with discrimination.

So, there are words that one mustn't utter in Japan.

PS: There is a B-grade movie with Charles Bronson called "Kinjite" (Forbidden Subjects) that starts off with a scene where Japanese are learning that they are things that you just can't discuss openly in English. Don't rent it. It sucks.

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Intriguing discussion on classifying objectionable language.

Indeed, a lot was inherited from the strictures of Victorian propriety; apparently that is also the origin of skirts on upholstered chairs and those little paper socks on chicken legs.

The main thing that I have observed is that, regardless of the origin of a term's objectionableness -- scatological, sexual, etc -- they generally exist under the umbrella term "vulgarity". Certain words (again, usually with an Anglo-Saxon rather than Norman-French pedigree) are considered vulgar -- spoken by vulgar people. Being a common man may not be an insult on the left side of the Big Pond -- Copeland wrote a fanfare to him, after all -- but being "dead common" is, I observe, a rather nasty insult in the UK.

So to refer to what the neighbour's dog did in your yard, in deacreasing order of vulgarity, it would seem to be "shit", "crap", "turd", "kaka", "poo", "feces", "calling card". The least vulgar seems to me to be the most euphemistic and most obfuscatory.

I remember hearing a story about such a progression of acceptable speech, supposedly said by some society grand dame, with regards to the vulgarity of the word "Sweat":

- Men sweat.
- Women do not sweat, they perspire.
- Ladies do not perspire, they glow.
- *I* do not glow.

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I interpret the original question posted by Dyske as asking why "ass" would be a taboo word while "buttocks" or "rear end" which refer to the same object are acceptable (to say on TV, for example). My answer is that I don't think that those terms in fact do refer to the same object. At least, at one point they didn't. Here is my take:

Rear end: very general, referring to the hind-region of someone or something. Perhaps we use such a general term to refer to those two fleshy lumps in the upper reaches of our legs because of our taboo associations with that body part, and so we don't want to be so direct. Why do we have these taboo associations?...

Ass: Because right between those two lumps is a little hole from which is almost daily extruded a most foul smelling (and even somewhat toxic) material. Also, the Bible, a massive influence in our society and our language, tells us that any sexual activity involving this little hole is a crime punishable by death. That's probably because the people who wrote the Bible thought shit was gross too and didn't want to get it on their own or anyone else's penis. Now, it so happens that etymologically speaking, the word "ass" specifically referred to the anus--the little hole. Not those proud lumps that flank it.

Buttocks: if "rear end" is our way of hinting at the mountain range just south of the Spinal Valley, "buttocks" is our way of refering to it more directly and specifically. That is, specifically the mountain range, chasm (I'm on a role with the geologic vocabulary). The mountain range is benign, we even like to show it off now and again. The chasm, on the other hand, is dangerous. It erupts with putrid lava and God forbid we fall into it.

Thus, like words like "fuck" or curse words that refer to sexual organs, I believe that "ass," too, refers to a sexualized and demonized part of the body. The lumps are fine. We don't care about the lumps. It's the anus. That's what gets us.

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Just read through the discussion--very fascinating. I'm currently in the process of writing a paper for a 600-level class, History of the English Language. It seems as though taboo words have generally been shaped by the foci of society. For instance, our society is now extremely race-conscious--ergo, words such as "nigger" are taboo. However, go back a couple of decades and sex was the focus of the '60s--ergo, "fuck" is about as bad as you can get. Go even farther back and religious words were taboo. Any thoughts? Ideas?

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Careful, GeoVII, you're going all Whorfian on us!

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I think the reason certain words are prohibited in English is a combination of the historical echoes of Victorian propriety and Dyske's example of words taking on different meanings in differing social contexts.

The difference between "ass" and "butt" is about the same as the difference between "ore" and "watashi". To use the word "ass" implies a certain context. While not as varied as the spectrum of contexts available in Japanese, English does have its examples.

Our society is constructed on words. Words represent boundaries and lines, they encapsulate ideas and feelings. People are trained to think in words from the day they are born, and from that point on we no longer see things as they are. We see words of things, and the effect these words have on us directly correlates to the amount of power society holds over the individual and the extent to which we are forced to see things in a certain way, rather than viewing them for what they are. In the end, an ass is a butt, to fuck is to fornicate, ore is watashi. A thing can only be what it is when there is no word for it, and until people can learn to see without words, to see as children and babies see the world, then we will always have taboo words, because we will always be boxed in by the lines that words create.

Learn to see what is there and words will disappear of their own accord.

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John, you made a point that convinces me we can't agree on a definition. Not easily, anyway. There are so many words that are unacceptable in some contexts, and varying degrees of offensiveness or just weirdness. It's perfectly acceptable for my daughter to speak of needing to poo. If I said it in a board meeting, it would be another story.

So, while things such as broadcast prohibitons can be very clear, the words themselves are rather amorphous. After all, "piss" was once a perfectly acceptable expression in polite company (well over 100 years ago, at least).

So far as kids, I think the least we can do is to make sure they understand the impact of the words they use, rather than just forbidding them. Mine are rather young, and we tend to pointedly ignore the bad words when they come out, as they are not quite ready for the full explanations and would be delighted by any bad reaction.

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The fact that some English words that are banned by government bodies is a political issue rather than a purely linguistic issue. Dyske's examples show that Japanese has words that are unacceptable in some contexts, just like some English words are unacceptable in some contexts. This is really all that taboo words are: words that are unacceptable in some contexts. A good book on the subject is "Euphemism and Dysphemism: Language Used As Shield and Weapon" by Keith Allan and Kate Burridge.

But even English words that are banned by certain government bodies are common and even expected in certain contexts.

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I always thought calling someone an ass came from a reference to the animal (a male donkey), not someone's rear end. I thought the phrase, "You're being an ass!" was basically saying, "You're being a jackass."

On ther other hand, the example, "My ass itches," refers directly to a part of the body.

That's the way I understand it. I always considered the first example acceptable for any conversation, while the second was something I would never use in mixed company.

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I apologize for the spotty post. My laptop was headed into deep sleep and I rushed it rather than lose it

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I wanted to avoid this, but baka and debu, while derogatory, are not what I would call swear words. They are frequently used in many contexts. Dicitionaries may say differently. There are other words, such as chinko and manko (for male and female genetalia, respectively) which would never be used in polite company. If you ask a Japanese person to teach you the worst words, they will normally defer or simply teach you a word such as baka or busu (ugly woman). After you enough drinks, you might get the juicier vocabulary out of them, unless you associating with chimpira or borderline yakuza types (who can be entertaining companions).

As dyske says, neutral words can be used in the wrong context to offend, such as calling your boss "kimi." It would be more weird than anything. It's a cute word used between friends. If I wanted to offend my boss, I would call him "omae" or worse.Ore" is fine, if rough, among men, particularly common among older men rather than younger. Still, things change all the time, and a few years away is enough to lose touch with the current language.

I don't know what you mean, dyske, about words that are banned in all contexts. There are no such words in any country I know of, even China. If we restrict the definition to words that are banned on TV, then that's clear enough. I think there are several countries that don't police the language on TV.

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Hi AO,

I think we need to distinguish "curse" or "swear" words from words that are inherently offensive (derogatory words). As I said in my original post, there is a good reason why "bitch" is offensive; it's because the speaker is equating a woman with a dog. This is different from so called "curse" or "swear" words. "Ass", "fuck", and "shit", for instance, have no good reason other than the fact that they are categorized as "curse words". It is absolute, and they are banned regardless of the context. (As a matter of fact, Google might flag this very page as offensive, and the Google Ads might stop working.)

I agree that there are inherently offensive words (derogatory words) in any language including Japanese, but that is not what I'm talking about. I'm specifically talking about curse words; words that are banned absolutely, regardless of context, where the reason for the ban is circular. They are banned because they are classified as bad, and they are classified as bad because they are banned. I cannot think of any equivalents in Japanese.

By the way, the only "fugu" I know is blowfish.

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“It’s raining now.”
In English, there is no way to tell what kind of person is saying this. In Japanese, there are many ways to say this:

1. Ima, ame ga futteiru.
(sounds official, dry, and descriptive)

2. Ima, ame futtendayo.
(male-sounding. Between friends. Same age or younger.)

3. Ima, ame ga futteimasu.
(polite sounding. Perhaps talking to older person.)

4. Ima, ame futterune.
(female-sounding. Between friends. Same age or younger.)

5. Ima, ame futteimasuwa.
(sounds old.)

6. Ima, ame futterube.
(sounds rural.)

If a kid (a boy) were to say #2 to an adult (especially a stranger), his parents would most likely scold the kid. It would come across as rude or inappropriate.

“Shit” in Japanese is “kuso”, which is actually interesting since both are used in similar situations, like when you make mistakes or when something bad happens. I’m not sure why in both cultures, when something bad happens, we think of a piece of fecal matter.

In any case, parents do not forbid children from using “kuso”, the word itself. The focus is not on the word itself, but on the context in which it is used. Most things are relative in Japanese culture, not absolute.

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Oh, and Porsche, I can give you some example of Japanese contextual offensiveness if you like. I can think of at least six different ways that Japanese forms the first person singular pronoun: ore, boku, watashi, atashi, watakushi, and wagahai. I am sure there are many more, but the differences between these are as follows: ore is the rudest and used only by young men and teenage boys. Boku is friendly and casual but also vulgar enough to reserved for males. Watashi is probably the most versatile, and used casually by females but for guys it's already getting a little formal. Atashi is for females what watashi is for males--getting formal--but guys don't use it at all. Watakushi is superformal for everyone. Wagahai is just archaic and not really used at all. Now, if you were a young fellow addressing a much older superior (like your boss, or even worse, your teacher) and you refered to yourself as ore, or even worse if you used the casual second person pronoun "kimi," that would be extremely rude, tatamount, perhaps, to swearing.

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I would like to point out the Japanese words "baka" (stupid, crazy) and "debu" (fat), which have been described to me by native speakers of Japanese as swear words. I would also like to point out that Kodansha's Pocket Kanji Guide (Kodansha International Ltd., 1994), on page 10, as one of the combinations for the character "fu/bu" meaning "not" (character #4) lists the following entry: "fugu: (derog.) deformed, malformed, crippled." I only speak a little Japanese and personally, I haven't even heard this term used in conversation. However, if a kanji guide lists this word as derogatory, I believe that makes it official. So there's your offical Japanese taboo word, "fugu" (cripples, not blowfish).

On the subject of ass, let's bear in mind that the word has alternate meanings in Modern English: butt and donkey. When a politician calls another an ass, I think he means donkey (referring to stubbornness). Lick my ass, on the other hand, does not mean lick my donkey. Come to think of it, that sounds kind of funny too.

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Dyske, et al, you have really made me curious. Can you give some concrete examples of how this context-based vugarity works in Japanese? I'm sure you could find something that would not be lost in translation.

Oh, and just to put in my two cents, I would say that ass, as a swear word is a VERY weak one, barely a swear word at all. An intellectual, a professor in front of a class, or even a congressman in open session might exclaim "What an ass", to poke at an adversary.

It would be somewhat ruder to say "kiss my ass", and ruder still in any context to follow the word by -hole.

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In Japanese, it is not the use of specific words that determines what is offensive. It’s all about the context. The words that are considered benign, friendly, or positive when speaking to someone younger, might actually be interpreted as offensive when speaking to someone older. The words themselves do not determine the degree of offensiveness.

In English, it’s the opposite. In many situations, as long as you do not use any of the officially offensive words, you can get away with saying anything. In this way, by officially banning words, we become less sensitive to the context.

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I' ve spent a good chunk of my life in Japan, and generally agree with what dyske is saying, though it's not all that easy to explain. As a parent here, though, I can say that kids are in fact scolded for speaking in a vulgar manner. Responsible adults avoid using this language, in front of the kids or otherwise. Less responsible adults, including professional comedians, will use it whenever, without apology. In general, though, kids in Japan are much less sheltered from what many in the West view as "adult" topics.

Basically, there are vulgar words, but Japanese are a bit more relaxed about their usage.

In English, the prohibition of words such as "ass", is very arbitrary, I agree. It all depends on the reaction they bring, and banning words certainly increases the force of that reaction.

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Hi John,

As I said, there are taboo words in Japanese, but they are not defined so officially as in English. What exists is a degree of offensiveness.

Perhaps this way of putting it might help explain this:

Do all cultures have the practice of "bleeping" out curse words on TV? As far as I know, I've never heard bleeping in the Japanese media. In order for this practice of bleeping to exist, the bleeped words must be commonly used yet officially suppressed. If people do not know what those words are, and if they are rarely used, the need for bleeping would rarely come up. In English, adults are constantly self-bleeping certain words in front of kids. Some adults find this to be very difficult; they often slip, and have to apologize to the parents. Such situation would never come up in Japanese.

One of the most strongly suppressed curse words in English is "fuck", and because of it, it is one of the most powerful words. I cannot think of a word as powerful as "fuck" in Japanese. There is no equivalent because there is no practice of suppressing words so strictly.

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I find it very difficult to believe that Japanese has no taboo words. I mean no disrespect, but I'd believe the linguists, the experts, who say that all languages have taboo words, rather than the word of one person.

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I agree with Dyske. I'd say the same argument with "signing"; the use of hand and/or fingers, facial expressions, etc. It is this "evolved view" they can become offensive or not. It is NOT the "genetical view". The word 'ass' or raising the middle finger are not "genetically" (preprogrammed) to mean offensive.

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Technically speaking, it is true that all languages contain taboo words, but for all intents and purposes, the Japanese language does not. I left Japan when I was 16, so I double-checked with my father. When I asked him if there were any curse words in Japanese, he said yes, but he could not name one. (He said that I would probably find them if I searched on the Internet.). I can’t recall any either. I remember reading some article about words that you are not supposed to use on TV in Japan, but I didn’t know any of them.

This becomes a matter of semantics about what “curse words” or “taboo words” are, but if the vast majority of the people do not even know what those words are, the nature and the function of those words are not the same as what we call “curse words” in English.

“Taboo words” and “curse words” gain their power by the fact that their usage is suppressed. This suppression creates tension, and when the tension is released, it becomes powerful. There are no specific words that are suppressed officially in Japan. Schoolteachers may criticize students for saying certain things in certain ways in certain circumstances, but these are all contextual. They do not latch onto specific words. In other words, they see that the meaning of a word is in its use, not in dictionaries. That is, any word can be a curse word depending on the use and the context.

Because I see the contrast between Japanese and English, I’m opposed to the official banning of curse words or taboo words. Like blowing oxygen into flames, by opposing those words, we give more power to them. In other words, the act of banning is in essence the same as endorsing them. Both empower curse words.

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Something to bear in mind is that all languages contain taboo words. There is a lot of anthropological linguistic literature on this subject. I myself have not read much on the issue, but the existence of taboo speech seems to be a basic feature of language, serving some kind of sociolinguistic purpose (whatever that purpose may be). The process that renders a word a "curse word" is probably the same process that gives us any kind of speech register. The history of English is well enough documented that I could actually point you to the moment in history when many of the vulgar words we use today became vulgar and that moment is 1066 when the Romantic-speaking Normans invaded the Germanic-speaking England. After that invasion, Romantic-speaking Normans occupied the uppercrust of English society whereas the Germanic-speaking Saxons were the peasant scum. In fact, it was not until the fourteenth century that English (a Germanic language) became the official language of England! This social rift existed a thousand years ago but it still echoes today. Think of what kinds of words in Modern English are "fancy" and what kinds of words are "plain" or "common." I'd say 9 times out of 10, the fancy word has a Romantic etymology whereas the plain word for the same or similar thing has a Germanic etymology. Here are some examples: literature (Latin "literas"), book (Old English "boc"); domicile (Latin "domus"), house (OE "hus"); arbor (Latin "arbor"), tree (OE "treow"). This applies to taboo speech as well: defecate/shit, urinate/piss, fornicate/fuck (sidenote, the etymology of fuck is utterly fascinating. It supposedly comes from the PIE root "bhu-" which carries the meaning of "be," as in the Latin verb "fuere." The implication is that there is a semantic relationship between "being" and "procreation." For more info on how it became a swear word, go to wikipedia and type in fuck, all the theories are layed out nicely). Now, it so happens that ass is of Germanic origin (OE aers, Proto-Germanic arsoz--remember, the original British spelling is "arse," not "ass"). How ass became a curse word could very well have resulted from this very social rift that existed in England 1000 years ago.

That, and the fact that it's OE meaning wasn't just "tushy" but "anus" which is kinda gross.

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I agree with you Dave, but my question is this: If the meaning of "ass" is indeed arbitrary, then does it make sense to officially prohibit children from using it? It is "official" in a sense that I would get in trouble if I allowed my daughter to use "ass" and "shit" in school. In certain schools, she would probably be expelled. But for what reason? Just arbitrary reason?

If what JP is saying is true, it would mean that the categorization of "ass" as a dirty word is itself a dirty thing. That is, it's a form of prejudice or bigotry. By prohibiting the use of these words, you would be encouraging and endorsing this prejudice. Many words like "Black" or "Oriental" officially became offensive words for etymological reasons. Why couldn't the opposite happen? We look at the etymology of words classified as curse or dirty words, and if the basis for the classification is unjust, we unclassify them, and make people feel guilty for NOT using them. Just as we make people feel guilty for using the words like "Black" or "Oriental".

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Words only ever get their meaning from how they are used, so they are only ever arbitrary, in that they stick because certain people assign a certain meaning to them. All language is ultimately arbitrary.

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This is how it was described to me by one of my etymological professors.

This is a very rough explanation. We had a very interesting lesson on it. I just woke up. So, this is short.

When Europe was speaking older Indo-European languages, they had their own sets of words for things. When English became an established language, some of the Indo-European words stuck, some of them that were very descriptive and to the point. But it became prohibited to use these words. Kids, not understanding the difference between an allowed descriptive and a disallowed discriptive, would go to his mom and say, "I need to take a shit," or, "My ass itches." They would get in trouble for using the Indo- words. Voila, a dirty word.

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The difference you noticed between "buttocks" and "ass" is replicated in other pairs of synonyms: "fuck" is a curse, while "fornicate" is not; "shit" is a curse, while "feces" are not.

I'm not sure exactly how this came about, but most curse words seem to be either sexual (fuck, dick, cunt), scatological (shit, and I would include ass as a scatological curse, not a sexual one), or blasphemous (goddamn, Jesus H Christ, and even zounds - which is a shortened form of "god's wounds").

Slang seems more likely to become taboo, while more technical terminology seems - probably by virtue of sounding too technical, or perhaps simply from the relative lack of use - to remain safe to use in politer company.

So I don't think the sense that certain words are taboo is (entirely) arbitrary, but rather seems to derive somewhat organically from slang references to certain classes of words.

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