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date: 17 January 2019

Abstract and Keywords

The anthropological approach to taboo words and language begins with an understanding and acceptance of cultural relativity. Anthropologists are keenly aware that everyday speech that might be perfectly decorous in one society is often laughable or, in extreme cases, scandalous in another. Anthropologists also identify taboo words and language by popular responses to their utterance. According to anthropological definitions, tabooed behavior—be it verbal or otherwise—must be negatively sanctioned. Sometimes sanctions take the form of public rebuke. At other times they are expressed through collective scorn or ostracism. This essay explores these ideas with ethnographic examples chosen from the closely related fields of cultural anthropology and folklore. Supporting material comes from a variety of societies located in sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, Latin America, and—within the United States—Native America and African America. The author analyses nicknaming, verbal dueling, and various types of joking relationships, among other speech forms, as anthropologically prominent forms of tabooed language.

Keywords: anthropology, folklore, joking, nicknames, euphemisms

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