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date: 21 February 2020

Abstract and Keywords

From the earliest periods in history, and in all human societies, ‘those terrific things that go bump in the night’ have inspired taboos and inhibitions, whose linguistic impact has been considerable. When expressions become taboo, people behave as if somehow the form of such expressions communicates the essential nature of what they denote. The words are felt to be intrinsically nasty, and this is what makes them so disturbing. Taboo senses have a saliency that will dominate and eventually undermine the protective magic of any expression recruited as euphemism. Hence, taboo areas of the lexicon perpetually generate narrowing and deterioration of meaning; euphemism becomes dysphemism. Even across languages, taboo words can contaminate others, bringing down innocent expressions that happen to sound similar. Psychological, physiological, and neurological studies confirm the emotional quality of taboo expressions; forbidden words are more arousing, more shocking, more memorable, and more evocative than all other language stimuli.

Keywords: taboo, euphemism, dysphemism, semantic narrowing, semantic deterioration

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