By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Five parrots who swore at visitors of a British wildlife park have been relocated, according to CNN. All of them are African grey parrots and had been donated to the park just days before the incident. Our history with taboo language dates back centuries.
Several parrots at an English wildlife park have been caught using colorful language, CNN reported. “The foul-mouthed birds were split up after they launched a number of different expletives at visitors and staff just days after being donated to the Lincolnshire Wildlife Park in eastern England,” the article said. “The African grey parrots—named Eric, Jade, Elsie, Tyson, and Billy—were given to the park from five different owners within the same week, and shared a quarantining facility together before being placed on display. But staff immediately noticed that the birds shared a propensity to fly off the handle.”
The park removed the birds from public view, specifically citing a concern for children. Our history with curse words has changed over the centuries, and we’ve found some interesting ways to circumvent them.
What Does “Taboo” Mean?
Curse words are often considered “taboo,” but we don’t usually consider the meaning behind that in general.
“The word ‘taboo’ comes from Tongan, an Austronesian language spoken on Tonga, which is an island in the South Pacific,” said Dr. Anne Curzan, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English at the University of Michigan. “The word was borrowed into English at the end of the 18th century, and the word itself was just religious in Tongan; it meant that something was ‘restricted to use by the king, god, priests, or chiefs,’ and it was otherwise prohibited from general use.”
Dr. Curzan said that in English, the word “taboo” quickly generalized to the point of declaring anything or anybody under prohibition. She said that it was first used in linguistics in 1933 by Leonard Bloomfield in reference to language that is offensive and prohibited by custom. She also added that in general, the things that constitute “taboo language” are hard to define but we often know them when we hear them.
“But there are some pretty consistent taboo topics that generate taboo language: religion, the body and bodily functions, sex and sexuality, disease, death, culturally marginalized or disfavored groups of people, and practices.”
In our efforts to express ourselves without using taboo language, English speakers have invented some compelling substitutes, whether it’s “dagnabbit” or “sweet peaches in the biscuit batter.”
“Attempts to avoid profanity, specifically avoiding taking God’s name in vain, have given us words like ‘gosh’ and ‘golly,’ both 18th century; avoiding the name Jesus Christ gives us ‘gee’ (1885), ‘jeez’ (1923), and maybe ‘criminy,’ which goes all the way back to 1681,” Dr. Curzan said. “Taboo topics like death generate a lot of euphemistic expressions, including things like ‘pass away,’ ‘go to a better place,’ ‘meet our maker,’ ‘depart,’ and ‘no longer with us.’ But then, there are also the irreverent ones: ‘push up the daisies,’ ‘kick the bucket,’ ‘cash out,’ ‘get a one-way ticket.'”
The taboo language itself leads to its own substitutions, like “sugar” and “shoot.” Dr. Curzan said that taboo topics generate “lexical creativity,” in some ways goading us to play with words and be creative with them.
Visitors to the Lincolnshire Wildlife Park will have to hope the parrots can clean up their language or learn substitutions; it’s probably unethical, and impractical due to biting, to wash a bird’s mouth out with soap to teach it a lesson.
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.