Thursday, November 11, 2021

Taboos as Time Goes By

I've been musing over the past couple of days about social taboos, particularly constraints on language. The latter especially affect writers; there used to be words that were labeled "unprintable" and seen on the page only in pornography. Norman Mailer's novel THE NAKED AND THE DEAD subsitutes a similar-sounding nonsense term for a common four-letter word frequently uttered by soldiers. An oft-repeated anecdote claims Dorothy Parker once said to him, "Oh, you're the young man who doesn't know how to spell f--k."

In everyday polite interaction, there are still some taboo conversational topics. We can hold forth at length about the excellent dinner we ate at a restaurant over the weekend. Among relatives or close friends, it's okay to "geeze" about one's bathroom-related physical problems. But we can't remark that we had great sex over the weekend, except to the person we had it with (or possibly in intimate, alcohol-fueled same-gender gatherings). That's never an acceptable topic for general conversation.

Taboos change over the decades, generations, and centuries, of course. Eighteenth-century novelist Laurence Sterne includes what appears to be a perfectly sober, respectable mention of the four-letter word for excrement in his TRISTRAM SHANDY. Radical shifts have occurred within my own lifetime. The "unprintable" F-word for sexual activity and S-word for excrement are now printed and spoken freely with (in my opinion) regrettable frequency. On the other hand, we're well rid of a term that was commonplace, although not considered polite, in my youth and is now so taboo that published works never show it written out, except sometimes in fictional dialogue—the N-word for Black people.

Consider the film of GONE WITH THE WIND. It gives the impression that the director made numerous concessions to be allowed that single "damn" in Rhett Butler's final line of dialogue. In the book, Prissy objects to being sent to look for Rhett at a "ho'house." In the movie, she has to say something like "Miz Belle's place." Earlier, we don't hear Scarlett's whispered question about the woman Rhett compromised; in the novel, it's shown as, "Did she have a baby?" When Rhett and Scarlett have a furious quarrel during her last pregnancy, Clark Gable says, "Maybe you'll have an accident," instead of using the word "miscarriage" as in the book. Most absurdly, when Rhett angrily tells Scarlett in the novel, "Keep your chaste bed," the movie rephrases the line as, "Keep your sanctity." Mentioning chastity is borderline obscene? LOL.

Non-verbal taboos, naturally, change too. In the 19th century, exposed feminine ankles were considered risque. Yet in some tribal societies, women routinely go bare-breasted in public. Film-makers used to be forbidden to show a man and woman in a bed together, leading to the notorious twin-bed arrangements of married couples on old sitcoms. Although I lived through part of that era, it still jars me when I watch old movies and TV shows and witness almost everybody casually smoking EVERYWHERE. And, to cite a custom not grounded in either health considerations or sexual mores, in my childhood a woman wouldn't be dressed correctly if she showed up at church without a hat or shopped at a department store in slacks instead of a dress or skirt.

Robert Heinlein casually drops references to changing social taboos into his novels. The protagonist of twin-paradox interstellar adventure TIME FOR THE STARS returns to Earth after almost a century of near-light-speed travel (still a young man) to be shocked that decent girls and women are no longer required to wear hats in the presence of unmarried males. After thirty years in cryonic sleep, the narrator of THE DOOR INTO SUMMER wakes from suspended animation to find that in the year 2000 a formerly innocent word, "kink," has become an unspeakable obscenity. In some subcultures in the far-future universe of TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE, nudity is perfectly acceptable at mixed-gender social gatherings.

For a fascinating exploration of why certain apparently irrational taboos and other "bizarre" customs have rational origins and serve pragmatic social purposes, check out COWS, PIGS, WARS, AND WITCHES (1974), by anthropologist Marvin Harris. Also recommended: His follow-up book THE SACRED COW AND THE ABOMINABLE PIG (1985), more tightly focused on food-related taboos and customs.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt


  1. Loved reading this. So fascinating how language and social norms change through the years.

  2. Thanks. After rereading Harris's 1974 book, I have to note that the last chapter and the epilogue are a bit dated. He goes on at length about 1970s counterculture, which IMO is only tenuously related to the overall theme of the book. I'm now rereading the later book, which has a lot of fascinating information (although naturally the chapters on cows and pigs repeat some of the content of the first book).