Don’t say it. Don’t even think about saying it. If you’ve got something taboo on the tip of your tongue, it’s probably best to immediately put your foot in your mouth before the record screeches to a halt, all eyes in the room are on you and it ends up there anyway. But how do we know what to avoid? Taboo words fall into three main categories: religion, race and swearing, but the words that belong in these groups are different depending on a lot of things, especially where you live. Because we assign an incredible amount of animosity to what are essentially just words, we must be very careful what, why, when, where, how and to whom we say certain things. So, if you’re lucky enough to have never been ostracized for something you said, I congratulate you. And if you don’t believe luck has anything to do with it, let’s look at three examples of words that are completely common in one place, yet entirely taboo in another.
When we learn about the monotheistic religions of the world, we discover that there are many different words for God. Whether it be Yahweh, Jehovah or Allah, the name refers to the awe-inspiring supreme creator of the universe, and since the major world religions can actually agree on that, there should be no argument, right? Not if you happened to live in Malaysia. A court there has recently ruled that non-Muslims cannot use the term Allah to refer to their God. Had this rule been around when different religions were introduced in the region there wouldn’t be a problem, but Malay Christians have been using the word for centuries. Now they’re finding themselves in danger of being offensive for using a word they’ve held dearly all their lives.
Though racism is still common in the United States, most Americans know better than to use “colored” to describe a person. Something this offensive is surely intolerable throughout the world, right? Wrong. It’s perfectly normal in South Africa, where being Coloured means being of mixed racial heritage, and is a term embraced by the community. It’s different to mixed race however, in that it is an ethnic group that has evolved to embody its own identity, over time. Calling someone Coloured in South Africa is as ordinary as ticking a box on a census card.
While relatively less volatile, swearing is still considered taboo by many, and seemingly innocent words can have dire consequences. Consider the following scenario: Mark’s American fiancé wants to introduce him to her American girlfriends at a dinner party. Sean, Mark’s Irish friend from college, happens to be visiting New York at the time and Mark asks him to join them. When making introductions, Sean is asked how they know one another. Sean refers to Mark, his new best mate, as a certain c-word that, among Sean’s best friends, is a term of endearment, but in the ears of these ladies, it’s the apocalypse.
Have you ever unknowingly uttered something taboo?