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Watch Professor James Clackson's history of taboo words

Warning: this talk contains examples of obscene, offensive and controversial English vocabulary.

On the 18th October 2019 Jesus College Fellow and Professor of Comparative Philology James Clackson came to the Intellectual Forum to give a whistle-stop tour of taboo language to a packed Festival of Ideas audience.

Everyone is familiar with some words that are generally avoided in polite conversation. Modern readers of the Harry Potter novels know who is referred to as ‘He Who Must Not Be Named’ just as readers of the Hebrew Bible understand the representation of the name of God through four letters which cannot be spoken. What can and can’t be said varies across time and place: to the Victorians ‘trousers’ were ‘unmentionables’.

The talk, which is now available to watch online, included the dissection of several taboo words in the English Language. 

James said “My research involves looking at how languages change and the history of words. Swear words have a fascinating history. They are often hidden from view since writers avoid using them in texts, but even so many have survived for centuries. If we compare English to other languages we find that there are different ways of swearing; sometimes one word, sometimes another is considered obscene or unfit for polite company. Understanding which words might be avoided by speakers also helps explain the histories of words which seem at first quite innocent.”

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