Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 9 : 11 November 2009
ISSN 1930-2940

Managing Editor: M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
Editors: B. Mallikarjun, Ph.D.
         Sam Mohanlal, Ph.D.
         B. A. Sharada, Ph.D.
         A. R. Fatihi, Ph.D.
         Lakhan Gusain, Ph.D.
         K. Karunakaran, Ph.D.
         Jennifer Marie Bayer, Ph.D.



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Getting Around 'Offensive' Language

Haja Mohideen Bin Mohamed Ali, Ph.D.


In the English language there are many expressions which may be considered 'offensive' by both native and non-native speakers because they refer to sexual activity, private parts of the body and human waste, in a very crude and unpleasant manner. They are insulting to fellow human beings, besides being distasteful in other ways. Users may therefore find it repugnant to use such expressions in their discourse. The contemporary English language dictionaries which have included them often describe them as offensive, deeply offensive and sometimes even carry a warning not to use them. In order not to give the impression that a speaker is rude, insensitive, vulgar or uncultured, which other alternative words can speakers use? It is especially important for people who live in a society or community which values politeness in language use to be aware of 'bad' language and know how to use words which may be considered free from language unpleasantness. This awareness is not only necessary for non-native speakers of English, but also for those to whom English is their dominant language of communication.


Cameron (1995) popularized the term 'verbal hygiene'. She uses the term to refer to the language practice of improving or cleaning up language. Cameron (1995:1) cites the effort of a former mayor of New York city who 'compiled a list vulgar New Yorkisms he wanted city teachers to eliminate from children's speech …'

The present researcher introduces the term 'language hygiene' specifically to the practice of substituting taboo usage which includes expletives, references to sex, private parts of the human anatomy and human waste in obnoxious ways. These terms are probably objectionable to people who are at the receiving end. Those who utter the obscenities cannot expect zero response or tolerance. As Cameron (1995: 186-7) observes '… most speakers of English, regardless of gender, would never remotely approach' a degree of rudeness as this ' would probably backfire on them if they did'. English today is used as a second/foreign language (ESL/EFL) by a very large number of people whose first language may be Arabic, Malay, Urdu, Mandarin, Spanish, Russian, etc. Not many ESL/EFL speakers share the equivalent lexical expressions in their native language. There are vulgar, non-vulgar and neutral expressions in all languages. Many ESL/EFL users profess religious and cultural beliefs which do not condone using vulgarities and obscenities in their first language, and by extension the other languages they may have to use. Language users, whichever language it may be, must respect the norms of the community they come from and live in. Norms and values may of course differ between communities and caution is therefore necessary. I have introduced the term 'language hygiene' to refer to expressions that are devoid of elements of vulgarity, obscenity and profanity in all types of communication, be they spoken, written or electronic.

Language hygiene is aesthetically motivated language. It is based on the belief that certain universal values such as being polite, not hurting someone by the speakers' utterances, refraining from vulgarity and 'bad' language ought to prevail. It is also based on the belief of religious teachings and sheer commonsense that language users should not hurt others by their words as it is with deeds. In Islam, for example, a good Muslim is one who does not hurt another by his or her words or deeds. In Christianity, we have the common saying: 'Do unto others, what you would like them do unto you'. This may be interpreted to include the advice that we should speak to others in such a way as we would like them to speak to us.

Statement of Problem

Offensive vulgar words are heard on television programs and movies and can even be read in some creative writing materials. Bad language is heard on lyrics in rap songs. The Internet and You Tube videos are also inadvertently contributing to this. It was recently reported that a rapper apologized for his bad language after he realized that he had a large fan base of young kids who looked up to him (New Straits Times, December 19, 2008). Such language has become fairly commonplace in public places and in the conversation of young people, some of whom may not even be aware of the semantics or the acute unpleasantness of the expressions involved. A study of such impolite words is beneficial to highlight which ones are very rude and what alternative expressions may be used which could be regarded as causing less hurt or offence. This study hopes to make a small contribution to the domain of polite discourse.

This is only the beginning part of the article. PLEASE CLICK HERE TO READ THE ARTICLE IN PRINTER-FRIENDLY VERSION.

Attitude towards Mother Tongue - A Study of the Tribal Students of Orissa | Computer-mediated Communication in a Bilingual Chatroom | Compensation Strategies for Speaking English Adopted by Engineering Students of Tamil Nadu - A Study | Acquisition of English Intransitive Verbs by Urdu Speakers | Community, Culture and Curriculum in the Context of Tribal Education in Orissa, India | Auxiliary Verbs in Modern Tamil | Getting Around 'Offensive' Language | Noun Morphology in Kuki-Chin Languages | A Plea for the Use of Language Portals in Imparting Communication Skills | Advances in Machine Translation Systems | A Comparative Study of the Effect of Explicit-inductive and Explicit-deductive Grammar Instruction in EFL Contexts | Lexical Choice and Social Context in Shashi Deshpande's That Long Silence | The Voice of Servility and Dominance Expressed through Animal Imagery in Adiga's The White Tiger | Phonological Analysis of English Phonotactics of Syllable Initial and Final Consonant Clusters by Yemeni Speakers of English | Effective Use of Language in Communicating News through Political Emergency | Helping the Limited English Proficient Learner Learn the Second Language Effectively through Strategy Instruction | P.S. Sri's The Temple Elephant: A Bestiary with Socio-Political and Spiritual Message | Papers Presented in the All-India Conference on Multimedia Enhanced Language Teaching - MELT 2009 | A Phonological Study of the Variety of English Spoken by Oriya Speakers in Western Orissa - A Doctoral Dissertation | HOME PAGE of November 2009 Issue | HOME PAGE | CONTACT EDITOR

Haja Mohideen Bin Mohamed Ali, Ph.D.
Department of English Language & Literature
Faculty of Human Sciences
International Islamic University Malaysia
P.O. Box 10
50728 Kuala Lumpur

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