Building the perfect curse word: A psycholinguistic investigation of the form and meaning of taboo words

Psychon Bull Rev. 2020 Feb;27(1):139-148. doi: 10.3758/s13423-019-01685-8.


Taboo words represent a potent subset of natural language. It has been hypothesized that "tabooness" reflects an emergent property of negative valence and high physiological arousal of word referents. Many taboo words (e.g., dick, shit) are indeed consistent with this claim. Nevertheless, American English is also rife with negatively valenced, highly arousing words the usage of which is not socially condemned (e.g., cancer, abortion, welfare). We evaluated prediction of tabooness of single words and novel taboo compound words from a combination of phonological, lexical, and semantic variables (e.g., semantic category, word length). For single words, physiological arousal and emotional valence strongly predicted tabooness with additional moderating contributions from form (phonology) and meaning (semantic category). In Experiment 2, raters judged plausibility for combinations of common nouns with taboo words to form novel taboo compounds (e.g., shitgibbon). A mixture of formal (e.g., ratio of stop consonants, length) and semantic variables (e.g., ± receptacle, ± profession) predicted the quality of novel taboo compounding. Together, these studies provide complementary evidence for interactions between word form and meaning and an algorithmic prediction of tabooness in American English. We discuss applications for models of taboo word representation.

Keywords: Arousal; Profanity; Sound symbolism; Taboo; Valence.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Arousal
  • Emotions*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Language*
  • Linguistics
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Phonetics
  • Psycholinguistics
  • Semantics
  • Taboo / psychology*
  • Young Adult