formal characteristics of obscene words

Some words are perceived as shocking and in proper circumstances cause persons to turn away.  For the purposes of the following analysis, those words will be called obscene.[1]  Obscene words in English have common phonological characteristics:

  1. the form CV(C)C, where C is a consonant and V a vowel (four-letter words)
  2. the outer consonants usually are produced “by an abrupt stoppage of air in the vocal tract followed by an abrupt release,” e.g. k, t, p (hard consonants)
  3. the medial consonant usually is sonorant like l,m,n
  4. the vowel usually is short and pronounced with the tongue relatively close to the mouth’s roof, i.e. a close or high vowel [2]

These characteristics make short, violent-sounding words.  Such words are efficient and communicatively propitious for ejaculative, shocking use.  Insightful scholarship explains these characteristics through word survival under selection for these characteristics:

it seems unlikely that speakers consciously create obscene words to fit some abstract phonological form for obscene words.  This kind of competence simply does not exist.  Nor is it likely (or at least demonstrable) that obscene words, which are in some ways akin to onomatopoeic words, originate from some natural connection between meaning and sound.  It does seem highly plausible, however, that given a set of semantically related words vying for survival,those words having some match between sound and sense have an added edge in the struggle {to endure}, other things being equal.[3]

That general process also describes the evolution of biological organisms.

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[1] U.S. administrative and case law has distinguished between obscenity and indecency.  All seven words at the center of the U.S. Supreme Court case Federal Communications Commission v. Pacifica Foundation (1978) include two or more of the above characteristics for the word or prominent components of the word.  Adjudicating indecency is a challenging and often challenged task.  Vagueness of indecency standards is a a central concern.  See, e.g. Federal Communications Commission v. Fox Television Stations (2009) and U.S. Supreme Court, certiorari granted, June 27, 2011, 10-1293, FCC v. Fox.

[2] Noguchi, Rei R. 1996. “On the historical longevity of one four-letter word: the interplay of phonology and semantics.” Maledicta 12: 29-43, at p. 34.

[3] Id. p. 41.

4 thoughts on “formal characteristics of obscene words”

      1. I have been trying to design a research project around this concept (the phonological similarity of satisfying curse words). Are there resources (other than the ones listed here and elsewhere on your blog) that you could share with me?

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