In a famous paper on phonology R. Jakobson made an example of an English minimal triplet as follows:

pop ~ tot ~ cock

By this example he wanted to show that syllable onset and coda positions produce different realisations of the occlusives, but these realisations are just positional variants of the same phonemes.

I needed to present this example to my students but I realised that, while in Jakobson's times, when cock meant just a male chicken, and nothing else (at least, in his linguistic competence), this example sounded perfectly acceptable, today it would unavoidably provoke some giggles among the students.

I tried to change the vowels but different profanities came out again.

Could anyone help me with individuating a presentable, profanity free, minimal triplet in English? It must have the following structure:

/k/ Vowel /k/

/t/ Vowel /t/

/p/ Vowel /p/

My English competence apparently is not enough.

  • 3
    "Cock", meaning male chicken or make a gun ready to fire, is a perfectly good non-obscene English word.
    – Greg Lee
    Dec 11, 2017 at 20:00
  • @GregLee indeed it is. But I would like to prevent my students from even suspecting that there is something to laugh on. Dec 12, 2017 at 10:26

2 Answers 2



  • pap, tat, cack /ɑ ~ æ/
  • pep, teth, kek /e ~ ɛ/ (Second word very rare, third very informal)
  • peep, teat, keek /i/ (Is teat too anatomical for your taste?)
  • pip, tit, kick /ɪ/
  • pup, tut, cuck /ʌ/
  • pop, tot, cock /ɒ ~ ɔ/
  • poop, toot, cook /u ~ ʊ/


  • pipe, tight, kike /aɪ/
  • pape, Tate, cake /eɪ/ (Second word a proper noun (name))
  • pope, tote, coke /oʊ ~ əʊ/ (Is coke (cocaine) problematic?)
  • ?, tout, cowk /aʊ/ (Third word dialectal, Northeast Scot)
  • ?, ?, ? /ɔɪ/

How old are your students? I can't imagine that the momentary giggle that some of these words might raise would continue for very long or be detrimental to the lesson.

The only one I would avoid is /aɪ/, since therein lies a pretty offensive slur. Maybe avoid the ones which contain very uncommon words too, for the sake of familiarity to the audience. Everything else seems pretty benign, removed of context.

  • Thank you for this very exhausting answer. The students are never adult enough. On the other hand, this could be turned into a nice home assignment. Dec 12, 2017 at 10:30
  • 2
    By the way, you can’t deny that the problematic words abound here Dec 12, 2017 at 10:32
  • 1
    The non-existence of words like /paʊp/ and /kaʊk/ actually is part of a broader pattern of gaps in English phonotactics: the rimes /aʊp/ and /aʊk/ actually don't occur at all in English words (or if they do, very marginally). The diphthong /aʊ/ has a more restricted distribution than /aɪ/ in this regard. Dec 12, 2017 at 20:36

Coke, pope, tote is the only one that completely avoids potential snicker-words.

  • 2
    'coke' and 'tote' can connote drug use.
    – amI
    Dec 15, 2017 at 0:03

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