I'm trying to tag taboo words in a corpus. I wonder if there are any objective and universal criteria to identify them.

I know taboo words are culturally determined, but I want to be as objective as possible.

  • What is "taboo words"? I thought "taboo words" are the words which are understood but not used?
    – Anixx
    Jun 21, 2023 at 17:42
  • That's "word taboo": "Word taboo, also called taboo language, language taboo or linguistic taboo is a kind of taboo that involves restricting the use of words or other parts of language due to social constraints."
    – Asdoost
    Jun 21, 2023 at 18:43

1 Answer 1


This would be a property of individual people, and not words, so your only hope is for a pairing of words and subject judgments. Even then, you have to devise a definition of "taboo" as applicable to words. "Taboo" is a relatively strong negative concept, stronger than "rude" or "coarse", therefore you presumably don't want to conflate all "not nice" words. These negative evaluations are highly contextual, hence there are a number of words that I can easily use on a casual conversation with camping buddies that I would not utter in a formal public lecture. So to ask a person if they consider the B word to be "taboo", you would also have to say what the context is (and whether or not it is a noun or a verb, or to whom/what it is attributed).

An alternative, one that is mechanically doable but unsatisfactory, is to check with an authoritative dictionary of English to see if a word is marked as "vulgar", "rude" or something like that. This would only work for English, and you could never address the case that an individual cannot say the word for "milk" in Kerewe between the word too-closely resembles his mother-in-law's name, and it is taboo to speak your mother-in-law's name in that culture.

  • 1
    Taboos are not necessarily negative either – the names of emperors being taboo during that emperor’s lifetime in China and Korea, for example, has nothing to do with negativity. And sometimes the taboo is indirect, like the number 4 being taboo in much of East Asia due to its similarity to the (Sinitic) word for ‘death’. Jun 21, 2023 at 23:06

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.