antedate for 'taboo', "linguistic prohibition"

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at YAHOO.COM
Sat Sep 29 14:54:44 UTC 2007

As late as 1959 or 1960 I read or was told that "The United States is..." was "incorrect."  But not even I fell for that one.

  The controversy was a well-known cause of the Civil War.


Geoffrey Nunberg <nunberg at ISCHOOL.BERKELEY.EDU> wrote:
  ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
Sender: American Dialect Society
Poster: Geoffrey Nunberg
Subject: antedate for 'taboo', "linguistic prohibition"

>From "Interdicted Phrases," NYT, 1/6/1898

"In 'Verbal Taboos', the last paper read before the close of the
session, Prof. F. N. Scott of the University of Michigan presented
one of the most interesting contributions during the [MLA]
convention's session. The paper pleaded for the retention of many
words in the language which are dropped from it on account of
personal dislike on the part of those who have influential places in
the development of the English vocabulary. He explained that a
'taboo' was a prohibition laid upon certain objects or acts: a ban or
interdiction, of such a character that anyone who touches the tabooed
act is liable to a penalty more or less severe, and then went on to
speak of the 'taboo' in relation to spoken words, saying:

'Very significant are the taboos published by Prof. A. S. Hill of
Harvard University, in his school text books. If we listen to the
voice of this New England crier proclaiming his taboos to his fellow
savages, we shall no longer speak of anything being a "success"; we
shall speak of it as being "successful." We shall cease saying "an
editorial" and in its place use "an editorial article," or "a
leader." ... According to Mr. Hill we must not say "the United States
is a nation: we must say "the United States are a nation." The
preposition "onto" is strictly forbidden. It is wrong, I infer, to
say "We climbed out the window onto the roof of the porch." Instead
the sentence should read: "We climed out the window on the roof (or
to the roof) of the porch."

.... These prohibitions, which may be termed verbal taboos, from
their resemblance to the taboos of aboriginal tribes, are the
outcomes of antipathies which are formed in early years while the
individual is acquiring command of speech."

The OED lists this sense as "c. Linguistics. A total or partial
prohibition of the use of certain words, expressions, topics, etc.,
esp. in social intercourse" and gives the first cite from
Bloomfield's _Language_ (as "tabu-form") in 1933.

Geoff Nunberg

The American Dialect Society -

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