Date Approved


Date Posted


Degree Type

Open Access Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

Department or School

English Language and Literature

Committee Member

T. Daniel Seely, PhD, Co-Chair

Committee Member

Veronica Grondona, PhD, Co-Chair

Committee Member

Joe Bishop, PhD


Taboo Lexeme Conditioning refers to the neurological, psychological, and sociological conditioning required during lexical acquisition for a native speaker to treat or experience certain lexemes as highly taboo. Taboo words differentiate both neurologically from non-emotional or non-taboo lexemes, and lexically person to person, in at least 4 ways: 1) they exhibit high activity in the emotional and moral processing structures of the limbic system, and can activate, or be uttered, independently of cortical structures involved in propositional language processing; 2) they generally receive a high amount of negative emotional response during lexical acquisition and subsequent usage, which affects how they are processed and encoded by the brain; 3) they are consistently suppressed through social mores, religious or legal censorship, persecution and/or prosecution; 4) they violate a morality code by means of taboo and describe the most potent taboos of a culture. American English Obscenities meet all of these criterion: 1) they exhibit independent, nonpropositional limbic activation, as seen in brain imaging of patients with neurological damage or disorders; 2) they receive highly negative emotional responses from people who find them offensive morally and socially, which influences neurological encoding during lexical acquisition; 3) they have been subjected to censorship by American Church and State, deriving from an English legal system censoring profanities and blasphemies, each consistently influenced by Puritan interests; and 4) they violate linguistic taboos, which evolve from two much older taboos in Judeo-Christianity: taboos against the body and taboos against anti-religious or deity invoking language. The rise of the secular West sapped religious profanities, blasphemies, and oaths of their emotional power, but taboos of and negative attitudes towards the body remained, and obscenity filled that emotional void left by profanity. Today we are left with a unique class of lexemes in American English that came about only through a very specific progression, and repression, of attitudes towards the body and the power of language.