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Taboo Word Politeness Survey: Results
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Thanks to everyone who participated in the Taboo Word Politeness Survey. Here’s a brief summary of the results. First of all, 19 people started the survey, but only 13 completed it. I threw out data from the incompletes. That’s not a great sample, but it was probably enough to get an idea about what’s going on. Remember, all this should be taken with a huge grain of salt. The sample size is relatively small, and the items were not randomized, so there may be uncontrolled variables and bias all over the place. That said…

First, here’s a chart showing the mean politeness rating for all responses for each sentence:

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It’s about what you’d expect. To recap what I was looking at here, Pinker made the assertion (I think, from what I read) that how polite a given verb sounds depends at least in part (perhaps in large part) to its transitivity. That is, sentences of the transitive form:

John xxxxed Mary.

should have a different connotation than those of the intransitive form:

John and Mary xxxxed.

Pinker justified this by noting that in the transitive constructions you have a subject impinging on an object, possibly against its will, whereas in an intransitive construction you have a compound subject carrying out an action together, implying mutuality. Pinker seemed to be saying that one reason impolite constructions sound impolite is because of their transitivity, and conversely, polite constructions sound more polite because of their intransitivity.

I wasn’t buying it, though. So the first thing I did was compare the means of all data from the sex-related sentences based on their transitive vs. their intransitive construction. Here are the results:

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The mean politeness rating for the all transitive constructions regarding sex was 3.6154, while the mean for intransitive constructions was 3.7692. I ran an ANOVA on the distributions and this result was not statistically significant. In fact, it wasn’t even close, so it’s highly doubtful that even with a larger sample size there would be a difference in politeness based on the transitivity of the construction.

The next thing I did was compare each of the verbs, whether or not they were used in a transitive or intransitive construction. You can tell there are differences between the verbs from looking at the first chart, but I wanted to verify these statistically. Here’s the chart:

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It turns out there are significant differences between:

fucked vs. screwed
screwed vs. had sex

But not between:

had sex vs. slept together
slept together vs. made love

However, there was a difference between:

had sex vs. made love

Again, this may just be a remnant of sample sizes. It certainly looks like, from the chart, they a trending toward a nice continuum of politeness.

And finally, what about kissing?

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Just as with the sex terms, there is no significant difference in politeness ratings based on the transitivity of the construction. The difference in politeness between all uses of “made out” and “kissed” is highly significant, which is pretty obvious from the chart.

So what to take away from all this? Well, I need to stress one more time that this isn’t all that scientific, so take from it what you will. That said, these tentative results did confirm my intuition, that when all else is held constant, and only the transitivity is varied, there doesn’t seem to be a difference in the perception of politeness. I’m reasonably confident that a proper study would reveal this to be the case.

So what determines the perceived politeness of a particular verb, if not the construction (SVO vs. S+SV)? I think the roots of the words (e.g. Germanic, Latin, or in the case of "fuck," Dutch) have a lot to do with it. But ultimately I think taboo words end up getting imbued with their power somewhat arbitrarily, rather than based on inherent characteristics of the word (such as the way it sounds) or as Pinker suggested, by its syntax.

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