Time and Space

Taboo Or Not Taboo

This episode of Planet Word, hosted by Stephen Fry, uncovers the link between language and taboo. Stephen travels to other countries to discover what they consider to be taboo, and finds that the words that are forbidden in one culture might be quite innocent in another.

Societies have developed a plethora of words and expressions to deal with taboo subjects: either to avoid mentioning them at all, or to smooth the rough edges of reality. Religion was one of the first English taboos, but it certainly wasn’t the last. Take the subject of death. It’s the only thing certain in life (apart from, as Benjamin Franklin memorably said, ‘taxes’) – but we’re very reluctant to use this powerful taboo word. Instead we say passed away, passed on, given up the ghost, gone to meet the maker, shuffled off this mortal coil – even kicked the bucket!  Similarly, we are reluctant to talk directly about health issues that may be chronic or terminal, sexual encounters, and race or ethnicity; all are subjects that may prompt us to reach for the thesaurus. Read Uses and Abuses, which could act as a primer for this whole section, then choose a selection of the following articles to find out about the most powerful taboos in the English language: 

Class Activity: The R Word

What words could you say in the 1970s or 1980s that you cannot use today?  From that initial question, and delving into one specific word, this activity deals with how language changes and evolves over time. Read this article from Slate magazine printed 2001, watch the Public Service Announcement from the 1970s and look at this advertising campaign from the 1970s and 80s. Try to keep track or make note of your reactions as you consider these texts for the first time. Once you have done so, discuss the following questions:

  • What was your initial emotional reaction upon encountering the R word in these texts?  Why?
  • How does the historical context (time and place) influence the production and reception of these texts?
  • How might an audience react now to these public service advertisements in comparison to an audience from the 1970’s?

Learner Portfolio

Politically correct language is language used to avoid causing offence when speaking about and around taboo subjects. You might find examples of politically correct language, or euphemisms, in one or two of the articles above. Create your own article called ‘Let’s Talk About…’ Choose a taboo topic, such as religion, health, war, relationships, sexuality, or even the ultimate taboo – mortality. Research the history of this taboo and present ways in which people use language to talk about – or around! – the topic.

Paper 1 Text Type Focus: interviews

At the end of your course you will be asked to analyse unseen texts (1 at Standard Level and 2 at Higher Level) in an examination. You will be given a guiding question that will focus your attention on formal or stylistic elements of the text(s), and help you decode the text(s)’ purpose(s). Below are examples of Interviews; study these texts and add them to your Learner Portfolio; you will want to revise text types thoroughly before your Paper 1 exam. You can find more information – including text type features and sample Paper 1 analysis – by visiting 20/20. Read through one or two of the exemplars, then choose a new paper and have a go at writing your own Paper 1 analysis response:


Body of Work: Oliviero Toscani’s United Colours of Benetton Ad Campaigns

The Face of Aids: the story behind Therese Frare’s photo (film by Time magazine)

In April 2000, United Colors of Benetton fired its director of photography Oliviero Toscani over his advertising campaign entitled “Looking Death in the Face” in which he featured the portrait photographs of inmates on deathrow as adverts for a retail clothing brand. At the time, Rory Carroll of The Observer speculated that Toscani “almost certainly will never again reach a worldwide audience on the scale of his Benetton billboards” but it seemed that he had spoken a little prematurely. In 2017, Toscani rejoined Benetton once again, along with Luciano Benetton, the founder.

For 18 years Toscani had been pushing the limits of advertising. From AIDS victims, to the bloodstains of a dead soldier, homosexual relationships, mixed race relationships, LGBTQ+ representation – Toscani shied away from nothing and produced some of the most controversial adverts in history. With each campaign came a new round of backlash, censorship – and press attention. After all, there’s no such thing as bad publicity! But this final campaign, released in January 2000 depicting death row inmates staring blankly into the camera behind the slogan, SENTENCED TO DEATH, proved to be Toscani’s undoing. Murder victims’ families spoke out, retailers and consumers dropped the brand, and sales consequently plummeted. An accusation that had been levelled at Toscani before – ‘what has this got to do with clothing?’ – was suddenly too loud to ignore.

In this Body of Work, you can explore some of Oliviero Toscani’s most provocative ad campaigns for United Colors of Benetton and investigate how these texts break social and cultural taboos. The images and explainers in the Body of Work have been compiled from articles in Vogue and The Guardian. You can research more Benetton advertising here as well:

Towards Assessment: Individual Oral

“Supported by an extract from one non-literary text and one from a literary work, students will offer a prepared response of 10 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of questions by the teacher, to the following prompt: Examine the ways in which the global issue of your choice is presented through the content and form of two of the texts that you have studied. (40 marks)

IB Language and Literature Guide

One or two of these images would be a perfect text to use in this assessed activity. The named author would be ‘Oliviero Toscani’ or ‘United Colours of Benetton’. The adverts here connect very well to the Field of Inquiry of Art, Creativity and Imagination as they present images of real people in an artistic way. You could explore the Global Issue of ‘the role of creative individuals in society’. The suggestions below are ideas you may like to consider, although you should speak with your teacher before you get too far ahead:

  • Shaw’s Pygmalion – take as your starting point the idea that Oliviero Toscana is a real-life version of Henry Higgins. You can ask to what extent either man has the right to impose his creative vision upon others – Toscana through placing taboo images in public spaces, and Higgins by using Eliza in his own dream of ‘filling up the deepest gulf that separates class from class and soul from soul.’
  • Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice – think about how Portia, in Act 4 Scene 1, takes power into her own hands and controls Shylock’s fate, presumably altering the course of justice in the Venetian courtroom.
  • Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber – by repositioning women in stories that were traditionally male-centric, Carter is revealing the way women’s voices have been traditionally silenced or marginalised in the past.
  • Ismail Kadere’s Broken April – you could explore the presentation of an individual character such as Bessian, Diana or Gjorg himself in the context of wider social structures in Albania.
  • John Keats’ Selected Poetry – Keats poems also explore the importance of art in society, not least in Ode on a Grecian Urn.

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