Behavior Research Methods

, Volume 40, Issue 4, pp 1065–1074 | Cite as

Taboo, emotionally valenced, and emotionally neutral word norms

  • Kristin Janschewitz


Although taboo words are used to study emotional memory and attention, no easily accessible normative data are available that compare taboo, emotionally valenced, and emotionally neutral words on the same scales. Frequency, inappropriateness, valence, arousal, and imageability ratings for taboo, emotionally valenced, and emotionally neutral words were made by 78 native-English-speaking college students from a large metropolitan university. The valenced set comprised both positive and negative words, and the emotionally neutral set comprised category-related and category-unrelated words. To account for influences of demand characteristics and personality factors on the ratings, frequency and inappropriateness measures were decomposed into raters’ personal reactions to the words versus raters’ perceptions of societal reactions to the words (personal use vs. familiarity and offensiveness vs. tabooness, respectively). Although all word sets were rated higher in familiarity and tabooness than in personal use and offensiveness, these differences were most pronounced for the taboo set. In terms of valence, the taboo set was most similar to the negative set, although it yielded higher arousal ratings than did either valenced set. Imageability for the taboo set was comparable to that of both valenced sets. The ratings of each word are presented for all participants as well as for single-sex groups. The inadequacies of the application of normative data to research that uses emotional words and the conceptualization of taboo words as a coherent category are discussed. Materials associated with this article may be accessed at the Psychonomic Society’s Archive of Norms, Stimuli, and Data,


Arousal Rating Neutral Word Emotional Word Word Type Negative Word 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

Supplementary material (204 kb)
Supplementary material, approximately 340 KB.


  1. Altarriba, J., & Bauer, L. M. (2004). The distinctiveness of emotion concepts: A comparison between emotion, abstract, and concrete words. American Journal of Psychology, 117, 389–410.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Anderson, A. K. (2005). Affective influences on the attentional dynamics supporting awareness. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 134, 258–281.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5, 323–370.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bellezza, F. S., Greenwald, A. G., & Banaji, M. R. (1986). Words high and low in pleasantness as rated by male and female college students. Behavior Research Methods, Instruments, & Computers, 18, 299–303.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bradley, M. M., & Lang, P. J. (1999). Affective norms for English words (ANEW): Instruction manual and affective ratings (Tech. Rep. C-1). Gainesville: University of Florida, Center for Research in Psychophysiology.Google Scholar
  6. Dewaele, J.-M. (2004). The emotional force of swearwords and taboo words in the speech of multilinguals. Journal of Multilingual & Multicultural Development, 25, 204–222.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Dewhurst, S. A., & Conway, M. A. (1994). Pictures, images, and recollective experience. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition, 20, 1088–1098.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Doerksen, S., & Shimamura, A. P. (2001). Source memory enhancement for emotional words. Emotion, 1, 5–11.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Harris, C. L., Ayçiçegi, A., & Gleason, J. B. (2003). Taboo words and reprimands elicit greater autonomic reactivity in a first language than in a second language. Applied Psycholinguistics, 24, 561–579.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Jay, T. (1992). Cursing in America: A psycholinguistic study of dirty language in the courts, the movies, in the schoolyards, and on the streets. Philadelphia: John Benjamins.Google Scholar
  11. Jay, T. (2000). Why we curse: A neuro-psycho-social theory of speech. Philadelphia: John Benjamins.Google Scholar
  12. Jay, T., Caldwell-Harris, C., & King, K. (2008). Recalling taboo and nontaboo words. American Journal of Psychology, 121, 83–103.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Jay, T., & Janschewitz, K. (2006, July). Swearing with friends and enemies in high and low places. Paper presented at the Linguistic Impoliteness and Rudeness: Confrontation and Conflict in Discourse Conference, Huddersfield, U.K.Google Scholar
  14. Jay, T., & Janschewitz, K. (2008a). The pragmatics of swearing. Journal of Politeness Research, 4, 267–288.Google Scholar
  15. Jay, T., & Janschewitz, K. (2008b). Taboo word frequency: Swearing in public. Manuscript submitted for publication.Google Scholar
  16. Kensinger, E. A., & Corkin, S. (2003). Memory enhancement for emotional words: Are emotional words more vividly remembered than neutral words? Memory & Cognition, 31, 1169–1180.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Kensinger, E. A., & Corkin, S. (2004). Two routes to emotional memory: Distinct neural processes for valence and arousal. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 101, 3310–3315.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Kučera, H., & Francis, W. N. (1967). A computational analysis of present-day American English. Providence, RI: Brown University Press.Google Scholar
  19. LaBar, K. S., & Phelps, E. A. (1998). Arousal-mediated memory consolidation: Role of the medial temporal lobe in humans. Psychological Science, 9, 490–493.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Mabry, E. (1975). A multivariate investigation of profane language. Central States Speech Journal, 26, 39–44.Google Scholar
  21. Maratos, E. J., Allan, K., & Rugg, M. D. (2000). Recognition memory for emotionally negative and neutral words: An ERP study. Neuropsychologia, 38, 1452–1465.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Mehl, M. R., Gosling, S. D., & Pennebaker, J. W. (2006). Personality in its natural habitat: Manifestations and implicit folk theories of personality in daily life. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 90, 862–877.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Mehl, M. R., & Pennebaker, J. W. (2003). The sounds of social life: A psychometric analysis of students’ daily social environments and natural conversations. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 84, 857–870.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Mehl, M. R., Vazire, S., Ramírez-Esparza, N., Slatcher, R. B., & Pennebaker, J. W. (2007). Are women really more talkative than men? Science, 317, 82.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. O’Neill, W. (2005). Word-imagery effects on recollection and familiarity in recognition memory. Perceptual & Motor Skills, 100, 716–722.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Rozin, P., & Royzman, E. B. (2001). Negativity bias, negativity dominance, and contagion. Personality & Social Psychology Review, 5, 296–320.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Talmi, D., & Moscovitch, M. (2004). Can semantic relatedness explain the enhancement of memory for emotional words? Memory & Cognition, 32, 742–751.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Thomas, L. A., & LaBar, K. S. (2005). Emotional arousal enhances word repetition priming. Cognition & Emotion, 19, 1027–1047.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of California at Los AngelesLos Angeles

Personalised recommendations