Language and Societies

ANT/LIN 5320 at Wayne State University

Why can’t I say ‘fork?’: Taboos and word substitutions in social media settings

Why can’t I say ‘fork?’: Taboos and word substitutions in social media settings

Day O’Neal

This paper analyzes the use of register shifts on the social media app TikTok, in order to avoid the use of taboo words and profanity. The register largely consists of one of six distinct types of word, phrase, or character substitution that is used in place of the term being avoided. Looking at instances of register use and the reasons given for substitution, and comparing their use to actual written user agreements, will answer the fundamental research question: How are register shifts used on social media, why are they used, and what ideology drives their use? Data was collected via publicly posted TikTok videos that fit prescribed criteria, and further research was conducted by literature review. It is found that the use of register shifts on TikTok are used for two main reasons: taboo avoidance to forestall actual or perceived consequences (such as losing viewers or becoming banned from the app), and use as a sort of slang or meme. Of particular interest are the perceived consequences associated with the words marked as taboo – despite the spotty evidence of consequences, many words are still treated as taboo due to an ideology of risk which underpins the phenomenon.

April 20, 2022 - Posted by | abstract


  1. I’ve noticed this with captions on tiktok videos, where the person will say the actual word but the caption is a euphemism or homonym or other place holder. Would be interested in reading the outcome of the research.

    Comment by Bryan | April 20, 2022 | Reply

  2. I don’t have tiktok, but I have noticed similar things to what you are talking about on other forms of social media. Would these “taboo” words and a fear of repercussions be part of what is widely known as “cancel culture?” Is one mistake enough to get banned? Can content creators on the platform really not use fork?

    Comment by Casey Carter | April 28, 2022 | Reply

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