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Dispelling Dubious Putative Semantic Universals, Part 27

The Joy of Tax


George S. Boutwell, Joseph J. Lewis, and William Orton
Dept. of Public Finance and Administration,
Swedish University of Northern Minnesota,
Bly MN

The set of 40 putative semantic universals of human language proposed by Thompson (2010) is somewhat well known among the less cultured of contemporary linguists, and is even provisionally accepted by the more credulous of the lot. In the previous 26 parts of this series, we subjected to withering empirical examination such surfeits of dubiety (Boutwell, Lewis & Orton 2011q,r,s,t,v) as “Languages using a loanword for loanword also use a calque for calque,” “No language calques the word for caulk,” “No language uses a loanword for spackle,” “Surprisingly, and contrary to many building codes, languages often use a calque for spackle,” and “There has been no human language ever studied in which my cat is not named Miss Olivia.” In this article we turn to Thompson’s Universal No. 27, “There is no human language in which taxes are fun.”

As is typical among reactionary rebels against the tide of history, Thompson relies on quaint, outmoded, and antisocial beliefs to further an invidious political program directed against the very lifeblood of the state and the long-term continuation of society. This is bad. In the first part of our study, we report the results of a sociological-psychological study performed to examine the affect of tax terminology in modern American society. In the second part, we present case studies of two languages in which taxes are indeed fun.

I. Tax Affectiveness among a Representative Population

Tax affect has been surprisingly little studied by scholars, and the few results, while seeming on the surface to bespeak a widespread disaffection with taxation, are, when more carefully analyzed, equivocal to slightly positive. The first point to note is that much tax terminology is rather abstruse. It is thus necessary to take proper care in choosing subjects for such a linguistic study. Consequently, our preliminary study of tax terminology affect involved 472 tax attorneys, tax agents, and tax accountants who rated each word in a list of 40 basic tax terms on a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 “most unpleasant” and 10 “ecstatic.” Significantly, 39 of the 40 terms received no score by any participant lower than 6; out of a possible 188,800 points, the total for the study was 169,576, for an average of 8.98 out of 10. The terms with the lowest average scores were flat tax (2.01) and 1040EZ (6.24), while the highest scores were for undeclared foreign income (9.97), capital gains withholding (9.83), unreimbursed business expenses (9.72), wash sale rules (9.70), and alternative minimum tax liability (9.65).

Of the participants in the first study, 100 were selected at random to participate in an in-depth follow-up. Each subject was seated in a comfortable chair and shown a variety of art works involving taxation and tax accountancy while their physiological responses were measured with pupilometer, electroencephalograph, electrocardiograph, skin conductance meter, and plethysmograph. The participants watched tax-accounting-related scenes from the movies Stranger than Fiction, The Shawshank Redemption, The Apartment, Date Night, and Shallow Grave, and listened to Ben Yarmolinsky’s opera April 15th Blues. All 100 participants displayed physiological responses considered as ranking in the 99th percentile to every affective cue. Suffice it to say, far from being no fun at all, taxes are instead often a major turn-on.

II. Cross-Linguistic Case Study

Contrary to the assertions of red-necked cretins like Thompson and his ilk, taxes can be great fun. This is borne out by two languages, Vingblot (a Kwa language of central Togo) and Khifi (a Mon-Khmer language of northern Burma), which we commend to the attention of political and administrative personnel in all advanced industrial nations. Vingblot borrowed the French word for ‘tax,’ impôt, which by coincidence was homophonous with the native word for ‘sweets.’ Upon independence, the local authorities extended native words for desserts to different aspects of the tax system. Thus, when a Vingblotien(ne) is asked if he or she likes tax withholding (ôßŋá ‘crême brulée’), itemized deductions (θêɣɔ̀ ‘chocolate mousse’), capital gain distribution (ǽðçêg ‘clafoutis’), or capital-loss carryover (xǿšðǽr ‘croquembouche’), the questioner obtains universal and ready assent.

Similarly, in Khifi the English word tax (borrowed during British rule) was nearly homophonous with the native verb ‘to copulate,’ and so, following practice similar to that of the Vingblot government, the terminology of love, romance, and sex has been extended to all tax matters. Khifi is now a language in which accountants earn the same adulation as Clark Gable and Errol Flynn, the tax code is used as a marital aid, and the date for filing one’s income tax return has fittingly been established as 14 February. Indeed, as a result a genre of almost Gallic sex-tax comedies has arisen that are almost impossible to translate for outsiders, and the foreign visitor is cautioned to take great care in asking for a VAT receipt unless he or she swings that way.

There is evidence of similar practice in a third language, the Papuan language Girbel, but as the speakers went into uncontrolled demographic collapse within a year of the adoption of a modern income tax withholding system, in which no children were born to any speakers of the language at all beginning nine months after Tax Day 1978, the language has since gone extinct and almost no records remain. The cause is deeply mysterious, but it is doubtless to be explained as being due to a failure to establish a truly modern bureaucracy.

In conclusion, Thompson’s antisocial ramblings have been shown yet again to be entirely baseless as well as pernicious. In Part 28 (not yet submitted), we will dismantle Thompson’s next putative semantic universal, “Similarly, there is no language in which bureaucracy is romantic.”


Boutwell, G.S., J.J. Lewis, & W. Orton, 2011q. “Dispelling Dubious Putative Semantic Universals, Part 17: It doesn’t matter if stupid, moron, idiot, and dolt are loanwords, calques, or native terms, they are what they are and as their referents do.” The Rice Thresher, 8 Sept 2011, p. 5.

, 2011r. “Dispelling Dubious Putative Semantic Universals, Part 18: Calquing the gaps in groutwork terminologya typological study of 743 languages spoken in or around showers.” Grouts and Tiles Monthly: A Journal for the Cleverer Craftsman 12(10):43-674.

, 2011s. “Dispelling Dubious Putative Semantic Universals, Part 19: Like missing a wall with a dartspackle as loanword in 62 languages.” Upper Michigan Studies in Comparative Drywall Technology 5:212-252.

, 2011t. “Dispelling Dubious Putative Semantic Universals, Part 20: A survey of six hundred forty-seven building codes that make no mention of what substances may be used for spackling or groutwork,” Quarterly Review of Building Construction and Urban Design 17:47-193.

, 2011v. “Dispelling Dubious Putative Semantic Universals, Part 22: Since when is any cat a universal rigid designator?” Eastern Tennessee Journal for the Analytic Philosophy of Language 1:1-287.

Thompson, M.A. 2010. “Things that are true that everybody knows to be true but nobody has ever pointed out,” in Gibbet, Flibber T. & Scupp R. Nong (eds.), Festschrift for Dave Barry on the 20th Anniversary of His Ceasing to be Really Very Funny Anymore. Squamositas FL: Scurrilous Squirrel Press, pp. 78-94.

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