A taboo is a strong social prohibition (or ban) relating to any area of human activity or social custom that is sacred and or forbidden based on moral judgment, religious beliefs and or scientific consensus. Breaking the taboo is usually considered objectionable or abhorrent by society. The term comes from the Tongan word tabu, meaning set apart or forbidden, and appears in many Polynesian cultures. In those cultures, a tabu (or tapu or kapu) often has specific religious associations. American author Herman Melville, in his first novel "Typee" describes both the origin and use of the word in Polynesian culture. "The word itself (taboo) is used in more than one signification. It is sometimes used by a parent to his child, when in the exercise of parental authority he forbids it to perform a particular action. Anything opposed to the ordinary customs of the islands, although not expressly prohibited is said to be "taboo"." When an activity or custom is taboo, it is forbidden and interdictions are implemented concerning it, such as the ground set apart as a sanctuary for criminals. Some taboo activities or customs are prohibited under law and transgressions may lead to severe penalties. On the other hand taboos result in embarrassment, shame, and rudeness. Although critics and/or dissenters may oppose taboos, they are put into place to avoid disrespect to any given authority, be it legal, moral and/or religious.



Common etymology traces taboo to the Tongan word tapu[1][2] or the Fijian word tabu meaning "under prohibition", "not allowed", or "forbidden".[3] In its current use in Tonga, the word tapu also means "sacred" or "holy", often in the sense of being restricted or protected by custom or law. In the main island of the Kingdom of Tonga, where the greater portion of the population reside within the capital Nuku'alofa, the word is often appended to the end of "Tonga", making the word "Tongatapu", as "Sacred South" rather than "forbidden south".

The use of taboo in English dates back to 1777 when English explorer, Captain James Cook, visited Tonga. Describing the cultural practices of the Tongans, he wrote:

Not one of them would sit down, or eat a bit of any thing.... On expressing my surprise at this, they were all taboo, as they said; which word has a very comprehensive meaning; but, in general, signifies that a thing is forbidden.[4]


When any thing is forbidden to be eaten, or made use of, they say, that it is taboo.[5]


On a universal scale in almost all cultures, Taboos can include sex, death, dietary restrictions (halal and kosher diets, religious vegetarianism, and the prohibition of cannibalism), restrictions on sexual activities and relationships (sex outside of marriage, adultery, intermarriage, miscegenation, incest, animal-human sex, adult-child sex, sex with the dead), sexual fetishes, restrictions of bodily functions (burping, flatulence, defecation and urination), restrictions on the use of psychoactive drugs, restrictions on state of genitalia such as (transsexual gender identity, circumcision or sex reassignment), exposure of body parts (ankles in the Victorian British Empire, women's hair in parts of the Middle East, nudity in the US), and restrictions on the use of offensive language.

Practices considered acceptable in one culture may be considered taboo in other cultures. For example, Foot Binding, practiced in ancient China, would be considered taboo in the context of modern cultural morals. Exposure of intimate parts is generally taboo in (most) modern developed countries.[citation needed] Other subjects perceived to be taboo involve burning money; some countries or nations (most notably post-WWII Europe whose governments often object going to war except for reasons of self-defense) and moral-philosophical debates on whether or not humanity should (or not) exist.[citation needed]

No taboo is known to be universal, but some (such as cannibalism, intentional homicide, and incest taboos) occur in the majority of societies. Taboos may serve many functions, and often remain in effect after the original reason behind them has expired. Some have argued that taboos therefore reveal the history of societies when other records are lacking.[6]

Certain taboos lose their sting over periods of time. In the United States and western countries, most people are now more comfortable than before when they discuss and explore social issues: gossip and scandal, alcoholism, depression, homosexuality, divorce, income disparity, personal relationships, pregnancy and childbirth, and teenage rebellion. Medical disorders and diseases like cancer, polio, AIDS, mental disorders and suicide aren't as heavily taboo now as in the past. Certain personal things such as age, height, weight and appearance are not always shared with confidants or in public; this indicates that such topics may be taboo to some people.

Taboos often extend to cover discussion of taboo topics. This can result in taboo deformation (euphemism) or replacement of taboo words. Marvin Harris, a leading figure in cultural materialism, endeavored to explain taboos as a consequence of the ecologic and economic conditions of their societies. Taboos challenge one's free speech and individual rights to express a subject or issue in need to be addressed for the benefit, not to damage, any given society.

Also, Sigmund Freud provided an analysis of taboo behaviors, highlighting strong unconscious motivations driving such prohibitions. In this system, described in his collections of essays Totem and Taboo, Freud postulates a link between forbidden behaviors and the sanctification of objects to certain kinship groups. Freud also states here that the only two "universal" taboos are that of incest and patricide, which formed the eventual basis of modern society.

Other societal taboos to a certain extent or to some people are the polarizing issues of racism, sexism, ethnicity, nationality, religion, politics, money, socio-economic class, sexual orientation, and disability. People follow this advice of not discussing, joking about or making an issue of things that can lead to bigotry, discrimination, defamation and stigmatization of people with those social group differences.

For such topics, the moderated environment of an organized debate may be the only socially acceptable place to discuss them. They developed as a result of concerns for civil rights, sensitivity, and multiculturalism in the late 20th century.[citation needed]

When presented in the shape of parody or comedy as performed by comedians, taboo topics and subject matter can induce comical reaction by the general public, without causing disgust or offense as to what was said or mentioned about an emotionally charged issue described as mainly taboo in a given society.[citation needed]

See also


  • Robert Arthur, You Will Die: The Burden of Modern Taboos. Suburra Publishing, 2008


  1. ^ "Tapu" was translated for James Cook as "consecrated, inviolable, forbidden, unclean or cursed" (Cook & King 1821); also said in some English sources as being from Tongan (Polynesian language of the island of Tonga) ta-bu "sacred," from ta "mark" + bu "especially." But this may be folk etymology. (See Online Etymology Dictionary: Taboo)
  2. ^ "Online dictionary". Lexico Publishing Group, LLC. Retrieved 2007-06-05. 
  3. ^ Dixon, Robert M. W. (1988). A Grammar of Boumaa Fijian. p. 368. ISBN 9780226154299. 
  4. ^ Cook & King 1821, p. 348
  5. ^ Cook & King 1821, p. 462
  6. ^ Marta Dyczok; Oxana Gaman-Golutvina (2009). Media, Democracy and Freedom: The Post-Communist Experience. Peter Lang. p. 209. ISBN 9783034303118. 

External links

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  • taboo — [tə bo͞o′, tabo͞o′] n. pl. taboos [< a Polynesian language: cf. Tongan, Samoan, Maori, etc. tapu] 1. a) among some Polynesian peoples, a sacred prohibition put upon certain people, things, or acts which makes them untouchable, unmentionable,… …   English World dictionary

  • Taboo — Ta*boo , v. t. [imp. & p. p. {Tabooed}; p. pr. & vb. n. {Tabooing}.] To put under taboo; to forbid, or to forbid the use of; to interdict approach to, or use of; as, to taboo the ground set apart as a sanctuary for criminals. [Written also {tabu} …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Taboo — Ta*boo , a. [Written also {tabu} and {tapu}.] [Polynesian tabu, tapu, sacred, under restriction, a prohibition.] Set apart or sacred by religious custom among certain races of Polynesia, New Zealand, etc., and forbidden to certain persons or… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • taboo — 1777 (in Cook s A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean ), consecrated, inviolable, forbidden, unclean or cursed, explained in some English sources as being from Tongan (Polynesian language of the island of Tonga) ta bu sacred, from ta mark + bu especially …   Etymology dictionary

  • taboo — [adj] not allowed, permitted anathema, banned, beyond the pale*, disapproved, forbidden, frowned on*, illegal, off limits*, outlawed, out of bounds*, prohibited, proscribed, reserved, restricted, ruled out, unacceptable, unmentionable,… …   New thesaurus

  • Taboo — Ta*boo , n. A total prohibition of intercourse with, use of, or approach to, a given person or thing under pain of death, an interdict of religious origin and authority, formerly common in the islands of Polynesia; interdiction. [Written also… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • taboo — index ban, exclude, forbid, illicit, inhibit, prohibition, proscribe (prohibit), restraint …   Law dictionary

  • taboo — is a noun, adjective, and verb, and is pronounced with the stress on the second syllable in all three. The noun has the plural form taboos, and the verb has inflected forms taboos, tabooed, tabooing. The variant form tabu is restricted to… …   Modern English usage

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