AskDefine | Define taboo

Dictionary Definition

taboo adj
1 excluded from use or mention; "forbidden fruit"; "in our house dancing and playing cards were out"; "a taboo subject" [syn: forbidden, out(p), prohibited, proscribed, tabu, verboten]
2 forbidden to profane use especially in South Pacific islands [syn: tabu]


1 a prejudice (especially in Polynesia and other South Pacific islands) that prohibits the use or mention of something because of its sacred nature [syn: tabu]
2 an inhibition or ban resulting from social custom or emotional aversion [syn: tabu] v : declare as sacred and forbidden

User Contributed Dictionary



Tongan tapu, which means prohibited. The word entered English around 1777.

Alternative spellings


  1. An inhibition or ban that results from social custom or emotional aversion.
  2. (in Polynesia) Something which may not be used, approached or mentioned because it is sacred.


inhibition or ban
  • Croatian: tabu
  • Czech: tabu
  • German: Tabu
in Polynesia: something which may not be used


  1. Excluded or forbidden from use, approach or mention.
    Incest is a taboo subject in most soap operas.


excluded or forbidden from use, approach or mention
  • French: tabou, taboue
  • German: tabu


  1. To mark as taboo.
  2. To ban.
  3. To avoid.


to mark as taboo
  • German: tabuisieren
to ban
  • German: tabuisieren
to avoid
  • German: tabuisieren

Extensive Definition

A taboo is a strong social prohibition (or ban) against words, objects, actions, or discussions that are considered undesirable or offensive by a group, culture, society, or community. Breaking a taboo is usually considered objectionable or abhorrent. Some taboo activities or customs are prohibited by law and transgressions may lead to severe penalties. Other taboos result in embarrassment, shame and rudeness.


Common etymology traces the word back to the Tongan tapu or the Fijian tabu meaning "under prohibition", "not allowed", or "forbidden". Sigmund Freud believes this to be a superficial explanation having nothing to do with the true origins of taboos. He claims that many similarities between taboo-holders and obsessive neurotics point to "a psychological condition that prevails in the unconscious". Freud believes this "unconsciousness" is central to understanding the history of taboos. He then reconstructs the history of taboo based on the model of obsessional prohibitions as follows:
"Taboos, we must suppose, are prohibitions of primæval antiquity which were at some time externally imposed upon a generation of primitive men; they must, that is to say, no doubt have been impressed on them violently by the previous generation. These prohibitions must have concerned activities towards which there was a strong inclination. They must then have persisted from generation to generation, perhaps merely as a result of tradition transmitted through parental and social authority."
And so, "Anyone who has violated a taboo becomes taboo himself because he possesses the dangerous quality of tempting others to follow his example."

Taboo on the dead

The taboo on the dead includes the taboo against touching of a corpse and those who are caring for it; the taboo against mourners of the dead; and the taboo against anything associated with the dead (e.g., the dead person's name).



  • Among the Māori anyone who had handled a corpse or taken any part in its burial was in the highest degree unclean and was almost cut off from social intercourse with his fellow-men. He could not enter any house, or come into contact with any person or thing without infecting them. He might not even touch food with his hands, which, owing to their uncleanness, had become quite useless. "Food would be set for him on the ground, and he would then sit or kneel down, and, with his hands carefully held behind his back, would gnaw at it as best he could. In some cases he would be fed by another person, who with outstretched arm contrived to do it without touching the tabooed man." The mourners of the dead were also secluded from the public. When their period of mourning was near completion, "all the dishes he had used in his seclusion were diligently smashed, and all the garments he had worn were carefully thrown away."


  • Among the Shuswap of British Columbia widows and widowers in mourning are secluded and forbidden to touch their own head or body; the cups and cooking vessels which they use may be used by no one else. [...] No hunter would come near such mourners, for their presence is unlucky. If their shadow were to fall on anyone, he would be taken ill at once. They employ thorn-bushes for bed and pillow, in order to keep away the ghost of the deceased; and thorn bushes are also laid all around their beds.
  • Among the Agutainos, who inhabit Palawan, one of the Philippine Islands, a widow may not leave her hut for seven or eight days after the death; and even then she may only go out at an hour when she is not likely to meet anybody, for whoever looks upon her dies a sudden death. To prevent this fatal catastrophe, the widow knocks with a wooden peg on the trees as she goes along, thus warning people of her dangerous proximity; and the very trees on which she knocks soon die."

Naming the dead

The taboo on naming the dead prohibits any utterance of a dead man's name or any other words similar to it in sound. Some examples follow:
  • Among the Guaycurus of Paraguay, when a death had taken place, the chief used to change the name of every member of the tribe; and from that moment everybody remembered his new name just as if he had borne it all his life.
  • After a Yolngu man named Bitjingu died, the word bithiwul "no; nothing" was avoided. In its place, a synonym or a loanword from another language would be used for a certain period, after which the original word could be used again; but in some cases the replacement word would continue to be used.

Origins and causes

Sigmund Freud traces back the origin of the dangerous character of widowers and widows to the danger of temptation. A man who has lost his wife must resist a desire to find a substitute for her; a widow must fight against the same wish and is moreover liable to arouse the desires of other men. Substitutive satisfactions of such a kind run counter to the sense of mourning and they would inevitably kindle the ghost's wrath.
Freud explains that the fundamental reason for the existence of such taboos is the fear of the presence or of the return of the dead person's ghost. It is exactly this fear that leads to a great number of ceremonies aimed at keeping the ghost at a distance or driving him off.
The Tuaregs of Sahara, for example, dread the return of the dead man's spirit so much that "[they] do all they can to avoid it by shifting their camp after a death, ceasing for ever to pronounce the name of the departed, and eschewing everything that might be regarded as an evocation or recall of his soul. Hence they do not, like the Arabs, designate individuals by adding to their personal names the names of their fathers. [...] they give to every man a name which will live and die with him." In many cases the taboo remains intact until the body of the dead has completely decayed, but until then the community must disguise itself so that the ghost shall not recognize them. For example, the Nicobar Islanders try to disguise themselves by shaving their heads.


Artists that have worked with the theme of death include Bill Viola, Damien Hirst, Lennie Lee and Joel-Peter Witkin.
Psychologist Wilhelm Wundt associates the taboo to a fear that the dead man's soul has become a demon. Moreover, many cases show a hostility toward the dead and their representation as malevolent figures. Edward Westermarck notes that "Death is commonly regarded as the gravest of all misfortunes; hence the dead are believed to be exceedingly dissatisfied with their fate [...] such a death naturally tends to make the soul revengeful and ill-tempered. It is envious of the living and is longing for the company of its old friend."

Taboo on rulers


  • The Nubas of East Africa believe that they would die if they entered the house of their priestly king; however they can evade the penalty of their intrusion by baring the left shoulder and getting the king to lay his hands on it.
  • In West Africa, in the woods of Shark Point near Cape Padron, in Lower Guinea, a priestly king named Kukulu once lived alone. Forbidden from touching a woman or leaving his house, or even leaving his chair, in which he would sleep, the natives feared that if he lay down no wind would rise and navigation would be stopped.
  • The ancient kings of Ireland were subject to a number of strange restrictions as listed in The Book of Rights. The king, for instance, may not stay in a certain town on a particular day of the week; he may not cross a river on a particular hour of the day; he may not encamp for nine days on a certain plain, and so on.

Taboo on warriors


Restrictions placed on a victorious slayer are unusually frequent and as a rule severe.
  • In Timor, the leader of the expedition is forbidden "to return at once to his own house. A special hut is prepared for him, in which he has to reside for two months, undergoing bodily and spiritual purification. During this time he may not go to his wife nor feed himself; the food must be put in his mouth by another person."
  • In some Dyak tribes, men returning from a successful expedition are obliged to keep to themselves for several days and abstain from various kinds of food; they may not touch iron nor have any intercourse with women.
  • In Logea, an island in the neighborhood of New Guinea, "men who have killed or assisted in killing enemies shut themselves up for about a week in their houses. They must avoid all intercourse with their wives and friends, and they may not touch food with their hands. They may eat vegetable food only which is brought to them cooked in special pots. The intention of these restrictions is to guard the men against the smell of the blood of the slain; for it is believed that if they smelt the blood they would fall ill and die.
  • In the Toaripi or Motumotu tribe of south-eastern New Guinea a man who has killed another may not go near his wife, and may not touch food with his fingers. He is fed by others, and only with certain kinds of food. These observances last till the new moon."

See also



  • Über die Eingeborenen der Insel Palawan}} Globus, 59: [181ff.]

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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