From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
In a journal entry from 1777, James Cook says the term taboo “has a very comprehensive meaning; but, in general, signifies that a thing is forbidden.... When any thing is forbidden to be eat, or made use of, they say, that it is taboo.”
The history of civilization is the history of a long warfare between the dangerous and powerful forces of the id, and the various systems of taboos and inhibitions which man has erected to control them. --Sex in History (1964) -- Gordon Rattray Taylor
A taboo is a strong social prohibition (or ban) against words, objects, actions, discussions, or people that are considered undesirable or offensive by a group, culture, or society. Breaking the taboo is usually considered objectionable or abhorrent. Some taboo activities or customs are prohibited under law and transgressions may lead to severe penalties. Other taboos result in embarrassment, shame and rudeness.
The term "taboo" comes from the Tongan tapu or Fijian tabu ("prohibited", "disallowed", "forbidden"), related among others to the Maori tapu. Its English use dates to 1777 when the British explorer 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.
- When any thing is forbidden to be eaten, or made use of, they say, that it is taboo.
The term was translated to him as "consecrated, inviolable, forbidden, unclean or cursed". Tabu itself has been derived from alleged Tongan morphemes ta ("mark") and bu ("especially"), but this may be a folk etymology (note that Tongan does not actually have a phoneme /b/), and tapu is usually treated as a unitary, non-compound word inherited from Proto-Polynesian *tapu, in turn inherited from Proto-Oceanic *tabu, with the reconstructed meaning "sacred, forbidden".
In its current use on Tonga, the word tapu means "sacred" or "holy", often in the sense of being restricted or protected by custom or law. On the main island, the word is often appended to the end of "Tonga" as Tongatapu, here meaning "Sacred South" rather than "Forbidden South".
Taboos can include dietary restrictions (halal and kosher diets, religious vegetarianism, and the prohibition of cannibalism), restrictions on sexual activities, gender roles and relationships (sex outside of marriage, adultery, intermarriage, miscegenation, homosexuality, incest, animal-human sex, pedophilia, necrophilia and paraphilias), restrictions of bodily functions (burping, flatulence, defecation, urination, masturbation, nosepicking, and spitting), restrictions on state of genitalia such as circumcision or sex reassignment, exposure of body parts, pornography and nudity esp. in the US), illicit drugs, substance abuse, alcoholism, bodily pain, medical surgery, satanism or devil worship, restrictions on the use of offensive language also known as obscenity and vulgarity, and other topics/subjects that provoke emotional angst or may disturb people to discomfort. Some taboos originated by acts of authority, be it legal, social and religious, over a period of time.
The list of "common courtesy" taboos more having to do with western etiquette and respecting others, include topics on sexuality, religion, death, disease, natural disasters, divorce, politics, crime, justice, money issues, gender, race/ethnicity in order to avoid discriminatory and prejudiced attitudes, human rights, oppression, animal abuse, child abuse, domestic violence, abortion, miscarriage, pregnancy and childbirth, personal issues regarding one's age, income, height, weight and appearance, and a variety of religious sins are taboo, depending of their faith. Environmentalism, other ecology-related issues and scientific controversies (human evolution, eugenics, in-vitro fertilization, human cloning and stem cell research) are often treated like a taboo by their controversial and divisive nature in the realm of politics, morality and religious belief. When not in "polite society", discussions on taboos are allowed in humorous expression, such as comedy and satire.
- Faux pas
- Norm (sociology)
- Public morality
- Social stigma
- Stigmatic-eligibilic paraphilia
- ʻAi Noa
- Great Taboo
- Incest taboo
- Kala pani
- Menstrual taboo
- Taboo food and drink
- Taboo on the dead
- Toilet humour
- Vestal Virgin
- Word taboo