societal or cultural prohibition

In a group or society, a taboo is something that is not acceptable to talk about or do. An activity or behavior can be taboo in one culture, but not in another. Some things like cannibalism and sexual relationships between siblings are taboo in almost all societies. Sometimes even talking about taboos is taboo. Some taboos may also be against the law, and people who break them may be punished. Breaking taboos can seem rude, and can cause embarrassment or shame.

A sign on Bora Bora. Translates to "Keep out"

Origins of the word


The English word “taboo” comes from the Tongan word tapu[1][2] or the Fijian word tabu.[3] These words usually mean "not allowed", or "forbidden".[3] In its current use in Tonga, the word tapu also translates to "sacred" or "holy", this means something that is protected by custom or by law. For example, the main island in the Kingdom of Tonga, where the capital Nuku'alofa is located and most of the population resides, is called "Tongatapu".

Its first recorded use in English dates back to 1777. An English explorer, Captain James Cook, went to a place he named "the Friendly Islands" (now Tonga). Writing about 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 eat, or made use of, they say, that it is taboo.

—James Cook, 1777

Some Solomon Islanders say that their languages have a word tabu (said like "ta-boo") that means “holy.” This word refers to places in the bush where holy spirits live. Local customs say that nobody should disturb these places unless a ceremony or ritual is taking place. As taboo, they are places that should not be touched.

Common taboos


Many world religions have taboos about food. Islam and Judaism both say there are some foods which people should never eat. A halal diet does not include any of the foods that are taboo in Islam. A kosher diet does not include any of the foods that are taboo in Judaism. Other religions say that people should be vegetarians. In these religions, eating meat is taboo. Many societies also have taboos about food. For example, cannibalism is taboo in most societies in the world.

Some sexual activities, gender roles, and relationships are taboo in many religions, societies, and cultures. For example, fornication, adultery, endogamy violations, miscegenation, homosexuality, incest, bestiality, pedophilia, necrophilia and other paraphilias are taboo in many groups.

In many societies, performing bodily functions in public is taboo. Taboo activities in public might include burping, flatulence, defecation, urination, masturbation, nosepicking, and spitting. In some societies, menstruation is taboo, and women are expected not to talk about it in public.

Some religions say that certain types of genitalia are taboo. For example, Judaism says that boys should be circumcised. In some societies, having sex reassignment surgery is taboo.

Pornography, nudity, drug addiction, alcoholism, slavery, and vulgarity are taboo in many societies. Some cultures see certain gestures as taboo.

In some groups and societies, talking about race or racism is taboo.



There are two major theories about why taboos exist. The '’Anthropological approach’’ says that taboos are the result of history and culture. The ‘’Psychoanalytical approach’’ says there are psychological reasons for why taboos exist.

Anthropological approach


The anthropological approach says that taboos are the result of history and certain cultural experiences. Steven Pinker, A psychologist and writer, says that taboos have developed culturally from more basic instincts.[4] He thinks that humans have a reflex to feel disgust when they see some things that carry disease (including dead bodies). He says that people created taboos regarding the dead because of this natural disgust for dead bodies. He thinks that some actions can also cause this reflex of disgust. He says many people have a reflex of disgust about incest (sexual relationships between family members). For this reason, taboos about incest developed.

Psychoanalytical approach


The psychoanalytical approach says that taboos exist because of people’s unconscious thoughts and feelings. For example, Sigmund Freud thought that children naturally have sexual desires towards family members. In his book ‘’Totem and Taboo,’’ Freud wrote that taboos about incest developed to make sure people would not act on these sexual desires. Freud thought that incest and patricide are the only “universal” taboos (meaning these behaviors are taboo in almost all societies and cultures). He said that these taboos formed the basis of modern societies.

German psychologist Wilhelm Wundt explains that taboos come from people’s fear of a "demonic" power. When people think this demonic power lies hidden in an object, that object becomes taboo.[5] Sigmund Freud disagreed. Freud thought that Wundt’s ideas did not consider the psychological reasons for taboos.[6] Writing about the history of taboos, Freud said:

"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."[7]

Freud added: "Anyone who has violated a taboo becomes taboo himself because he possesses the dangerous quality of tempting others to follow his example."[8]



  1. "Online Etymology dictionary". Retrieved 2007-06-05.
  2. "Online dictionary". Lexico Publishing Group, LLC. Retrieved 2007-06-05.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Dixon, R.M.W. (1988). A Grammar of Boumaa Fijian. University of Chicago Press. p. 368. ISBN 978-0-226-15429-9.
  4. Probable source: Pinker S. 1994. The language instinct. New York: HarperCollings.
  5. Freud 1950, p. 24
  6. Freud 1950, pp. 26–30
  7. Freud 1950, p. 31
  8. Freud 1950, p. 32


  • Bastian, A. (1874–75), Die deutsche Expedition an der Loango-Küste [2 vols.] Jena.
  • Blumentritt, F. (1891), Über die Eingeborenen der Insel Palawan Globus, 59: [181ff.]
  • Boas, F. (1890), "Second General Report on the Indians of British Columbia", Report of Sixtieth Meeting of the British Association [562ff.]
  • Brown, W (1845), New Zealand and its Aborigines, London
  • Dixon, R. M. W. (2002), Australian Languages: Their Nature and Developments, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0-521-47378-1
  • Frazer, J. G. (1911), "Taboo and the Perils of the Soul", The Golden Bough (3rd ed., Part II ed.), London{{citation}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  • Frazer, J. G. (1990), "Taboo and the Perils of the Soul", The Golden Bough (3rd ed., Part II ed.), New York: St. Martin's Press [1st ed., 1913.]
  • Freud, Sigmund (1950), trans. Strachey (ed.), Totem and Taboo:Some Points of Agreement between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, ISBN 978-0-393-00143-3
  • Kulick and Willson, Taboo: Sex, Identity, and Erotic Subjectivity in Anthropological Fieldwork 1995
  • Müller, S. (1857), Reizen en Onderzoekingen in den Indischen Archipel, Amsterdam{{citation}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  • Tregear, E. (1890), "The Maoris of New Zealand", Journal of the Anthropological Institute, xix
  • Zweifel, J.; Moustier, M. (1880), Voyage aux sources du Niger, Marseilles{{citation}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)

Other websites