The History of the Word Taboo

Posted: May 10, 2013 in Defining Taboo
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Origin: Polynesian cultures in the South Pacific. The word taboo comes from the Tongan tabu. It was introduced into the English language later than 1771 by Captain James Cook.

Definition: According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, taboo can be defined as “the prohibition of an action based on the belief that such behavior is either too sacred and consecrated or too dangerous and accursed for ordinary individuals to undertake.”1

Breakdown: From this definition come numerous ideas. Here, it is clear that taboo has its roots in avoidance. However, by basing this avoidance in “belief” we lose the chance for universality. No person or culture believes the same things. For this very reason we find the fluidity in what is and isn’t taboo. What is “too sacred or consecrated” only coincides with religion, whereas what is “too dangerous” may apply to the secular or scared world. But what is an ordinary individual? Perhaps those whom are not mortals—gods? Or rather those thought of as having higher values than ordinary individuals: royalty, priests, celebrities? What Nietzsche called the Superman or Overman? This definition of taboo allows for the possibility of taboos not existing for a select group of people.

1 Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. “taboo,” accessed May 01, 2013, EBchecked/topic/579821/taboo.

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