What is a Taboo?

Mary McMahon

A taboo is a prohibition against a particular activity, usually rooted in cultural or moral beliefs. Objects, people, and places may also be described as taboo, meaning that they are forbidden or that specific rules surround them. The term “taboo” comes from the Tongan word tabu, and it was introduced to English by Captain Cook, who took note of Polynesian traditions surrounding taboos, along with the word, during his expeditions in the area. Many cultures have a history of some form of taboo, even if this word was not specifically used.

Taboos might govern the proper performance of a ritual like communion.
Taboos might govern the proper performance of a ritual like communion.

In some cases, a taboo applies to something which is considered so sacred that special rules surround the way in which people may interact with it. For example, Catholics and other Christians who take communion believe that dropping the Host on the ground is taboo, because the Host is sacred and it must be treated with special care and respect. Other taboos are related to things which are viewed as profane, as seen in the menstrual taboos common to many cultures, in which women were kept confined during their menstruation because they were believed to be unclean.

In some historical cultures, women were confined during menstruation because they were believed to be unclean.
In some historical cultures, women were confined during menstruation because they were believed to be unclean.

Some taboos appear to have a root in logical behavior. Many cultures have taboos surrounding the handling of the dead, spoiled food, and other activities which could be dangerous, and it is possible that what started out as practical advice turned into a taboo as a society evolved. Likewise, many cultures have complex rules about how to behave around royalty which undoubtedly stemmed from concerned rulers who wanted to consolidate and strengthen their power. Other taboos do not appear to have a rational basis on the surface, but they are still rigidly observed.

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People may also jokingly reference a “taboo subject,” referring to something which is not considered polite or appropriate conversation. In a group of people of mixed political beliefs, politics may be a forbidden subject, and subjects like bodily functions are considered inappropriate at the dinner table in many societies.

Individuals who fail to observe taboos are usually considered to be rude, and in some cases, their offenses may be considered punishable by law. People who plan to interact with individuals from a different cultural background are often advised to study up on social rules and forbidden activities so that they do not inadvertently cause offense by violating a taboo. Numerous texts deal with specific social norms in cultures around the world so that people can prepare for trips, business negotiations, and other types of interactions in which taboos may become an issue.

Some cultures insist on confining women during menstruation.
Some cultures insist on confining women during menstruation.

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Discussion Comments


I think that cannibalism is the ultimate worldwide taboo. In almost very single society there has been some kind of strict prohibition against it. This has often gone beyond just being a law to being a cultural wide revulsion to the idea. It is not something that people even want to do.


People often thrill in breaking taboos or in rejecting taboos, but they are an important part of having an ordered society and we all live by certain taboos even if we never articulate them.

Taboos often get associated with sexual behavior but they apply in all areas of life. There are social taboos, business taboos, family taboos, friend taboos. Taboos are really about boundaries, the things you have decided are acceptable and unacceptable. Those are important choices for all of us to make.


Taboos are interesting concepts because they are so relative. Think about what is taboo in our society. It would probably be a pretty long list but not everything on that list would be equal.

For instance, adultery would probably be on there because no one likes adultery and it often has large negative consequences. Yet adultery is common and something that lots of people experience. We are against it and yet it happens all the time with relatively little punishment. Compare that to pedophilia which we have decided is unacceptable in every circumstance and have levied very heavy penalties against. Both of these are taboos but we react to them in very different ways.

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