The term “taboo” comes from the Tongan tapu or Fijian tabu (“prohibited”, “disallowed”, “forbidden”), related among others to the Maori tapu, Hawaiian kapu, Malagasy fady. Its English use dates to 1777 when the British explorer James Cook visited Tonga, and referred to the Tongans‘ use of the term “taboo” for “any thing is forbidden to be eaten, or made use of”.
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.
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”
This word taboo is so taboo that it can be taboo to talk about it. An etymology is given above from Wiki. It has two edges to it, in its original it is sacred or holy, in its more common it is forbidden and unholy. It is taboo to molest children for example. One might think that in the 21st century taboo doesn’t exist, but it does. There are many things which cannot be spoken of. Related to taboo are sacred cows, people or things that cannot be criticised. This can provide a layer of protection to people, usually powerful people. There are recent examples in the press when the taboo of speaking about sacred cows has been broken. And these sacred cows are anything other than sacred.
To some people both these terms are “superstitious” but their metaphorical use is widespread. They speak on a society and its mores. People who fall from grace, an erstwhile sacred cow, can rather quickly become taboo. People may seek to associate themselves with a sacred cow to gain power by association, the minute the cow starts to fall, they disassociate themselves as quickly as is possible.
Sat in a modern high-rise block, with intravenous internet, it is easy to scoff at taboo. Yet to suggest that someone might spend the night alone in a graveyard is to demonstrate that taboo is alive and well. This taboo thing pervades, it is of course culturally specific, though there is commonality of theme.
Anything which society excludes is taboo. To give an example; smoking is now becoming taboo. People can become incredibly self-righteous about smoking and the tribal response is, “you should quit”. There is some desire to educate the transgressors. Cancer is taboo, in that it is spoken of in hushed tones. People are fearful of death and disease. About two and a half years ago I had a stage II tumour removed, so I joined the cancer taboo club. Now to have had cancer and still smoke is ultra-taboo…
These taboos are societal in origin mostly. Within my erstwhile profession as a scientist, it is taboo to be a part trained shaman, which I am. These taboos are on all sides and usually indicate a lack of knowledge or understanding. One could say that taboo is sometimes simply a prejudice. To imagine that I got a welcome and an invitation from a Maasai holy-man shaman to stay in his compound whilst I was a laser spectroscopist, is a little hard. But it happened, we got on rather well, something just clicked between us as human beings.
Anything which is taboo holds power over us. We deem it forbidden, too risky, scary etc.. I am not advocating that you spend a night in a graveyard unless you want to. I am however pretty convinced that you would learn something about yourself if you did. Some taboos are based on common sense, the taboo is introduced for health reasons. Pork is taboo in some religions. So, smoking is a kind of health-related taboo. Other taboos are introduced for sensible societal functioning. Some are based in handed down traditions. Some are new taboos. Scientists don’t, as a whole, like anything which is to them somehow flaky. They would not want to be tarnished by association with anyone who is a whacko or a nutter.
Taboo is alive and well and prevalent in the 21st century.
As an exercise:
Make a list of all your taboos…
These can be verbal, practical, imagined or otherwise.
Then if you are brave, select a couple of taboos which are legal to do and break them.
What did you learn?