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taboo or tabu (both: tăbo͞oˈ, tə–), prohibition of an act or the use of an object or word under pain of punishment. Originally a Polynesian word, taboo can apply to the sacred or consecrated or to the dangerous, unclean, and forbidden. A taboo can be placed on an object, person, place, or word that is believed to have inherent power above the ordinary. This power, called mana, can only be approached by special priests. To give distinction to special moments in the life cycle, taboos are often declared at births, deaths, initiations, and marriages. Taboos are commonly placed on a clan's ancestral guardian, called the totem. The breaking of a taboo usually requires extermination of the offender or some sort of ceremonial purification in order to remove the taint from the community. Often the mana of a taboo is so great that the offender will suffer punishment, even death, merely through fear of its powers.


See J. G. Frazer, Taboo and the Perils of the Soul (3d ed. 1955); S. Freud, Totem and Taboo (1960, orig. 1918); M. Douglas, Purity and Danger (1970).

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any ritual prohibition on certain activities. The term originally comes from Captain Cook's description of Polynesian custom. It may involve the avoidance of certain people, places, objects or actions, and the universal incest taboo is a much cited example of the latter. Much work on this area has been carried out from within anthropology in an attempt to explain why, for instance, different foods are avoided within various cultures. Functionalists prefer explanations of taboo and TOTEMISM in terms of group solidarity, whilst structuralists, such as M. DOUGLAS in Purity and Danger (1966), have focused on taboos as a problem in classifying ambiguity.
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



(1) A prohibition in preclass societies against touching, taking, or using a thing or person deemed sacred. The violation of a taboo is supposed to bring supernatural reprisal.

The taboo custom was first described in 1771 by the explorer J. Cook in reference to the aborigines of the Tonga Islands. In the Polynesian culture, everything relating to the divine, or supernatural, and hence everything belonging to priests and chiefs was taboo. The notion of taboo apparently originated in conjunction with the need in formative societies to regulate individual behavior according to the interests of the group. Taboos thus governed the most important aspects of a person’s life, such as the observance of laws or customs regarding exogamy. Food taboos were also widespread. Vestiges of the taboo custom are preserved in modern religions; the Christian concept of sin, for example, is analogous to taboo.


Takarev, S. A. Rannie formy religii i ikh razvitie. Moscow, 1964.
Semenov, Iu. I. Kak vozniklo chelovechestvo. Moscow, 1966.
(2) In linguistics, a taboo is a word whose use is either forbidden or scrupulously avoided because of religious beliefs, superstitions, social prohibitions, or the like. In Russian, for example, the word “bear” is substituted by commercial hunters with such expressions as “master of the house,” “clown,” or simply “he.”


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


, tabu
1. (in Polynesia and other islands of the South Pacific) marked off as simultaneously sacred and forbidden
2. ritual restriction or prohibition, esp of something that is considered holy or unclean
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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