A taboo is an implicit prohibition on something (usually against an utterance or behavior) based on a cultural sense that it is excessively repulsive or, perhaps, too sacred for ordinary people.[1][2] Such prohibitions are present in virtually all societies.[1] On a comparative basis taboos, for example related to food items, seem to make no sense at all as what may be declared unfit for one group by custom or religion may be perfectly acceptable to another.

Taboos are often meant to protect the human individual, but there are numerous other reasons for their existence. An ecological or medical background is apparent in many, including some that are seen as religious or spiritual in origin. Taboos can help use a resource more efficiently, but when applied to only a subsection of the community they can also serve to suppress a subsection of the community. A taboo acknowledged by a particular group or tribe as part of their ways, aids in the cohesion of the group, helps that particular group to stand out and maintain its identity in the face of others and therefore creates a feeling of "belonging".[3]

The meaning of the word "taboo" has been somewhat expanded in the social sciences to strong prohibitions relating to any area of human activity or custom that is sacred or forbidden based on moral judgment, religious beliefs, or cultural norms.[3] "Breaking a taboo" is usually considered objectionable by society in general, not merely a subset of a culture.


The term "taboo" comes from the Tongan tapu or Fijian tabu ("prohibited", "disallowed", "forbidden"),[4] related among others to the Maori tapu and Hawaiian kapu. 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".[5] 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.[6]

The term was translated to him as "consecrated, inviolable, forbidden, unclean or cursed."[7] Tabu itself has been derived from alleged Tongan morphemes ta ("mark") and bu ("especially"), but this may be a folk etymology (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."[8][9][10] 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".