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Taboo

What are some examples of taboo behaviour? Well, you wouldn't walk down a street naked, burp in a stranger's face, or steal a purse from an elderly person. Calling someone a rude name and catcalling a woman in the middle of the day are also considered increasingly unpleasant.

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What are some examples of taboo behaviour? Well, you wouldn't walk down a street naked, burp in a stranger's face, or steal a purse from an elderly person. Calling someone a rude name and catcalling a woman in the middle of the day are also considered increasingly unpleasant.

We all know that language and words have power. The words we choose to say to particular individuals may shock, offend, or discriminate. But how do we recognize that our words are considered taboo? What are the examples of taboo words in our English Language, and are they the same in the United Kingdom or other English-speaking countries?

Content Warning - offensive language: Some readers may be sensitive to some of the content or words used in this article about Taboo. This document serves an educational purpose to inform people of important information and relevant examples of semantic reclamation. Our team is diverse, and we sought input from members of the communities mentioned to educate readers in a sensitive way to the history of these words.

Taboo meaning in English

What is the meaning of taboo? The English word for taboo comes from tapu, a Tongan word from Polynesia which means 'to forbid' or 'to prohibit'. The concept was introduced into the English Language by Captain James Cook in the 18th century, who used 'Taboo' to describe prohibited Tahitian practices.

Taboos occur when an individual's behaviour is deemed harmful, uncomfortable, or dangerous. Taboo language features words that are to be avoided in public or entirely. As the use or non-use of taboos is determined by social acceptance and political correctness, it falls into the category of language prescriptivism.

Language prescriptivism involves the standardization of language use and establishing 'good' or correct' language rules.

Taboo words

Examples of taboo words may include swear words, racial slurs, and other derogatory terms that are considered offensive and inappropriate in certain social contexts.

Our culture defines what words are considered taboo. We generally determine words or actions to be taboo if they are obscene or profane, however, there are significant overlaps and additional categories:

  • Obscenity - words or actions viewed as vulgar, lewd or sexually immoral
  • Profanity - words or actions that serve to debase or defile what is sacred or holy, such as blasphemy
  • Uncleanliness - words or actions that are determined taboo based on cultural and societal values of 'clean' behaviour

Swear words can fall into either obscene or profane acts. Consider the word 'damn!' Nothing in the way it sounds is considered obscene. Yet, our collective cultural and historical understanding of this word means we consider 'damn!' a standard 'swear word'. Swearing also has four functions:

  • Expletive - to make an exclamatory statement like 'wow!' or to provide shock value.
  • Insult - to make an abusive address to another person.
  • Solidarity - to indicate that a speaker is affiliated with a specific group, eg, by making people laugh.
  • Stylistic - to make a sentence more memorable.

Often, taboos require euphemisms in written and spoken communication. Euphemisms are mild words or expressions that substitute more offensive ones.

'F*ck' becomes 'fudge' and 'sh*t' becomes 'shoot'.

Taboo, Consider what words you are and are not allowed to say in company, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Consider which words are appropriate to use around others.

Why the asterisks? An '*' is sometimes used to substitute letters in taboo words. This is a euphemism to make written communication more socially acceptable.

Taboo examples in language

The main examples of taboos that occur in most societies include murder, incest, and cannibalism. There are also many topics that are considered taboo and that people, therefore, avoid in conversations. What are some examples of taboo behaviours, habits, words and topics in certain cultures and religions?

Cultural taboos

Cultural taboos are highly contextualized according to countries or certain societies. In some Asian countries such as Japan or South Korea, you should not walk into a home with your shoes on or point your foot at another person as feet are considered unclean. In Germany and the UK, it is considered rude to spit in public. But what about words?

The word 'fenian' originally referred to a member of the 19th-century nationalist organization known as the Irish Republican Brotherhood. The organization was dedicated to Irish independence from the British government and had mainly Catholic members (even though it was not considered a Catholic movement).

In Northern Ireland today, 'fenian' is a derogatory, sectarian slur for Roman Catholics. Though the Northern Irish Catholic community has reclaimed the word, it is still considered taboo for British people and Northern Irish Protestants to use the word in social or media settings due to the political and cultural tensions that still exist between (and within) the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.

Cultural taboos are very specific to their individual society. Often, non-natives are unaware of these taboos until they spend time in a specific country, so researching taboos and offensive slang is key if you do not want to accidentally offend anyone!

Gender and Sexuality

Discussions surrounding sexuality and menstruation are often considered taboo examples. In some people, these kinds of bodily fluids may inspire disgust or fear of defilement. Many religious institutions consider menstruating women taboo because they worry their blood would defile holy sites or impact male-dominated spaces. Cleanliness is then a common motivating factor in establishing taboos or censorship, though this differs across cultures.

Deep Dive: In 2012, the hashtag #ThatTimeOfMonth was used as a euphemism for menstruation or periods in relation to women's moodiness and irritable behaviour. Such menstrual substitutions 'reiterates the menstrual taboo' in the English Language2 and alert us to how social constraints on individual behaviour are perhaps made even more visible in social media contexts.

The word 'queer' was, and sometimes still is, considered taboo although the word has been reclaimed in the LGBTQ+ community since the 1980s as a response to the AIDS epidemic and the desire to reassert the LGBTQ+ community's visibility.

Homosexual relations or non-heteronormative expressions of sexuality have been considered examples of taboo and, in many places, still are considered taboo today. As non-heteronormative relationships have been associated with prostitution and sinful behaviour in many religions, this has also led to them being treated as a form of religious or legal offence.

Bestiality and incest are considered major taboos regarding sexuality.

Religious taboos

Religious taboos are often based around profanity, or anything deemed sacrilegious or offensive to God and established religious beliefs. In many religions, specific theocratic methodologies (such as the Christian Church or Islamic fatwa) govern what is deemed morally and socially acceptable, thus shaping the societal constraints on taboo actions.

Theocracy is a system of government that is ruled by a religious authority, with legal systems based on religious law.

In certain religions, interfaith marriages, eating pork, blood transfusions, and premarital sex are considered major religious taboos.

In Tudor Britain, blasphemy (in this case, showing disrespect to God or Christianity in general or other forms that include taking the Lord's name in vain) was banned to prevent moral harm and suppress heresy or political revolts. The censorship and prohibition of heresy made sense, considering how divisive and frequently changing the religious status of England was between the 16th and 19th centuries.

In the Bible, Levititcus 24 suggests that taking the Lord's name in vain was punishable by death. Yet, demonstrating the dependence of religious taboos upon the social and cultural context in the Reformation period, open acts of heresy such as Thomas More's public refusal to accept Henry VIII's marriage to Anne Boleyn (which was, by then, the law) was considered more deserving of capital punishment than blasphemy.

Social, cultural and religious concepts of morality is then a common factor in the establishment of taboos - which is also why some novels are considered taboo or banned because of various subject matters such as blasphemy, promiscuous behaviour, pornography, or obscenity.

Deep Dive: Did you know the following books were banned in the 20th century for obscene or profane content?

  • F Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925)
  • Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (1932)
  • JD Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (1951)
  • John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (1939)
  • Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)
  • Alice Walker, The Color Purple (1982)

Taboos surrounding death

Taboo examples surrounding death and the dead include associating oneself with the dead. This includes not touching food (which is highly prized in many societies) after touching a corpse and refusing to mention the name of or talk about a dead person (known as necronyms).

In Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, it is culturally acceptable to keep the dead in the family home (usually in a coffin in a separate room for viewing) as part of the wake celebrations because celebrating the life of the deceased is an important part of the mourning process.

Some old Irish Traditions also include covering mirrors and opening windows to ensure the spirits of the dead aren't trapped inside. However, in other Western cultures such as England, these traditions may be uncomfortable or taboo.

Interlingual taboos

Interlingual word taboos are often a result of bilingualism. Some non-English cultures may have certain words they can say freely in their own languages but not in English-speaking contexts. This is because some non-English words may be homonyms (words pronounced or spelled the same) of taboo words in the English Language.

The Thai word phrig (in which ph is pronounced with an aspirated /p/ instead of /f/) means pepper. However, in English, phrig sounds similar to the slang word 'prick' which is considered taboo.

What is an absolute taboo?

From these examples, we can see that historical events, semantic changes over time, and cultural context influence the taboo status of words. Taboos are also enforced through euphemisms, usage, and actions.

Generally, there is no such thing as an absolute taboo because there are endless lists of taboo words and behaviours specific to a particular community in a specified context at a given place and time.

Same-sex relationships are not considered taboo in the UK in 2022, yet, homosexual relationships were only legalized in 1967. The famous author Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for 2 years in 1895 for 'gross indecency', a term meaning homosexual acts. Some countries, such as Italy, Mexico, and Japan, had already legalized homosexuality in the 19th century - although their legal status of same-sex marriage is still under dispute in 2022.

Violating taboos is believed to lead to negative consequences such as illness, incarceration, social ostracism, death, or levels of disapproval or censorship.

Censorship is the ' suppression or prohibition of speech or writing that is condemned as subversive of the common good.³

Taboo words in English - which word is the most taboo?

What we consider the most taboo word in the English Language varies between the USA, the UK, and other English-speaking countries around the world.

The 'C-word' (hint: not 'cancer') is considered one of the most taboo words in the English language because it is highly offensive in the USA, though not as much in the UK. 'Motherf*cker' and 'f**k' are also strong contenders in many English speaking countries.

Taboos and discourse

Taboos feature heavily in political correctness discourse.

The term political correctness (PC) means using measures (such as changing language and political vocabulary) to avoid offence or the perpetuation of stereotypes. However, removing the word from spoken and written conversation does not mean we have removed the baggage attached to the word.

The increasing debates around taboo words and politically correct views in print, film, politics, and on university campuses, also question our understanding of free speech and just how informed individuals are about non-Western contexts.

Examples of politically correct words include:

Terms no longer used'Correction'Reason
Male nurseNurseGendered nature of the word
CrippleDisabled person/person with disabilitiesNegative connotations/victimisation
IndianNative AmericansEthnic/racial insensitivity towards the oppressive history of the word

Some people think that the changing of language to reflect more 'politically correct' views is a negative development and that the use of censorship, euphemisms, and taboo is a method to classify, control and 'purify' language so that it is deemed less damaging or offensive.

On the other hand, others argue that this is just another example of how language develops organically over time.

Taboo - Key takeaways

  • Taboo language features words that are to be avoided in public or entirely.
  • Taboos are always contextual, which means there is no such thing as an absolute taboo.
  • Common taboo examples are death, menstruation, blasphemy, food-related, incest.
  • We sometimes use euphemisms, or asterisks, in place of taboo words to make them more socially acceptable.
  • Taboo words arise from the motivating factors of cleanliness, morality, ritual (religious) doctrines, and political correctness.

¹ 'Questions About Language: Why do People Swear?' routledge.com, 2020.

² E.M. Thomas, 'Menstruation discrimination: The menstrual taboo as a rhetorical function of discourse in the national and international advances of women’s rights', Contemporary Argumentation and Debate, Vol. 28, 2007.

³ Keith Allan and Kate Burridge, Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring of Language, 2006.

Frequently Asked Questions about Taboo

Taboo comes from the Tongan word tapu which means 'to forbid' or 'to prohibit'. Taboos occur when an individual's behavior is socially deemed harmful, discomforting, or could cause injury. 

The major examples of Taboo include incest, murder, cannibalism, the dead, and adultery. 

The concept of Taboo (meaning 'to prohibit') was introduced into the English Language by Captain James Cook in the 18th Century, who used 'Tabu' to describe prohibited Tahitian practices. 

The word taboo comes from the Polynesian language Tongan, and the word itself is used in many languages to describe socially unacceptable or immoral behaviour. 

The most taboo word in the English language is the 'c-word', which is highly offensive in the USA and, to a lesser extent in the UK. However, taboos are highly contextual in certain countries, communities (such as gender or ethnic), and religions. 

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

True or false?Taboo language is never avoided in public.

Which of the following books have not been banned? 

Which of the following is a taboo?

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