Taboo words today tend to be defined by culture and politeness. You might say it’s “taboo” to swear in front of your grandparents, for example. Breaking a modern taboo generally means coming across as oblivious, cruel or worse.
This wasn’t always the case. While there have always been certain cultural no-nos, there were also taboos that had a more religious or magical bent. Words were imbued with real power, and breaking a taboo could lead to disastrous consequences for the speaker.
To avoid taboo words, people have come up with countless clever ways to refer to something without naming it exactly. Sometimes, these euphemistic words or phrases stuck around for so long, they became “taboo deformations,” meaning they became commonplace terms for the thing they describe. That means there are things we say every day that you might not even know came from a taboo in the first place. And yes, there are a lot of taboos we avoid breaking out of politeness, too. When you start diving into the history of taboo, it’s amazing how much avoiding saying certain things has shaped language.
What’s A Taboo?
The word taboo, as you might be able to tell just from looking at it, doesn’t come from English. It comes from a Polynesian language — most likely Tongan — and it would be more accurately written as tapu. Its first use in an English text appears in British explorer James Cook’s 1777 book, A Voyage To The Pacific Ocean:
In this definition, “taboo” can mean things either very good or very bad, but the word has evolved to be almost entirely negative. In its most general sense, it’s just something that is “forbidden.”
The Most Common Taboo Words
There are any number of reasons a word might be taboo, and consequently there are a number of ways to get around them. Most taboo words fall into a few different buckets.
Religious Taboo Words
Perhaps the oldest word taboos in existence are tied to religion, which makes sense. For one, the origin of taboo that we looked at is tied directly to religion: the religion of the Tongan people. And on a more basic level, to believe that merely saying something will have repercussions means that you must also believe in some power that will cause those repercussions.
The most common taboo is against saying the name of deities. In Judaism, for example, there are rules on how to write and say the name of God, based on the 10 Commandments laid out in the Hebrew Bible: “Thou shalt not take the name of the lord thy God in vain.” Depending on a person’s beliefs, this rule can reach different extremes. Some observant Jews just avoid saying God’s name in Hebrew, while others extend the rule and won’t write the Germanic-derived “God,” opting for “G-d” instead. These same kinds of rules apply to Christianity and Islam, as well, and other religions that have no connection to Judeo-Christian beliefs.
Even if you’re not religious at all, these religious taboos may have touched your vocabulary. Often, people will avoid “taking the lord’s name in vain” by slightly altering the pronunciation of what they’re saying. You might just substitute one sound for another, like using “gosh” as an altered form of “God.” The publication Atlas Obscura has also written about how “dagnabbit” is a very modified version of “goddamnit,” which involves switching consonants and vowels out.
On the quite literal flipside, words for Satan have also entered the lexicon, based on the belief that saying the name Satan will bring misfortune. The words “fiend” and “enemy,” while not exclusively terms for Satan, did widely refer to the devil in Old and Middle English. These are called “noa-names,” meaning the names you use when you don’t want to say the actual name.
Another version of a language taboo has to do with a person’s name. In the period of Imperial China, an era starting in the third century BCE and stretching to the 20th century CE, there was a custom that people were not allowed to say or write the name of “exalted persons.” These exalted persons included the emperor, a person’s ancestors, local magistrates and sages. It’s not known exactly where this tradition came from, or even if it started as a religious or cultural rule, but it affected people’s lives quite a bit.
Not only could you not use the names, but you also weren’t supposed to use the characters that made up the name. That means even a common word could be “taboo” because it shared a sound with the emperor’s name. The way to get around this taboo was by using a similar-sounding character, or by omitting a stroke from the character in writing. One emperor even changed his name from Bingyi (病已) to the less common character Xun (詢) to make it easier for people to avoid writing his name.
The naming taboos were most common in China and a few other Asian countries, including Japan and Vietnam. Still, there are lingering traditions against naming in other parts of the world. To use a fictional example, the taboo against saying Voldemort, the villain in Harry Potter, has popularized phrases like “you-know-who” and “he who must not be named.”
Even in casual conversation today, a person might avoid saying a person’s name lest they be somehow conjured. While it may not be tied to a certain superstition, people acknowledge that there’s a certain power behind a person’s name.
In the past, wild animals were terrifying. They’re still pretty terrifying, but a modern city-dweller probably doesn’t have to worry about running into them quite as much. Yet that was a legitimate fear in the past, and some animals were so scary that people didn’t even want to speak their name.
The “bear” is one such fearful creature. The word comes to English from the proto-Germanic bero, which literally meant “the brown one.” It’s believed that hunters were afraid of saying a bear’s true name, and so would refer to it by its color to avoid summoning one. The only problem is now we’re not entirely sure what the bear’s true name is, and we just call it a bear.
Other languages attempt to avoid damage-by-bear by referring to them by a pleasant name. In Slavic languages, the bear is called medved, meaning “honey-eater.” In Irish, they sometimes call bears mathgamain, which means “the good calf.” Slightly harsher, the Lithuanian word for bear is lācis, which likely originally meant something like “pounder.” There are a few other animals that had their names changed out of fear — in Swedish, for example, people started calling the ulv (“wolf”) a varg (“stanger”) — but the bear has the most lasting taboo legacy.
Sex, Death And The Rest
Lastly, we return to the taboos that are still present in our everyday lives: sex and death. To avoid talking about these, we resort to euphemisms, which are probably the most common ways of handling taboos. We could write a whole article collecting all of the euphemisms that we use for sex (“the beast with two backs,” “bumping uglies,” etc.) and death (“kick the bucket,” “buy the farm,” etc.). These are the phrases we use to avoid seeming too crude or blunt in conversation, and we might not even think about how common they are.
There is a surprising amount of communication that is done where people avoid simply saying what they mean. Whether this is because of personal hangups, embedded traditions, societal norms or faith in a higher power, there is a deep belief that language has power. No matter where that power comes from, we know that it’s worth it to be careful with our words.