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Tahiti / Blog / The curious origin of the word “taboo”

The curious origin of the word “taboo”

The origin of the word taboo, as we know it today, comes from a distant, unexpected and exceptional place. Specifically, it comes from our antipodes, that is, Polynesia. And its original meaning and history are quite curious.

Taboo is one of the few words in Spanish that comes from those lands that we have included in our dictionary, along with the word “pareo“. It arrived in the West thanks to sailor James Cook, one of the first navigators to arrive in French Polynesia back in 1769 and whose expedition was tasked with measuring the transit of Venus from the island of Tahiti to calculate with precision the distance between Venus and the Sun. This would allow the distance of the rest of the planets to be calculated subsequently, using their relative orbits. A great astronomical advance, from a territory where tradition and mythology were deeply rooted.

Moorea montaña

To the right of Mount Rotui, you can see Cook’s Bay. This is where the sailor anchored when he arrived at the neighboring island of Moorea.

Cook, upon his return from his expedition, documented the word “taboo” as original to those lands, although the appropriate way to write it would have been “tapu” or “kapu“, depending on the different Polynesian regions.

For the Polynesian people, the meaning of the word taboo goes beyond the meaning given to it in the West. There, something taboo was completely forbidden and not only had to be something derived from a specific reason, but from complex beliefs related to human sacrifices, hierarchy, sacred places, or various customs.

For example, tribe leaders have to eat using a stick because they cannot touch their heads with their hands. Another very curious one related to the leaders was that if they entered a house, the owner had to leave. More taboos are related to prohibitions associated with food, the way of eating it, prohibited fishing or hunting days. Other taboos (of which there were many) included not spilling water (in some regions) or not going to certain islands on specific days.

Taboos were related to a supernatural power that prevented certain acts from being carried out or doing them in a certain way out of fear of a “supernatural” punishment, and often professed by the tribe when a taboo was violated.

Today, in Polynesia, the meaning of taboo, although with a more deeply rooted traditional background than the one that arrived here centuries ago, is closer to the Western one and means that if something is taboo or is tabooed, it is prohibited. An example that can be seen throughout French Polynesia, for example, is that it refers to “no entry, private property” that can be seen written on signs in the different plots that make up the different islands and where they only write the word TABU.


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