A Look at Taboo

Throughout history, ethics, morals and general social conduct have been in a state of constant flux, to such an extent that numerous practices which were considered unacceptable in the past are now a common constituent of our daily lives. The social conventions which govern many aspects of any given period are essentially an amalgamation of tradition, innate morality (if such a thing is to be conceived as existent); which are often to some extent enforced by ideological state apparatus of the ilk of the church and racial heritage; and the laws of the time and place, as upheld by the governing body through repressive state apparatus such as the police and consequently the judicial system. A most forceful and interesting example of this is to be found in our understanding of the term ‘taboo’.

In a collection of his essays entitled “Totem and Taboo” first published in 1919,Sigmund Freud posits amongst other things, his interpretation of the role of taboo in both history and the modern day, ultimately linking it with the actions and views of neurotics. Freud, in Chapter 2: Taboo and the Ambivalence of Emotions presents the intriguing paradox that: “For us the meaning of taboo branches off into two opposite directions. On the one hand it means to us sacred, consecrated: but on the other hand it means, uncanny, dangerous, forbidden, and unclean.”(P41)

As this apparent contradiction of definitions would suggest; the age old concept of taboo: in the eyes of Freud focuses upon prohibitions and desires. Within the text, Freud elaborates that in ancient civilisation, most notably in Polynesia; taboo served several functions. Not only did it guard those in power against assassination through a network of superstitions which prevented direct contact between a chief and a common man, but also fulfilled a similar task in protecting the vulnerable. Simultaneously, taboo as is stated in the quotation from Northcote W. Thomas’ article on the subject within Totem and Taboo, protected an individual’s property from theft, prevented the consumption of particular animals and substances and barred interaction with the corpses of the dead. Consequently it can be judged that taboo is generally held to be considered that which through threat of negative repercussions, is restricted or prohibited.

In his introduction to the splendid little tome: ‘The Wordsworth Dictionary of Obscenity and Taboo’, James McDonald provides an outline of the way in which taboos operate in modern society rather than as a universal concept: “In practice, therefore, our chosen taboos reflect our communal attitudes, and the fact that in recent times English speakers have tended to stigmatize sex and excretion must say something about our collective mentality.”(p6 1988) As McDonald points out; taboo leads inevitably to the imposition of euphemisms in order to avoid direct utterance of particular socially prohibited terms. In turn these euphemisms themselves gain taboo status as a consequence, one would presume, of the familiarity resulting from persistent usage, which in turn grants them an even closer association with the action or object of taboo than the term they served to replace.

Are we eternally engaged in a system where euphemisms from their day of entry to the lexicon are gradually dragged toward the taboo end of the spectrum; only for the whole process to be repeated ad infinitum?

Written by Jamie Lyons- SEO Manchester in association with OfficeYoo Office Supplies

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