Religion and taboo

A taboo word must be known* but not spoken. The word has a more or less widely known location within consciousness, but the location is marked off as forbidden. Common taboos were once blasphemies, i.e. misused sacred terms, but there was always a good cache of obscenities or things that were supposed to be done ob-scena (off stage.) In the last thirty years or so the most potent taboo words are for ethnic and sexual minorities.

The use of taboo words dishonors someone by making him seen as defiled, and so presupposes some significant power that takes the right observation of the taboo with reverence. Reverence is often ambiguous since the reverencers, for all their power, are open to the charge of hypocrisy, sanctimony, fanaticism, mindless faith, priggishness, anal-retentiveness, or to the nowadays claim that they are despite their protests practicing a religion.

The tendency to equate enforcers of taboos with the religious suggests that the taboo belongs in religion, which in turn suggests that religious faith should play a some controlling role in speech. It’s not clear what this looks like as a practical policy, but while it might be compatible with some forms of free speech this seems to be balanced against the human need to make sure that its speech taboos, at least, are tied to true religion.


A word like eleemosynary is not used, but only because almost no one knows what it means. But everyone in a speech community knows what the taboo words mean.

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