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Prohibition against touching, saying, or doing something for fear of immediate harm from a supernatural force. The term is of Polynesian origin and was first noted by Capt. James Cook during his 1771 visit to Tonga, but taboos have been present in virtually all cultures. They may include prohibitions on fishing or hunting at certain seasons, eating certain foods, interacting with members of other social classes, coming into contact with corpses, and (for women) performing certain activities during menstruation. Although some taboos can be traced to evident risks to health and safety, there is no generally accepted explanation of most others; most authorities agree that they tend to relate to objects and actions that are significant for the maintenance of social order.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on taboo, visit Britannica.com.