tabula rasa


ta·​bu·​la ra·​sa ˌta-byə-lə-ˈrä-zə How to pronounce tabula rasa (audio)
plural tabulae rasae ˌta-byə-ˌlī-ˈrä-ˌzī How to pronounce tabula rasa (audio)
: the mind in its hypothetical primary blank or empty state before receiving outside impressions
: something existing in its original pristine state

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Philosophers have been arguing that babies are born with minds that are essentially blank slates since the days of Aristotle. (Later, some psychologists took up the case as well.) English speakers have called that initial state of mental blankness tabula rasa (a term taken from a Latin phrase that translates as "smooth or erased tablet") since the 16th century, but it wasn't until British philosopher John Locke championed the concept in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding in 1690 that the term gained widespread popularity in our language. In later years, a figurative sense of the term emerged, referring to something that exists in its original state and that has yet to be altered by outside forces.

Examples of tabula rasa in a Sentence

Recent Examples on the Web The Georgian penchant for head-to-toe black acted as a tabula rasa for Ochuba’s brand relaunch. Liana Satenstein, Vogue, 19 July 2023 In the 17th century John Locke rejected this idea, insisting that the human mind begins as a tabula rasa, or blank slate, with almost all knowledge acquired through experience. Jacob Beck, Scientific American, 14 Feb. 2023 In the 1970s, his study of social ants, bees, wasps, and termites led him to create the field of sociobiology, which shattered then-popular dogma that babies are born tabula rasa, or with their minds a blank slate to be formed by nurture and learning alone. Andrea Stone, Culture, 27 Dec. 2021 This tabula rasa texting has to end. Zak Jason, Wired, 16 Feb. 2021 Caril Ann Fugate, at only 14, became a tabula rasa onto which civilians could project almost exclusively negative and damning thoughts. Daniel Fienberg, The Hollywood Reporter, 16 Feb. 2023 This is a man who has spent more than three decades immersed in America, but not the version envisioned by so many Americans—instead, he’s been digging up what’s buried beneath the tabula rasa of street names like Plymouth and Cambridge. Dw Gibson, The Atlantic, 20 May 2022 By invoking the tabula rasa as an integral feature of human nature in which individuals can advance from inferior to superior upwards along the chain of life. Guest Blogger, Discover Magazine, 5 Oct. 2012 Building off of this, advocates of state communism, such as Vladimir Lenin or Josef Stalin, believed that each of us was born tabula rasa, with a blank slate, and that human nature could be molded in the interests of those in power. Guest Blogger, Discover Magazine, 5 Oct. 2012

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'tabula rasa.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History


Latin, smoothed or erased tablet

First Known Use

1535, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Time Traveler
The first known use of tabula rasa was in 1535


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Cite this Entry

“Tabula rasa.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 21 Apr. 2024.

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