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

Did you know?

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.

Example Sentences

Recent Examples on the Web EmRata’s new vintage moment harks back to when Kim Kardashian was in her tabula rasa Balenciaga era last December. Liana Satenstein, Vogue, 20 Sep. 2022 Neuroscience inherited the blank slate framework millennia after early thinkers gave names like tabula rasa to mental operations. György Buzsáki, Scientific American, 14 May 2022 Ever since the time of Aristotle, thinkers have assumed that the soul or the mind is initially a blank slate, a tabula rasa on which experiences are painted. György Buzsáki, Scientific American, 14 May 2022 While Kardashian has had bombastic and excessive fashion moments, her Balenciaga era is a clean slate, a tabula rasa setting the stage for what’s to come. Liana Satenstein, Vogue, 9 Dec. 2021 And yet, despite these decidedly unglamorous associations, the messenger bag feels like a tabula rasa for the return to the office. Liana Satenstein, Vogue, 9 Aug. 2021 There’s no tabula rasa, no matter what John Locke may tell you. Dominic Pino, National Review, 3 July 2021 Thackray is not asking anyone to trade in their Strad for a slim-olin—one, after all, is not like the other—but, rather, to posit that the violin can be a tabula rasa for gleeful, impractical experimentation. Jennifer Gerste, The New Yorker, 2 July 2021 Chris Lynn, a landscape architect with AECOM, introduced Thursday’s discussion by displaying a provocative image of Cleveland’s downtown lakefront with a 50-acre tabula rasa in place of the stadium. Steven Litt, cleveland, 3 June 2021 See More

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'tabula rasa.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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 9 Dec. 2022.

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