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  • Print publication year: 2006
  • Online publication date: December 2009

6 - Taboo, naming and addressing


One's name is an inalienable part of one's identity; it is the essence of self and it is a means by which one is known to one's fellows. An assault on one's name is treated as comparable with, or even worse than, an assault on one's body. So names are tabooed in many communities. Calling a name risks malevolence falling on the name-bearer and the caller. Proper names are chosen with care and many communities have constraints on giving names, such that they render the individual identifiable with the community. Consequently, a person is stigmatized by their name, a fact that has both positive and negative consequences. We discuss styles of naming and addressing as they are affected by the speaker's attitude and by the perceived role and status, within the context of the talk exchange, of the speaker and the person addressed or named. Inappropriate naming, name-calling and addressing is subject to censoring and censorship.

Why names are tabooed

Personal names are (or have been) taboo among some peoples on all the inhabited continents, and on many of the islands between them. The taboo on names is a fear-based taboo. In the same way that malevolent magic can be wrought with one's person, bodily effluvia or shadow, so can it be wrought when another person is in possession of one's true name. ‘The name of a person … is associated with the “essence” (to ʔofungana) of that person.

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