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Chapter 22. Tabooed Words
1. Personal Names tabooed.
UNABLE to discriminate clearly between words and things, the savage commonly
fancies that the link between a name and the person or thing denominated by it is not a
mere arbitrary and ideal association, but a real and substantial bond which unites the two
in such a way that magic may be wrought on a man just as easily through his name as
through his hair, his nails, or any other material part of his person. In fact, primitive man
regards his name as a vital portion of himself and takes care of it accordingly. Thus, for
example, the North American Indian regards his name, not as a mere label, but as a
distinct part of his personality, just as much as are his eyes or his teeth, and believes that
injury will result as surely from the malicious handling of his name as from a wound
inflicted on any part of his physical organism. This belief was found among the various
tribes from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and has occasioned a number of curious
regulations in regard to the concealment and change of names. Some Esquimaux take
new names when they are old, hoping thereby to get a new lease of life. The Tolampoos
of Celebes believe that if you write a man's name down you can carry off his soul along
with it. Many savages at the present day regard their names as vital parts of themselves,
and therefore take great pains to conceal their real names, lest these should give to evil-
disposed persons a handle by which to injure their owners.
Thus, to begin with the savages who rank at the bottom of the social scale, we are told
that the secrecy with which among the Australian aborigines personal names are often
kept from general knowledge arises in great measure from the belief that an enemy, who
knows your name, has in it something which he can use magically to your detriment. An
Australian black, says another writer, is always very unwilling to tell his real name, and
there is no doubt that this reluctance is due to the fear that through his name he may be
injured by sorcerers. Amongst the tribes of Central Australia every man, woman, and
child has, besides a personal name which is in common use, a secret or sacred name
which is bestowed by the older men upon him or her soon after birth, and which is known
to none but the fully initiated members of the group. This secret name is never mentioned
except upon the most solemn occasions; to utter it in the hearing of women or of men of
another group would be a most serious breach of tribal custom, as serious as the most
flagrant case of sacrilege among ourselves. When mentioned at all, the name is spoken
only in a whisper, and not until the most elaborate precautions have been taken that it
shall be heard by no one but members of the group. The native thinks that a stranger
knowing his secret name would have special power to work him ill by means of magic.
The same fear seems to have led to a custom of the same sort amongst the ancient
Egyptians, whose comparatively high civilisation was strangely dashed and chequered
with relics of the lowest savagery. Every Egyptian received two names, which were
known respectively as the true name and the good name, or the great name and the little
name; and while the good or little name was made public, the true or great name appears
to have been carefully concealed. A Brahman child receives two names, one for common