There was once a village nestled in a small valley where the people lived long and prosperous lives. The local deity, unlike so many of the other gods in that land, smiled on the people and demanded only that they remember him in their prayers. But then one day a change came about. The people were hit by wars, plagues, and famines that nearly destroyed the community. At long last, the village, sensing it had displeased its god, sent its leading citizen up the mountain to seek enlightenment from the god and a path forward.
When he returned, he told the assembled elders that the god appeared to him in a fevered vision and explained that he was angered because the people had started using the god’s name in vain. This came as news; no one knew the god had a name. But it turned out that the god did, and that some subtle change in the evolution of the language had introduced the god’s name into everyday communication without anyone realizing it. And he forbade the people to use it.
“Well, what is his name?”, the people asked. And the man who returned from the mountain smiled sorrowfully and said, “I cannot say it lest I anger him.” But through gestures and circumlocutions, the man made the people understand that the god’s name coincided with the word for a farming implement, or newly imported type of jewelry, or some such thing—the identity of the actual item, and the word itself, is lost to time. The people duly avoided uttering the sacred word upon pain of execution.
Prosperity returned, and continued for generations. But with the passage of time, disagreement arose as to which item it was that corresponded to the god’s name. Yet the memory of the travails that beset the community remained powerful, and the fear that someone would inadvertently (or perhaps mischievously) break the taboo remained ever present. The elders consulted the sacred texts, and various theories arose as to the identity of the forbidden word. The very oldest villager recalled that the word began with an “a” or possibly an “s,” and so it was decreed that no words beginning with those letters may ever be uttered. A prominent theologian insisted that the word must have had three syllables, and so three-syllable words were struck as well. As theories multiplied, the governing council, out of prudence more than conviction, struck more and more words from the language. But because of the difficulty of eliminating words without mentioning them, the villagers were often confused, and as a result tried to use as limited a vocabulary as possible, so greatly did they fear the god’s wrath.
The people of the village seem to have satisfied their god, as they remain healthy and even prosperous. By disgorging the forbidden fruit, they obtained readmission to the Garden of Eden. But they also live in fear of causing offense to the god, and so watch carefully the few words that remain to them. Under the pall of the proscription, many treasured community activities stopped long ago. To tell the truth, a group of people more prosperous and stunted is hard to imagine.