I'm looking for a secular alternative to the term cardinal sin as used to describe a significant act that goes against established knowledge, beliefs, and practices. Any ideas?

  • People still use cardinal sin even if they are not religious fanatics.
    – tchrist
    Mar 26, 2013 at 14:28
  • 2
    Cardinal only has religious overtones as a noun; as an adjective it also appears in cardinal vowels, cardinal points, etc. As for sin, it gets used for nonliturgical things pretty often -- though the sexual overtones are undoubtedly religious in origin. Without an example of what you mean, it's hard to find the mot juste. Mar 26, 2013 at 14:30
  • The term just seems out-of-place to me in technical documentation. I wish to indicate that "breaking compatibility is a cardinal sin". Mar 26, 2013 at 14:46
  • @MichaelDudley Oh that’s what you mean! I always call that a “breach of contract” myself.
    – tchrist
    Mar 26, 2013 at 15:05
  • Most people at most times would consider the switch of domains fine - they wouldn't have a second thought about an inappropriate metaphor. However, if someone had just thrown a ripe tomato at one of the Pope's entourage... Mar 26, 2013 at 16:22

3 Answers 3


You might use violation or breach instead of sin. But outside of criminal law, where felony is distinguished from misdemeanour, we don't ordinarily rank violations, but qualify them ordinally: serious breach, gross violation. Instead, we rank the tenets or principles or practices which are violated; although you will encounter fundamental violation and similar phrases, these are elliptical for violation of the fundamental principle that ... or breach of the cardinal tenet, ....

  • "Fundamental violation" was going to be my answer.
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Mar 26, 2013 at 21:56

You can easily avoid cardinal sin by instead referring to capital vices or mortal sin. You might also refer to heresy (“A controversial or unorthodox opinion held by a member of a group...”); for example, “Breaking compatibility is heresy/heretical”.

Regarding previously-mentioned taboo, whose senses include “An inhibition or ban that results from social custom or emotional aversion” as a noun and “Excluded or forbidden from use, approach or mention” as an adjective, and faux pas (“A blunder (especially used in social contexts); a misstep”), you can suggest more severity via adjectives like unbreakable and unpardonable (ie unbreakable taboo, unpardonable faux pas). Note, the synonyms gaffe (“A foolish and embarrassing error, especially one made in public”), blunder (“A clumsy or embarrassing mistake”), and misstep might also work.


Perhaps faux pas or taboo, but neither of these suggest a high level of severity. Verboten might work, but it's an adjective rather than a noun.

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