Book 3; Continent: Europe, North America

Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing by Melissa Mohr

  • 322 pages (258 pages of content)
  • Don’t let the title fool you: there is some interesting history of the English language in here.

When I told my husband what I was reading this week, he responded, “Greaaaat.”

My back was turned, but I could almost hear him roll his eyes. A book about the history of swearing? How sophomoric. How junior high. Chapter one, the etymology of the F-bomb, and so on, chapter by chapter, through George Carlin’s famous list of words one can’t say on television…right?

Actually, this book was surprisingly more cerebral than that, although I did wince with discomfort in some places. Even the title had a point beyond just shocking one into a second look. It represents Mohr’s thesis, the idea that our definition of “swearing” encompasses separate two spheres. The first includes religious oaths. The second sphere consists of terms for bodily functions or parts that we normally conceal. Throughout the book, she uses each word from the title to distinguish one sphere from the other.

Mohr considers the question of what makes any of these terms “swearwords” in the first place. Of course, a swearword must have the power to shock. However, she draws a distinction between swearwords and words that are merely vulgar or impolite. To become a swearword, she tells us, a word must have become an abstraction, something exclaimed outside of a specific context. For example, the F-word or some form of it can be dropped as a verb (a few definitions including the classical sense of the word), a noun, an adjective or adverb—a versatility not available to most words with a specific meaning. Taking the power to shock and the abstract nature together, one can begin to understand how the power of a particular word might have a certain ebb and flow within a given language (this author discusses only swearwords in the English language). Notice that the word “booger” doesn’t work nearly as well for multiple parts of speech. In part, this word’s inadequacy for the task of swearing comes from the fact that it still immediately conjures a specific meaning: something one flicks off the end of one’s finger having discovered it in one’s nose. The F-bomb was once this specific and concrete, but it has gradually become more abstract.

The ebb and flow of terms within a language is a key idea the author stresses: standards of obscenity have evolved over time. The Romans used words related to sex or elimination in varying degrees of formality or vulgarity. If a Roman really wanted to cuss someone out, he or she would use any of several rude terms calling them the passive sex partner (either heterosexual sex or homosexual sex was okay with the Romans, but there was a stigma attached to being the more passive partner). During the Medieval period, however, religious oaths had much more power to shock than did terms for body parts or whatever was being done with them. Medieval Christians thought of God in a more concrete way than do most present-day Christians, so swearing by His blood conjured a much more direct and shocking mental image. By contrast, these same people dealt with urine and feces daily without the benefit of flush toilets, so really none of the words one might have used for them held anyone’s attention. The pendulum swung the other direction for the Victorian age, when people choked on the word “leg” in mixed company. During this time period, the rising middle class sought to distance itself from the uneducated poor by putting on this air of affected courtesy (in fact, the wealthy and titled peers of Britain used less delicate language than shopkeepers, etc.). The author ties these arguments to discussions about theology, sanitation standards, personal space and the concept of privacy.

Interestingly, Mohr admits to finding one section of her book uncomfortable to write: the chapter near the end on ethnic and racial slurs. Racial and ethnic slurs entered the English language when the British Empire began to expand, and English-speaking people encountered people from cultures they assumed were inferior. At that time, the tales reaching the British family home from abroad spoke of conquering British heros and “primitive” cultures encountered. Terms batted around for foreigners were not considered obscene or even impolite until much later. Today, however, both U.S. and the U.K. each include one highly offensive slur on their respective lists of top ten swearwords (they are different terms). At a personal level, I wouldn’t bat an eyelash at a note from school that my daughter had sworn in class—she has pretty much heard the George Carlin list from me when I’m driving—unless it was the N-word, which would buy her some real consequences from me. Probably true for a lot of us in my generation.

The discussion of racial epithets and ethnic slurs dovetails into the final topic for the book, the idea of legally recognized “fighting words”. This legal concept says that words meant to give specific offense to a specific individual or group are not protected by the U.S. First Amendment because they are the equivalent to yelling “Fire!” in a movie theater, i.e., solely intended to disturb the peace. We are in murky waters legally here. Not every swearword uttered constitutes “fighting words” because it may not be targeted to a particular group or individual. Interpreted too broadly, “fighting words” becomes an easy way to censor ideas a government simply doesn’t care for (famously, “F— the draft.”).

Overall, this book proved more academically rigorous than I expected, in spite of the obviously large number of swearwords which occur. Although she treats her topic seriously and carefully, Mohr keeps her tone light and tasteful enough that I would not hesitate to recommend it to someone I know reasonably well. Plenty of humor offsets the handful of winces and helps the reader get comfortable with the touchy subjects. Full disclosure: my winces centered around the religious aspects because I am a churchgoer. I would also consider allowing a middle-school or teenage kid to read it at home: it might take some of the shine off the forbidden fruit to know where it all comes from (if this seems like a good idea to you, please read it yourself first and make your own judgment).

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