Book Review — Holy Sh*t!: A Brief History of Swearing

Author: Melissa Mohr
Publisher: Oxford University Press

Every once in a while you come across a book on a bookstore shelf that catches your eye simply because it’s got a dirty word right in the title. So it was with me and this one, which is really quite a good data point in favor of one of the book’s primary arguments: that swear words and taboo language speak to us on a fundamentally different level from other language.

Though brief, this history of swearing is pretty comprehensive, at least for English. Mohr (whose author picture on the back jacket shows her with her young son–that must have been fun trying to explain mom’s latest project), divides swears and cursing into two categories, the Holy (“Oh my god!”, “Sweet Jesus”, “Damn you”, etc.) and the Shit (shit, fuck, asshole, and the like). If you found yourself reacting more strongly to the latter than the former, that’s because, according to Mohr, we’re living in the age of the Shit right now. Which is to say that language referencing obscenity and bodily functions has greater taboo force than the other kind of historically offensive language, language that references theology.

What we get from this book is the chronological tale of the Holy vs. the Shit, beginning in Roman times with some Shit in Latin and discussion of Roman sexual mores and how that played into their ideas of insulting verbiage. Later, we see the rise of the Holy in the Middle Ages, when the human body was an almost entirely open subject (such that period translations of the Bible itself contains words like “bollocks”), but if you merely said “God’s wounds,” you were considered to be actually beating up the body of Christ in heaven. Later we see both the Holy and the Shit get roughly equal prominence in the Renaissance (albeit in different domains–here we begin to really see the distinction between oaths, the Holy, and insults, the Shit). With the enlightenment and the Victorian Age, the Holy lost prominence (i.e. taboo and predicative force), but the Shit was considered the domain of the lower classes, so the emerging middle class resorted to euphemism, thus strengthening the societal offense caused by the Shit words in the first place. Fast forward to the present day, the age of Shit, where “My god!” barely causes the bat of an eyelash, but you can’t say “fuck” on basic cable.

What’s most interesting about this book is actually what’s not explicitly said in the title. You can’t have a history of swearing without having a history of the context in which things are swears. Thus this book is also a history of propriety. With the Holy and the Shit, we find two different kinds of propriety at stake, religious and mundane. While the evolution of religious propriety is really just touched upon in passing (we can infer from the strength of Holy oaths how seriously or not people took the effect of their words on the heavens), we do get a good view into the development of attitudes toward the human body in parallel with the evolution of very concept of privacy. This is an angle you don’t get in much history, and I won’t spoil many of the neat little facts brought up by the book, but the basic idea is that as realms of human life become less private to the outside world, so the language used to discuss them becomes more taboo. The parts of you you keep covered by walls or clothes, you also cover with your language.

We also, of course, see the evolution of swearing in parallel with changing class paradigms. The Victorian Age brought us both the term “cuss like a tinker” and the phrase “swear like a lord.” Of course, in that time, the only people who swore to excess were lords, who were secure in their position so could say what they liked, and the working class who, for lack of a better term, didn’t give a Shit.

The last chapter and epilogue engage in some speculation, namely where is taboo language going? We are leaving the age of Shit, says Mohr, but what will pick up the slack? With the ascent of evangelical Christianity in the United States, will we see a return to the Holy and the days of “God’s wounds”? (Quelle horreur! I’d dispute that the religious right is necessarily ascendent anymore, anyway.) More likely, and what we’re seeing as Shit words lose their force (you can say all but three of George Carlin’s famous Seven Words on TV now, in the proper circumstances), is that a new class of taboo words is rising: racial and discriminative slurs. “N****r” is one of the worst words you can say in modern English (you can tell a guy to “fuck off” a million times, but if you call him that, you’ve crossed a line). Homophobic slurs are generally regarded as pretty bad, too. One interesting thing that’s brought up is the possibility that as medicine makes progress and we hypothetically begin to conquer our worst fear, death, talk of that may become taboo. We’ll see what happens.

One thing I would have liked to see is more cross-linguistic comparison. We get Latin, but little else. For example, the Scandinavian “F-word” (Norwegian faen, Swedishfan, etc.) comes from a “Holy” word meaning the devil, and is not a “Shit” word. Does this say something about the society or is it just a linguistic artifact. Someone should write a book or something.

I’m secretly twelve inside, so a book on dirty words would be right up my alley. Foul language speaks to us on a very intimate level, and curses themselves are a small window onto the society that uses them. Sometimes no other words will do, so say them loudly and say them proudly: Holy shit!

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