I received a free copy of this book to review by NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher.
Those who know me know that I have an inordinate fondness of books on linguistics. I have a habit of posting my favorite bits on Twitter and Facebook because I just can’t not share. Melissa Mohr’s Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing is my new favorite book about language. And, while I very much wanted to post bits of it for my friends to read, I was pretty sure that I’d get hit by a TOS or something. (That and I was reading from an uncorrected proof.) It’s a pity, because there are so many quotable bits. Mohr has a knack for jokes and witty turns of phrase. This is the only book by an academic press to make me snort with laughter. I was highly entertained by this book.
I was also highly edified by this book. Aside from learning a great many words I plan to use during the next traffic jam I find myself in, Mohr showed me the evolution of swearing from Roman and Biblical times through the present. As I suspected, the way a culture swears reveals a lot about what they culture values and finds taboo. In the opening chapters, Mohr lays out her thesis that swearing comprises two large categories for English speakers. There’s the holy swears: oaths, blasphemies, and profanities in the original sense of the word. Then there’s what Mohr calls the shit swears: bodily functions, sex, and other vulgarities. Our culture, from its origins in ancient Rome and the Near East, vacillates between the two extremes. In Rome, swearing mostly involved sex and bodily functions. Among Biblical Jews, it is suspected that swearing was on the holy side of the scale. In the Middle Ages, the truly offensive words and phrases were also from the holy side of things. Words that we would find offensive today (shit, arse, piss, etc.) were used matter-of-factly in medical texts, peppered Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and even appeared in English glosses of Bible verses. The English Renaissance sent swearing from the holy to the shit, to the point that by the Victorian period, elaborate euphemisms were employed to spare listeners and readers from even a hint of obscenity. English speakers have pulled back from the extremities of Victorian times, but we still find words from the shit side of the scale to be more offensive than blasphemies and oaths.
Mohr builds her theory on, I think, carefully considered evidence. When it comes to the Romans and Jews, working out how they swore and what they found offensive took careful detective work. Mohr looked at graffiti and epigrams, lower forms of writing, and compared them to the higher forms such as epics to deduce which words were permissible and which ones most definitely weren’t. It’s even trickier for the early Hebrews, because there are fewer samples of writing available. Mohr instead dug deeply into the meanings behind the texts, using what is known about Hebrew culture, to work out what they found important and/or profane. The task gets easier as Mohr moves forward through history, because there is much more material to work with.
I appreciated Mohr’s bluntness in writing this book. She doesn’t use euphemism at all. Instead, examples of the dirty words and how they were used can be found all over the place. (So much so that even this daughter of a sailor found her eyebrows rising in surprise and even, once or twice, shock.) This isn’t a book to be read by the squeamish. Mohr actually addresses this in the introduction. She knows she’s going to shock, just because of the nature of the subject. She even writes that there were words that were hard for her to research and write about, they were so highly offensive.
In the epilogue, Mohr speculates about what swear words will be like in the future. If I’ve learned nothing else about language, I’ve learned that it evolves over time. Mohr pointed out frequent examples of words that became more or less offensive over time. Who knows that words will shock us in the future? Swearing is never going away because it’s just so damned useful, after all. It makes us feel better when we hurt ourselves. It helps us express how strongly we feel about things. So, I say to Mohr, bloody well done.