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This review is from: Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing (Hardcover)
If you prefer your swearwords bleeped, then best not judge this brilliant book by its cover, since the huge asterisk has few companions in the text (and they're used as footnote markers). Melissa Mohr holds nothing back in this fascinating history, unlike the linguists and lexicographers of previous generations who would often act as if these words simply didn't exist. For the purposes of this review, however, I shall choose my quotes carefully, mindful of filters that can be more sensitive than a Victorian churchwarden. Otherwise, even troopers and other professionals proverbially inclined to profane language might raise an eyebrow.
A single huge asterisk is actually a fitting symbol to appear on the cover, since it resembles the chi-rho symbol of early Christianity. Before we turn a page, one of the main themes of the book - the relationship over time between religion and language - is subtly signposted.
Today, to many people, swearing means bad language, something to be avoided in polite company or on live television. In the past, words that we would consider taboo were not offensive, because swearing meant something very different. In the Bible, for example, swearing an oath meant "calling on God to witness that a person is telling the truth or intending to fulfil a promise." Indeed, "swearing is the foundational act of the Jewish and Christian faiths" and something that even Yahweh himself does. There's an important difference between sincere oaths, which called on God as a witness, and vain oaths, which were thought to injure him. Either way, oaths "remained the most shocking, most highly charged language in the Middle Ages".
Here is the clue as to what characterizes all kinds of swearing: emotional force. It's not bureaucratic or scientific language but language freighted with emotional associations. Mohr introduces two linguistic terms that should be more widely appreciated by all users of language (that is, pretty much everyone): connotation "is a word's baggage" including the various feelings the word might provoke, while denotation is "its dictionary definition." Thus, a word can have "an offensive power in excess of its literal meaning" whenever it's "used for its connotation, not its denotation." Swearwords are often employed in a non-literal sense and are almost all connotation: "they carry an emotional charge that exceeds the taboo status of their referents."
Clearly, in the Middle Ages, in an Age of Faith, many people literally believed in a God who would strike down liars and allow honest men to flourish. Feelings would naturally run high if you thought the fate of your everlasting soul were on the line. Without supernatural sanction, however, oaths were nothing but empty words, and the sixteenth century was "a turning point in the history of swearing in English": the Holy was beginning to decline in power, and more familiar obscenities were gaining in power.
By the time we reach the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Church was still very rich and politically powerful, "but religion occupied a less central role in the average person's life" as evidenced by falling church attendance. People were less worried about whether they might be injuring God's body and more concerned to find alternatives for the word "trousers" (which were in close proximity to a very different kind of body part). Writing in code also became fashionable in the nineteenth century (although it is to be hoped that the rules used were more subtle than the one responsible for the above strapline). Asterisks are not the only way to disguise meaning from prying and prurient eyes.
In the mid-twentieth century, another change began, "as sexual obscenities themselves started to lose power to a new class of obscene words - the racial slurs." Scientists were increasingly able to study swearing and conditions like Tourette's syndrome without having their work censored. Brain science made progress. The right half of the brain was discovered to be responsible for non-propositional speech, such as swearwords, while the left hemisphere looks after propositional speech ("words strung together in syntactically correct forms to create an original meaning").
The emotional content of words - their connotations, as opposed to denotations - is not, however, located in one hemisphere or brain region. Swearing is a complex activity that combines both "left and right brain, executive and lower functions." Of course, we must be careful when tracing causal pathways from, say, the amygdala to our experience of getting hot under the collar whenever we hear an obscenity, and Mohr is duly cautious.
This is a fascinating book, which draws upon physiological, linguistic and historical fields of research. Melissa Mohr has distilled a huge amount of knowledge but not allowed it to cramp her style. For some, she might be a tad too enthusiastic about swearing and swearwords, which "were and are perhaps the best words we have with which to communicate extremes of emotion, both negative and positive." For me, I thoroughly enjoyed her erudition and her enthusiasm.