This is a difficult book to review without falling foul of Amazon's language checker and could also include the title, for Amazon is wise to the ways of asterisks. Perhaps there is a special dispensation for this book. The two words of the title signpost the two main groups of obscenity: the sacred and the profane or religion, sex and bodily functions. For modern times a third group can be added, racism.
I would recommend starting with the Index. Here are words not usually indexed amongst more worthy entries such as Cicero, Chaucer, Shakespeare and Saint Jerome, for this is a serious, intelligent book published by the Oxford University Press. It is also rather fun to read.
It is divided into six chapters: Ancient Rome, the Bible, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the 18th and 19th centuries and the 20th century and beyond.
This is a history of swearing in English, so the first chapter on Ancient Rome may seem out of place, but it gives a useful historical and cultural comparison, showing that Roman obscenities had many similarities but also many differences with the modern experience. The next chapter, on the Bible, introduces oaths and swearing as powerful religious vows. The obscenity was when these were taken in vain. This is carried into the Middle Ages when there was a great acceptance of sex and bodily functions in language but not of religious profanity.
With the coming of the Renaissance body parts became private and with the Reformation religion became personal. Religious oaths became less important and obscenity turned towards the sexual and scatological. This change continued through the 18th and 19th centuries, the great age of euphemism.
Towards the end of the 19th century people began to swear much as they do today. This was firmly established by the experience of men fighting in the two world wars. By the middle of the 20th century the great taboo moved away from swearing towards racist and hate speech.
Latin obscenities will cause no problems in English. In the Middle Ages calling someone a whore or harlot was strong language, but insincere oaths on "God's Bones", making God a witness to a lie, were very serious. Now they seem quaint. In 1972 George Carlin compiled a list of "the seven words you can never say on television". Nowadays you can say all but three of them.
There have always been taboo words and phrases. The need for them seems to be deep-seated as does their origin from the ancient parts of the mind. They may change over time but the need for them never goes away.
I've long held the philosophy that swear words - like all words - are just words. By this `just a word' philosophy sh*t is as profane as cat. Yet, I don't say `cat' when I drop a cup or trap my finger in the drawer or stub my toe. So, can the `just a word' philosophy stick? This seemed like the perfect book to help me find out.
This is really an absolutely fascinating look at the history of swearing - the obscenities and the oaths - and I was incredibly impressed by the depth of research that has clearly been undertaken. Mohr looks at the differences between swearing (obscenely) and swearing an oath, how these arose and the history of certain words. Unsurprisingly, some words that we find offensive now were considered perfectly acceptable previously, yet some words that we use commonly would have caused an 18th century girl to blush.
My conclusion upon finishing Holy Sh*t was that my `just a word' philosophy kind of sticks. If it didn't, how could the insult of this generation be the tame slang of the next? What makes an obscenity obscene (to me) seems to be less about language and more about tone, expression and body language. It's also about knowing what will impact, however. In that respect, it has to be more than just a word. Mohr shows that swearing is very much an evolving aspect of language and behaviour, constantly shaped and revised by our culture and history.
If you love language, culture or history, this is an excellent read with some real surprises in store.
**I received a copy of this book via Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review. I did not receive any additional compensation and all views are my own.**
on 31 July 2013
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.
I loved this book. I learned a new fascinating fact on just about every page, and as the book is published by the famous Oxford University Press, I will trust that every word is true. It calls itself a brief history of swearing; however at over 300 well filled pages, the book is good value. The book is quite filthy, but very scholarly and a lot of fun. If it has missed anything, I can't think of it. It certainly includes a lot of swearing that I had never heard of, and explains why some of the words we think of as vulgar are not. A very enjoyable read.
on 4 September 2013
What a fascinating book. Ms Mohr considers swearing oaths and swearing obscenities. She starts with the Romans giving wonderful examples of words scrawled on ancient walls. Her discussion of swearing in the old testament is witty and very informative. Then from the middle ages up to today it is a revelation. Even words used in my father's life time were unknown to me.
In "Holy S***: a Brief History of Swearing", American linguist, Melissa Mohr, presents a comprehensive overview of more than two thousand years' of "bad language". Beginning from a consideration of the sexual attitudes of ancient Rome and an examination of graffiti preserved in the ruins of Pompeii, her survey runs the entire gamut of those taboo words which over the centuries have come to be regarded as constituting rude, insulting, obscene, profane, vulgar, shocking and offensive language and which we now generally regard collectively as swear words. The author derives her book's title from the two roots of all bad language (in English) across the ages: the vocal utterances prohibited by religious doctrine (i.e. the "Holy") and those which refer to excretory or reproductive functioning (i.e. the "s***" - and how ironic that Amazon will not permit the use of this word OR its normally acceptable representative form in this review!) and charting the changes in attitudes and outlooks which have brought about a gradual shift in application of the term 'swearing' from initially meaning only the former kind of bad language to now encompass and mainly mean the latter. Along the way, the book also touches upon euphemisms (namely the avoidance of bad language through the use of evasive terms that merely hint at those things which cannot be mentioned directly) and the half-way house of orthophemisms (polite forms of actually making specific mention to the unmentionable) noting the tendency of the latter to become, through over-familiarity or with the passage of time, every bit as bad as the word for which such forms substitute.
Unlike many scholarly books on linguistics, "Holy S***" is an easy and an engaging read, always assuming the reader is not easily offended by exposure to words generally regarded as upsetting. The author is able to present the span of social history that she covers in an interesting manner, staying focused on the issues relevant to the linguistic points she wishes to make without over-simplifying matters to the point of confusion or indeed obfuscation, as can occur when such summaries are too tentatively attempted, nor yet getting lost down interesting but irrelevant by-ways, as often happens when such examinations are expounded too fully. She also manages to keep a good level of humour in the text without overdoing this to the point of losing the underlying serious intent, although I have to say there were times when I feel she is a little too gratuitous with the toilet humour in particular. Such lapses are sufficiently infrequent, though, never to become any real annoyance.
Although written largely for an American audience, the book works almost equally well for a British one too, with only the occasional Americanism to jar the nerves of purists on this side of the Pond, and with only an occasional gap in her knowledge of (principally) Northern English vernacular resulting in her missing the odd trick in some of her chains of connection. From a scholarly perspective, there is a welcome Notes section at the end of the book, which details most of her primary source material, although this is far from comprehensive at times -- anyone wanting to find out more, say, about Tony McEnery's sixteen categories of swearwords (mentioned in passing on page 214) will have a hard time tracking down the details.
Minor lapses aside, though, Melissa Mohr is to be congratulated on an excellent treatise on what constitutes acceptable language, and what transgresses the bounds of decency, and how views on this have changed and evolved as times and societal values have themselves changed over the years.
Melissa Mohr's book traces the history of swearing in English in a serious study that manages to be both scholarly and entertaining. She explores the centrality of religious origins for many oaths and the ways in which swearing courts a sense of danger and taboo without which its force would evaporate. She articulates key changes in the types of swearing that followed the privatisation of personal experience, both physical and religious (the latter following the Reformation) and the movement towards sexual swearing and scatology that pretty much brings us upto date. She also explores some of the anxieties to which the curses give expression. Her argument is clear, thoughtfully and engaging. It's a very interesting and engaging read. Rather reassuringly for many of us she suggests that swearing can be a good thing as it exercises parts of the brain (the palaeo-mammalian apparently) which other activities tend to ignore, giving any foul-mouthed but well-read schoolboy an impeccably cogent excuse for all sorts of taboo outbursts.
But where do we go from here? I heard the modern version of Chaucer's punning 'queynte' (in 'The Miller's Tale') several times on TV last night in a feature film: I nearly fell off my chair 40+ years ago with amused shock at the word being discussed in my A level English lesson, but now the taboo seems to be fading, and taboos are an essential element in the language of swearing. Mohr suggests that swearing might move into modern taboo areas such as disability and death.
What is certainly true is that creative linguistic energy can erupt in even the most surprising places: my wife's teenage special needs students' insult of choice was 'Vinegar t*ts' ('Your mother has got ...' being understood). That seems to me as good and offensive a way of insulting a mother and her progeny as many more familiar usages.
A flecking good read, as my rather coy grandfather might have said!
on 11 September 2014
Totally unputdownable. I enjoyed every single bit. It really was the best thing I've read in a long time. Written intelligently but with a great readability. I totally recommend it, it must have taken a long time to research and was thoroughly enjoyable.
on 19 April 2016
This book is both hilarious and enlightening! I purchased this unsure of whether this would be another dull read written by someone who has never uttered a swear within his/her lifetime. My fears dissipated the moment I started the first chapter. Written in a comprehensive style, Melissa Mohr captured the essence of cursing in a light-hearted way, that captivates the reader until the end. It is historical, so it definitely felt like my time reading was productive (despite what my boss said when giving back a report, but like, **** him, ya know?). I highly recommend this book to anyone of a curious nature, who wants to dive into a truly interesting topic.
on 23 July 2013
A fantastic read. Funny and erudite at the same time. Shows how language changes, and how attitudes to what's filthy or naughty (or normal) shift with the centuries. Most of all, it's written with verve and wit. Thoroughly enjoyable