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Holy Sh*t tells the story of two kinds of swearing--obscenities and oaths--from ancient Rome and the Bible to today. With humor and insight, Melissa Mohr takes readers on a journey to discover how "swearing" has come to include both testifying with your hand on the Bible and calling someone a *#$&!* when they cut you off on the highway. She explores obscenities in ancient Holy Sh*t tells the story of two kinds of swearing--obscenities and oaths--from ancient Rome and the Bible to today. With humor and insight, Melissa Mohr takes readers on a journey to discover how "swearing" has come to include both testifying with your hand on the Bible and calling someone a *#$&!* when they cut you off on the highway. She explores obscenities in ancient Rome and unearths the history of religious oaths in the Middle Ages, when swearing (or not swearing) an oath was often a matter of life and death. Holy Sh*t also explains the advancement of civility and corresponding censorship of language in the 18th century, considers the rise of racial slurs after World War II, examines the physiological effects of swearing and answers a question that preoccupies the FCC, the US Senate, and anyone who has recently overheard little kids at a playground: are we swearing more now than people did in the past? A gem of lexicography and cultural history, Holy Sh*t is a serious exploration of obscenity.


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Holy Sh*t tells the story of two kinds of swearing--obscenities and oaths--from ancient Rome and the Bible to today. With humor and insight, Melissa Mohr takes readers on a journey to discover how "swearing" has come to include both testifying with your hand on the Bible and calling someone a *#$&!* when they cut you off on the highway. She explores obscenities in ancient Holy Sh*t tells the story of two kinds of swearing--obscenities and oaths--from ancient Rome and the Bible to today. With humor and insight, Melissa Mohr takes readers on a journey to discover how "swearing" has come to include both testifying with your hand on the Bible and calling someone a *#$&!* when they cut you off on the highway. She explores obscenities in ancient Rome and unearths the history of religious oaths in the Middle Ages, when swearing (or not swearing) an oath was often a matter of life and death. Holy Sh*t also explains the advancement of civility and corresponding censorship of language in the 18th century, considers the rise of racial slurs after World War II, examines the physiological effects of swearing and answers a question that preoccupies the FCC, the US Senate, and anyone who has recently overheard little kids at a playground: are we swearing more now than people did in the past? A gem of lexicography and cultural history, Holy Sh*t is a serious exploration of obscenity.

30 review for Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing

  1. 4 out of 5

    Barbara Williams

    Sometimes, a very special book comes along and you never want it to end. You laugh and laugh and suddenly realize that you are actually learning new things. You bring them up in your everyday speech, “Did you know that during the Victorian era, it was racy to refer to one’s legs? People would only refer to them as limbs.” “Did you know that during the Roman empire there was no concept of being homosexual?” “Did you know that the worst thing you could say to an Englishman during the Renaissance w Sometimes, a very special book comes along and you never want it to end. You laugh and laugh and suddenly realize that you are actually learning new things. You bring them up in your everyday speech, “Did you know that during the Victorian era, it was racy to refer to one’s legs? People would only refer to them as limbs.” “Did you know that during the Roman empire there was no concept of being homosexual?” “Did you know that the worst thing you could say to an Englishman during the Renaissance was that he was French?” This is not surprising for me though, since it covers one of my favorite topics: SWEARING. (I blame my parents for my swearing problem. Until I moved out of my parent’s house, not a swearword was to be uttered under their roof. This only added in my interest in them. Swearwords are only as powerful as you make them, and in my parent’s house, you could shake the foundation with a DAMN.) My only issue with this book is it can be a little dry, especially during the ‘Middle Ages.’ There is only so much you can talk about the fact that people literally shit everywhere (even while conversing with another individual.) I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys swearing like a lord. So next time you stub your toe and accidently yell “SHIT” in the middle of a silent yet ironically crowded family restaurant, you can also spout these words of wisdom: “Did you know that the word ‘shit’ did not become taboo until the Renaissance, because during the Middle Ages people had no concept of boundaries, and taking a ‘shit’ was a communal activity? It was only once people decided to take a ‘shit’ in private did ‘shit’ become a swearword.” NAILED IT.

  2. 5 out of 5

    K.

    I pretty much knew that I was going to love this book going into it. I mean, how could I not?! But I was pleasantly surprised by just how much I enjoyed this. Mohr basically breaks history down into eras: Ancient history (predominantly Rome), the Bible, medieval history, Renaissance history, the 18th and 19th centuries, and the 20th century. In each chapter, she discusses whether the "Holy" (i.e. religious oaths, blasphemy etc) or the "Shit" (profanity, whether sexual or excremental) was more of I pretty much knew that I was going to love this book going into it. I mean, how could I not?! But I was pleasantly surprised by just how much I enjoyed this. Mohr basically breaks history down into eras: Ancient history (predominantly Rome), the Bible, medieval history, Renaissance history, the 18th and 19th centuries, and the 20th century. In each chapter, she discusses whether the "Holy" (i.e. religious oaths, blasphemy etc) or the "Shit" (profanity, whether sexual or excremental) was more offensive during that time, and the reasons for that. Frankly, the Roman chapter was by far the most interesting to me, dealing extensively with how Latin had multiple words where we have one and discussing the "OMG YOU SAID A BAD WORD" hierarchy into which those multiple words fell. The chapter on the twentieth century touches on the move from the "Shit" to racial slurs as the most offensive words - something that I'm sure we will see a lot more of in the next four years under the leadership of the tiny pricked Human Cheeto. Basically? This book was fascinating. Definitely not one to read if you're easily offended by the words "fuck" or "cunt" because you scarcely go a page without one or the other. But it was definitely an enjoyable look at how language develops and changes over time.

  3. 5 out of 5

    David Powell

    For many years of teaching 12th grade British literature, I always devoted a small presentation about the English language's "dirty" words (without actually using any of them--though fully capable of doing so). My point was twofold--to show that many of our dirty words are quite old and common to our language and that society plays a large role in determining a word's goodness or badness on a ever-changing sliding scale. After carefully reading Melissa's Mohr's delightful book, I realized that For many years of teaching 12th grade British literature, I always devoted a small presentation about the English language's "dirty" words (without actually using any of them--though fully capable of doing so). My point was twofold--to show that many of our dirty words are quite old and common to our language and that society plays a large role in determining a word's goodness or badness on a ever-changing sliding scale. After carefully reading Melissa's Mohr's delightful book, I realized that I only told a few half-truths, the most egregious of which is that nearly all of the bad words in our language are Anglo-Saxon in origin. Aside from that, I was pretty close. Mohr's book actually traces many of our most therapeutic words to a much earlier origin, including the ancient Romans and the Hebrews. Mohr uses the two-word title to separate our tendency to cuss into two categories. The oath of obligation and promise was a holy thing going back to the beginning of the three religions that have descended from the biblical Abraham. The more obscene words that usually revolve around bodily functions or sex are, appropriately, the "shit" words. Mohr diligently shows us that both kinds of words seem to change, in many ways, almost like the seasons. Though I thought the book started a little slowly, it really caught my attention shortly thereafter. She is funny and clever in her presentation of a topic that some people would find offensive. Too bad for them, because if they would read Holy Sh*t closely, they might find that they are upset over not much. Also to be considered is that Mohr takes the reader into the life and times of people for whom these words were the common vocabulary currency. We learn a great deal about living (and sleeping) conditions in times when personal privacy did not exist. Also going to the bathroom (a euphemism) is not the same today as it was in the not-too-long-ago when it was a much more public affair. Following the spirit of the book, it was a damn good, if not a f**king good, read.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Troy Blackford

    Holy... well, I feel kind of like a copy cat, but let's just say: MY WORD, this is an exhaustive history of swearing. And I do mean *exhaustive*. Everything there could possibly be to know about the history of obscenities, swearing, and profanity (as well as the difference between them) is contained in this book. I'm very glad I read it. It was well-researched, engagingly written, and incredibly complete. But... it was so intense and all-encompassing on the issue that I feel very strongly that I Holy... well, I feel kind of like a copy cat, but let's just say: MY WORD, this is an exhaustive history of swearing. And I do mean *exhaustive*. Everything there could possibly be to know about the history of obscenities, swearing, and profanity (as well as the difference between them) is contained in this book. I'm very glad I read it. It was well-researched, engagingly written, and incredibly complete. But... it was so intense and all-encompassing on the issue that I feel very strongly that I don't need to read anything else about profanity for quite some time. Which is as it should be.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Catherine

    From the moment I heard about this book, I knew I had to read it. A whole book about profanity, with an academic, historical approach? Brilliant! I had to wait a while until my local library system finally got a copy, but it was worth the wait. Melissa Mohr delivers on her promise with a healthy helping of snarky humor to boot. I didn't mark enough of these as I read, but here's one passage from the last chapter that made me snort. Ralph Ovadal was part of a group that had been protesting nude ba From the moment I heard about this book, I knew I had to read it. A whole book about profanity, with an academic, historical approach? Brilliant! I had to wait a while until my local library system finally got a copy, but it was worth the wait. Melissa Mohr delivers on her promise with a healthy helping of snarky humor to boot. I didn't mark enough of these as I read, but here's one passage from the last chapter that made me snort. Ralph Ovadal was part of a group that had been protesting nude bathing at a Wisconsin beach for several years. When one of his friends tried to give Nancy Erickson a Gospel tract, she swore at him. Then Ovadal and his friends surrounded Erickson and called her "whore," et cetera, for six minutes, in accordance with a little-known part of the gospel of Matthew: "I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and call anybody who looks like they might go swimming naked 'harlot' at least thirty times." The first chapter, "To Speak with Roman Plainness," was one of my favorites. Mohr details the "Big Ten" Latin profanities, along with how linguists have determined those were the most offensive terms at the time. As Mohr takes us through the history of the English language, she explores the two categories of profane language: the Holy (swearing oaths, using God's name in vain or otherwise) and the Shit (words for bodily functions & parts, sexual terms). She identifies time periods when one category was more offensive than the other and what caused these shifts back and forth. As long as you're not sensitive to these words, it's all very fascinating stuff.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Lubinka Dimitrova

    I suspect that I simply read this book at a wrong time, for it was exactly my type of book: a well researched, comprehensive overview of more than two thousand years of bad language, highlighting the origins of swearing and cursing throughout history, as the primary taboos included reference either to God, or to bodily functions (hence the title of the book). Still, I struggled with the pages and eventually finished it only half-listening. There were many interesting curios, to be sure, and that I suspect that I simply read this book at a wrong time, for it was exactly my type of book: a well researched, comprehensive overview of more than two thousand years of bad language, highlighting the origins of swearing and cursing throughout history, as the primary taboos included reference either to God, or to bodily functions (hence the title of the book). Still, I struggled with the pages and eventually finished it only half-listening. There were many interesting curios, to be sure, and that's the reason I did finish it, but all in all, not my favourite book of the year.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Nicky

    Sorry, that really is the title of the book! And it's kind of central to Mohr's premise: that there are two axes of swearing, the 'Holy' and the 'Shit'... or the profane and the obscene, or swearing and cursing -- however you best see the distinction between "for God's sake" and "for fuck's sake". She sets this up by discussing various different cultures (all familiar to a Western audience), starting with the Romans and Greeks (mostly the Romans), then moving to the development of Judaism and th Sorry, that really is the title of the book! And it's kind of central to Mohr's premise: that there are two axes of swearing, the 'Holy' and the 'Shit'... or the profane and the obscene, or swearing and cursing -- however you best see the distinction between "for God's sake" and "for fuck's sake". She sets this up by discussing various different cultures (all familiar to a Western audience), starting with the Romans and Greeks (mostly the Romans), then moving to the development of Judaism and the rising importance of oath-taking... and then round the full circle back to obscenity. It's a fascinating history, though it really is brief when you consider the potential scope for investigating swearing throughout history. I found the chapter on the Old Testament Yahweh fascinating -- Mohr charts the development of monotheism through the way oaths are taken and the importance of oaths in the Old Testament, and it makes a lot of sense. (Reassuringly, it's also well-sourced, and includes quotations and examples.) It was slower-going than I thought, when I look at my reading time records, but I found it very absorbing. My only complaint would be that the ending felt rather abrupt, even with the later postscript (which briefly discusses an analysis of swearing on Twitter). Recommended!

  8. 5 out of 5

    Paul M.

    Kaylee: Come on, admit it. It's true. Simon: No, I won't, because it's not. I use swear-words, like anybody else. Kaylee: Oh really? See, I never heard you. So when is it that you do all this cussin'? After I go to bed, or... Simon: I swear... when it's appropriate Kaylee: Simon, the whole point of swearin' is that it ain't appropriate. (From Firefly, Ep. 4) We often wonder where certain swear words come from, and there are quite a few etymologies out there, some of them humorous and most of them fal Kaylee: Come on, admit it. It's true. Simon: No, I won't, because it's not. I use swear-words, like anybody else. Kaylee: Oh really? See, I never heard you. So when is it that you do all this cussin'? After I go to bed, or... Simon: I swear... when it's appropriate Kaylee: Simon, the whole point of swearin' is that it ain't appropriate. (From Firefly, Ep. 4) We often wonder where certain swear words come from, and there are quite a few etymologies out there, some of them humorous and most of them false. What we wonder about less is how swear words have even come to exist, and why we have our particular batch of naughty words, or even what was considered bad language 50, 100, or 2000 years ago. Luckily, Melissa Mohr has come to the rescue with Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, which takes us from Roman times, through the Bible and up through the Middle Ages and to the modern age to get to our present take on swearing in English. Along the way, we get a fascinating look at how "swearing" has historically dealt with two main types of taboos- the "holy," including God and biblical injunctions against swearing, and the "shit," or words related with feces, sex and sexual organs, and other physical taboos. We see how different eras had stronger ties to different sides of the equation, so people in Middle Ages England used references to Christ's body to swear, while some of those same people had last names that would make most people today blush and/or laugh out loud. Class and gender play a role as well, with the phrase "swearing like a lord" being a former equivalent to today's "swearing like a sailor." Along the way, we see how bathroom graffiti in Roman times was quite similar to today's, how Golden Age playwrights pushed the boundaries of government censorship, and how the two World Wars of the last century changed the way we swear today. And, of course, we discover why it's even called "swearing" today, when oath swearing is no longer considered offensive. This book is from Oxford University Press, and takes a scholarly approach to the topic, but the subject matter keeps things from ever getting too dry. While your inner academic nods in approval, your inner 5th-grader can snicker, and your inner prude can be shocked. Make no mistake, every kind of swearing is on display, from the mild to the crude to the obscene, so those easily offended might want to avoid this one. Also, this is a historical work, so while there is some discussion of how and why such words have their power, it is not much, with the focus instead on the evolution of these words, and their sociocultural effects. It won't be your lightest read of the month, but it just might be one of the most interesting.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Iris

    Sometimes, no other words will do. This is a history of how swear words work in the English language, and it's academic, short, and deeply funny. I listened repeatedly to a wonderful interview with the author (on a Slate podcast). Oh, I understood it the first time. But I just couldn't get enough: Melissa Mohr plunges into bizarre (to me) Roman sexual norms. She transcribes graffiti through the ages, such as a popular graffito in ancient Rome: "I f***ed here, then I went home." She notes that Rob Sometimes, no other words will do. This is a history of how swear words work in the English language, and it's academic, short, and deeply funny. I listened repeatedly to a wonderful interview with the author (on a Slate podcast). Oh, I understood it the first time. But I just couldn't get enough: Melissa Mohr plunges into bizarre (to me) Roman sexual norms. She transcribes graffiti through the ages, such as a popular graffito in ancient Rome: "I f***ed here, then I went home." She notes that Robert Browning didn't know the meaning of the word "twat." When he misused it in his poems, his Victorian contemporaries were too embarrassed to bring it up in order to correct him. The genius of the book is that she goes far beyond mere etymology. She's more interested in the way the words were really used, in a cultural context; after all, the history of a word tells us little about how people reacted to it over the years. Her thesis is that while religion and other cultural forces fluctuate and change in their roles in our everyday lives, the words we find offensive change and meld, too. How did "c*nt" go from raunchy, to a serious anatomical term, and back again? Why was "cl*t" the worst epithet at one time, but not at all anymore? Why do individuals with Tourette's syndrome, including the first diagnosed person (a French woman), often tap into offensive language? And finally, how much raunch can a textual historian find the Bible? An example: which bone did Adam use to make Eve? Hint: IT WASN'T HIS RIB!!!

  10. 5 out of 5

    Philip Hollenback

    I can barely express how much I enjoyed this book. I learned so much about the history of profanity and swearing. For example, in Victorian America, it was considered improper to use the word 'leg' around a lady. Instead, you were supposed to say 'lower extremity'. Also, the Romans had some really awesome dirty poetry. I can barely express how much I enjoyed this book. I learned so much about the history of profanity and swearing. For example, in Victorian America, it was considered improper to use the word 'leg' around a lady. Instead, you were supposed to say 'lower extremity'. Also, the Romans had some really awesome dirty poetry.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Ana

    This is a good f**king book!

  12. 5 out of 5

    Bibliovoracious

    Fabulous! This is an historical, etymological, religious and social history all in one, in great depth, through the lens of unsavoury language. Simply incredible and fascinating.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Corin

    What a gem! It was a little slow to get started, but it was totally fucking worth it. Plenty of history, linguistics and humor. Well written and well organized. Thumbs up!

  14. 5 out of 5

    SmartBitches

    Full review at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books Holy Sh*t is a book that tackles a huge subject (profanity) by picking one premise and sticking to it. Author Melissa Mohr believes that you can learn a lot about times in history based on whether their profanity leans more towards the “holy” (i.e., taking the Lord’s name in vain) or the “shit” (i.e., bodily functions and sex). It’s a really fascinating way to look at history, although sadly it doesn’t spend much time on our current time period. The book Full review at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books Holy Sh*t is a book that tackles a huge subject (profanity) by picking one premise and sticking to it. Author Melissa Mohr believes that you can learn a lot about times in history based on whether their profanity leans more towards the “holy” (i.e., taking the Lord’s name in vain) or the “shit” (i.e., bodily functions and sex). It’s a really fascinating way to look at history, although sadly it doesn’t spend much time on our current time period. The book follows the cycles of cursing through the Renaissance, when people discovered privacy and suddenly became more interested in the “Shit,” and the Victorian Age, which Mohr calls “The Age of Euphemism” (Victorian, that is). Her last chapter, “Fuck ‘Em All,” is about swearing in the Twentieth Century. In these later chapters, she talks just a little bit about the difference between swearing in England and in the United States, and a lot about differences in terms of class. She deals with the ‘n’ word, but barely touches on some of the more taboo words today except to point out that even the ‘F’ word has lost a lot of its taboo quality. The taboo words of the future might be words that “essentialize anyone or anything as epithets do, whether that word sums up a person by race, mental acuity, physical disability, or size.” Holy Sh*t does a limited thing, but it does it very well. Its treatment of swearing as linked to social inequalities is minimal. It spends a lot of time on a very few words to the exclusion of others. It is focused entirely on English, as spoken in England and America (with the exception of early chapters on Latin). But it does wonderfully well with tracking the cultural changes in England and America through the “holy” versus the “shit”. Looking at culture through the lens of profanity, and comparing times when the worst thing you can do is comment on something religious versus when the most taboo words are about the body, yields fascinating results. It’s an unusual way to look at history with a great payoff. - Carrie S.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Edwin Battistella

    The title of Melissa Mohr’s book encapsulates its thesis: that “two spheres of the unsayable—the religious and sexual/excremental,” give rise to swearing. Her book is not just about words but about culture, though I have to admit she almost lost me at the get-go with an anecdote from ancient Rome about the difference between “irrumatio” and “fellat,” wrapped in the old joke about the masochist and the sadist. But she quickly picked up steam, with in insightful discussion of Roman taboos and agai The title of Melissa Mohr’s book encapsulates its thesis: that “two spheres of the unsayable—the religious and sexual/excremental,” give rise to swearing. Her book is not just about words but about culture, though I have to admit she almost lost me at the get-go with an anecdote from ancient Rome about the difference between “irrumatio” and “fellat,” wrapped in the old joke about the masochist and the sadist. But she quickly picked up steam, with in insightful discussion of Roman taboos and against defecation and sexual behavior, which differed markedly from ours. She moves on to dissects the Biblical role of swearing and vain-name taking, and neatly links culture or taboos (for example the relation of consumption and architecture to attitudes about privacy and morality), the rise of obscenity and the class-based strictures on swearing and impact of colonialism on the development of epithets. Along the way she revives some interesting medieval terms, like “sard,” “swive” and “dight” and explains why vain swearing was a big sin to medieval folks and but became demoralized and replaced by obscenity. And she managed to explain the research without being too ponderous: we learn what was offensive, for example, by examining records of defamation. And she treats us to the euphemisms for pants and other things: “inexpressibles,” “indescribables,” “indispensibles,” and “etcetera,” which was also a euphemism for what was under the pants. Some of Mohr’s conclusions have been dealt with before—the late twentieth century replacement of religious and bodily taboos with those dealing with epithets (the n-word, et al.) and the psychological utility of cursing (in dealing with pain, for example, or replacing physical violence with verbal aggression). Mohr has a bit too much fun proving too us that she’s not shocked by words and she occasionally gets too jokey about matters of history or language—a couple of times I had to stop and wonder if she was serious or kidding. But the insights and connections she draws and the depth of historical research make this an important book for language scholars (but difficult to use in most classrooms).

  16. 4 out of 5

    Dee

    An engaging and educational read, covering not just linguistic history, but the broader social, political, religious and conceptual context that can be read into what people liked to swear about. Personally, I found all of that stuff far more interesting than simply when people started (or stopped) using certain terms in certain ways. The section on Ancient Roman sexuality and masculinity was fascinating, and the exploration of the rise of class as an important aspect of Victorian euphemising we An engaging and educational read, covering not just linguistic history, but the broader social, political, religious and conceptual context that can be read into what people liked to swear about. Personally, I found all of that stuff far more interesting than simply when people started (or stopped) using certain terms in certain ways. The section on Ancient Roman sexuality and masculinity was fascinating, and the exploration of the rise of class as an important aspect of Victorian euphemising were areas I found particularly fascinating. But all in all, a fun book to read, with many laugh-out-loud moments and bits I wanted to quote... just not in front of my daughter.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Princess Godoy

    I am not fond of this kind of books but this is an exception. I quite enjoy this book although it took me a lengthy time to finish it but it's worth it. I learned a lot about the history of swearing and it's connection to religion and it also debunked some famous myth about swearing like the origin of the word fuck. Overall, this is an enjoyable read and I had a few laughs. I am not fond of this kind of books but this is an exception. I quite enjoy this book although it took me a lengthy time to finish it but it's worth it. I learned a lot about the history of swearing and it's connection to religion and it also debunked some famous myth about swearing like the origin of the word fuck. Overall, this is an enjoyable read and I had a few laughs.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Nikhil Krishnaswamy

    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 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!

  19. 4 out of 5

    Lynn

    Today’s Nonfiction post is on Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing by Melissa Mohr. It is 316 pages long including notes and an index. It is published by Oxford University Press. The cover is brown with the title in a black asterisk. The intended reader is adult and that is best but I will get to that in my review. There is very strong language in this book, sexuality, and talk of violence but with what this book is about how can there not be? There Be Spoilers Ahead. From the dust jacket- Dete Today’s Nonfiction post is on Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing by Melissa Mohr. It is 316 pages long including notes and an index. It is published by Oxford University Press. The cover is brown with the title in a black asterisk. The intended reader is adult and that is best but I will get to that in my review. There is very strong language in this book, sexuality, and talk of violence but with what this book is about how can there not be? There Be Spoilers Ahead. From the dust jacket- Determining what is obscene is a timeless preoccupation, nearly as timeless as the search for words that adequately express a relationship with the divine. As Melissa Mohr shows in this imaginative and illuminating tour through linguistic history, those preoccupations are not separate. “Swearing” is what we do when we forge a bond with a higher authority, as when we tell the truth and nothing but the truth; it is also what we do to break that bond. In both cases, certain words are endowed with the power to shock or to awe. Obscenities tend towards the earthly and generally remind us that we have bodies. Oaths are lifted to heaven and serve to remind us that we have souls. Holy Sh*t brilliantly and entertainingly investigates these two kinds of swearing- obscenities and oaths- from ancient Rome and the Bible to the present, uncovering the history of sacred and profane language in English through the ages. It is a journey with a number of surprises. Obscenities in ancient Rome were remarkably similar to our own; George Carlin would have felt completely at home. With the rise of the Church came a new sense of how language should be used, or not- and the difference was often a matter of life and death. Holy Sh*t tracks the advancement of civility and corresponding censorship of language in the eighteenth century; considers the rise of racial slurs after World War II; examines the physiological effects of swearing (increased heart rate and greater pain tolerance); and answers a question that preoccupies the FSS, the U.S. Senate, and anyone who has lately visited a junior high school: are we swearing more now than people did in the past? A gem of lexicography and cultural history, Holy Sh*t is a serious exploration of linguistic totem and taboo. It charts the way swearing had changed over the centuries, and considers the cultural concerns that gave way to those changes. By looking at the words that have expressed our deepest emotions, high and low, Holy Sh*t reveals the shifting relationship between the divine and the dirty. Review- This is an interesting book if you are interested in linguistic history as I am. The reason that I say this book is really adult only is not because of the language or content. It is because this is written at a college or higher level. I really think that this is Mohr’s doctoral thesis. At times this book is a struggle to read because of the nature of the language but in the end I really enjoyed it and I think that learned some interesting history. Be prepared for long chapters. On the down side her notes are just notes they do not really add to the text if you just a casual reader like me. Knowing what I was going into this book gives what I was expecting and what I wanted. I wanted to learn more about swearing and how the words changed over the long course of human history and Mohr does that. I give this book a Five out of Five stars. I get nothing for my review and I borrowed this book from my local library.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Donna Brown

    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 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.**

  21. 4 out of 5

    Kaitlyn

    I was so curious as to how the author would handle this topic. I mean, swearing is both offensive and hilarious, and that's a fine line to walk while trying to deliver objective information. And this book is a textbook example of how to ride that line well - the author is at once serious, self-aware, sarcastic, excited, and humorous. There was some repetition - some explanations were provided over and over unnecessarily, such as how swearing by God's body parts was thought to physically harm God I was so curious as to how the author would handle this topic. I mean, swearing is both offensive and hilarious, and that's a fine line to walk while trying to deliver objective information. And this book is a textbook example of how to ride that line well - the author is at once serious, self-aware, sarcastic, excited, and humorous. There was some repetition - some explanations were provided over and over unnecessarily, such as how swearing by God's body parts was thought to physically harm God. The sections on more modern times were also far less fleshed out. Perhaps this was because the more modern times featured words that are difficult to write/read about. We modern folk do not react to words like fellatio, clitoris, and pants the way our forebears did. Its difficult - I don't want to say "I wish she had discussed the N-word more!" because, well, the N-word. The 'other' F-word didn't get much, if any, attention. I really liked the discussion on how 'retard' was becoming a slur of the modern age and really wanted that explored. In short, I wanted more. I genuinely learned a ton from this book and was never, ever bored. It made me think a lot. It was a good 316 pages, and it left me wanting more. I suppose that's a good indication of just how well this was written. Highly recommend.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Candace

    Interesting and fun read. Traces (Western) society's attitudes on obscenities and religious oaths, and how our attitudes to sex, bodies, religion and each other informs the ever shifting notion of what words and ideas are taboo. Obviously you might not want to read if you don't want frank discussions of "bad words" and body functions and historical attitudes to all that and everything in between. But it was quite interesting to learn just how not shocking our own swearing habits are (or opposite Interesting and fun read. Traces (Western) society's attitudes on obscenities and religious oaths, and how our attitudes to sex, bodies, religion and each other informs the ever shifting notion of what words and ideas are taboo. Obviously you might not want to read if you don't want frank discussions of "bad words" and body functions and historical attitudes to all that and everything in between. But it was quite interesting to learn just how not shocking our own swearing habits are (or oppositely to be shocked at how people spoke in the past).

  23. 4 out of 5

    Amanda Horner

    What an amazingly interesting book! Obviously words that offend are dependent on the culture, and the history between Roman to modern times has definitely created a wide variety of offensive and profane words. Even though the book is not long, it definitely took some time for me to read as it is fairly technical, but it was worth it to learn about so much history and linguistic development in our language!

  24. 5 out of 5

    Daphne

    I loves me a good linguistic book. Who doesn't? Make that book about the history of curse, foul, offensive, and bawdy sexual innuendo? Where do I sign up? I loves me a good linguistic book. Who doesn't? Make that book about the history of curse, foul, offensive, and bawdy sexual innuendo? Where do I sign up?

  25. 4 out of 5

    Sreeni Nair

    I loved it! I love obscene language, and I love history. So this was a very entertaining read. Now I know all the bad words that the ancient Romans used ;) Melissa Mohr has written a serious book, but her fun-loving self peeks out once in a while, making us laugh. Recommended? Fuck yeah!

  26. 5 out of 5

    Deborah Sheldon

    Fascinating, bizarre, funny. An intense, detail-rich gallop through history to explore the evolution of the two main types of swear words in the English language: those that deal with God; and those that concern human bodily functions. (For etymology fans only, I suspect.)

  27. 4 out of 5

    Julie

    My dear friend's book is f**ing brilliant, entertaining and educational. My dear friend's book is f**ing brilliant, entertaining and educational.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Graham

    The two uses of language: To inspire! “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” --William Shakespeare To, um, inspire: “When I came here, I fucked. Then I went back home” --graffiti at a brothel in ancient Rome If you want to control someone, you control their language. Conquered nations often have their languages suppressed, and speaking them is a sign of rebellion. Orwell devoted an entire section of Nineteen Eighty-four to the use of language. Politicians today craft language to mold pub The two uses of language: To inspire! “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” --William Shakespeare To, um, inspire: “When I came here, I fucked. Then I went back home” --graffiti at a brothel in ancient Rome If you want to control someone, you control their language. Conquered nations often have their languages suppressed, and speaking them is a sign of rebellion. Orwell devoted an entire section of Nineteen Eighty-four to the use of language. Politicians today craft language to mold public opinion in a scientific, field tested way (think of how the Republican party has scuttled any debate on inheritance taxes by calling it a “death tax”). But language is also the way we take control of ourselves. There’s a psychological component to language. Some philosophers even argue that rudimentary language leads to rudimentary thought; expand your language, expand your mind. Swearing/cursing/obscenity is a critical part of that. This book seeks to (briefly) trace the evolution of profanity and swearing and cursing and obscenity (we use the terms synonymously now, although there are key differences in reality) through the ages. What the author has done is marvelous, and in a book that could have just been a fun history of naughty words, instead provides great insight into history, culture, and the human mind. There is absolutely no question that you can read this book for a fun, parlor game type experience; “Did you know that the root of the word fascinate has as its root the term for penises which ancient Romans wore on their eyes?” You’re sure to wow your friends, and I’ll admit to having already dropped some of this knowledge at parties and such, much to the delight of my profane friends. But if you just read this book as a lexicographical breakdown of the origins of the word fuck, then you're really missing out on what Ms. Mohr has done. Because the history of swearing, in a lot of ways, is the history of the world. The chapter I found utterly riveting was her analysis of the swearing in the Old Testament. Specifically, the oaths that the ancient prophets took with Yahweh, and how these provide evidence that Yahweh was just one of many gods in the pantheon. As someone not particularly religious, but nonetheless fairly well acquainted with the Bible, I found these chapters spellbinding. The evidence is there, really in plain sight to those who are willing to read, that Yahweh basically admits that there are indeed other gods, hundreds of gods, but that you should really only go along with him. Having grown up in a conservative, Bible thumping state, this is definitely not something I learned in Sunday school. But the evidence is persuasive. The chapters on the evolution of what is considered socially acceptable and what has not (the idea of translations of the Bible featuring the word cunt while people were not allowed to say “Christ’s wounds!” is hilarious to modern ears) are fascinating (hee hee, root word penises) and really give the reader a picture of changing social conditions. As the Middle Ages moved on, and people became less and less close (i.e. stopped shitting next to one another) bodily functions became more naughty, at the same time that religious fidelity declined, leading to a certain extent to the condition we have today, where far more people that I know are likely to shout “God damn it!” then “Motherfucking shit!” I thought about ending this review with something like, “Anyone interested in the history of language would do well to pick this up.” But the more I thought about that sentence, the more it didn't seem to resonate. This is more than the history of language. This is the history of culture. Religion. Society. Words, whether naughty or nice, are our link to one another. The history of language, then, is the history of the world. And the history of swearing, the most raw language we have, is really the history of humans. Truly, a book not to be missed.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Margie

    Not too long ago I played a game which involved writing down answers to questions. One of the questions was, "What's the worst name you can call someone?" I blanked. Then I remembered that we always tell preschoolers that they can not call anyone a poo poo head. So I wrote that down. Nothing else came to mind. Everyone else either wrote, "The C word," or "See you next Tuesday." I was shocked. I'm telling you this to illustrate that I rarely swear. (My mom might disagree, but that just goes to show Not too long ago I played a game which involved writing down answers to questions. One of the questions was, "What's the worst name you can call someone?" I blanked. Then I remembered that we always tell preschoolers that they can not call anyone a poo poo head. So I wrote that down. Nothing else came to mind. Everyone else either wrote, "The C word," or "See you next Tuesday." I was shocked. I'm telling you this to illustrate that I rarely swear. (My mom might disagree, but that just goes to show how little she swears.) And yet...I LOVED this book! It's fascinating and informative. Most anyone who loves words will enjoy it. Is it filled with some of the most obscene language you'll ever see in print? Yep. Is it presented in a serious, scholarly manner? Nope. She treats the subject in a mostly straightforward scholarly manner, but at times it's just natural and appropriate to interject some humor. It lightens the mood a bit, and makes it more fun to read. Mohr address the subject in a mostly chronological manner, from Roman times to the Medieval era, on to the Renaissance, the Victorian era, to the modern day. Again, fascinating. It's so interesting to see the changes over time, as well as the similarities. She makes a point of drawing our attention to the divide between the holy and the sh*t, the profane and the obscene, and how they've come to merge in the present day. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in language or to anyone looking for a bit of a fun read about swearing. Even if, like me, you don't have much of an interest in participating.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Sylwia

    I read this for a challenge. Even though the word "history" is in the title, I was foolish enough to assume it wouldn't be so deeply based in history and I was hoping for more psychology. I ended up skimming the first chapter and the chapter about WWII. Once the book went from sharing interesting facts about different past cultural norms (which I loved) and went into a heavy focus on language and etymology, it lost me. Additionally, I don't understand why a male narrator is narrating an audioboo I read this for a challenge. Even though the word "history" is in the title, I was foolish enough to assume it wouldn't be so deeply based in history and I was hoping for more psychology. I ended up skimming the first chapter and the chapter about WWII. Once the book went from sharing interesting facts about different past cultural norms (which I loved) and went into a heavy focus on language and etymology, it lost me. Additionally, I don't understand why a male narrator is narrating an audiobook written by a female author. And his voice is so deep I had to lower the bass in my car down to zero.

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