Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing
by Melissa Mohr
It's great stuff, swearing. It stiffens the sinews and speeds up the blood, and not just metaphorically. Obscenities act on us physiologically: swearing increases electrical conductance across the skin, pushes the heart rate higher and increases resistance to pain.
Obscenities are also linguistically interesting: the more currency they have, the more their emotional colouring and the associations they trigger overwhelms what they actually mean. "F******", these days, only sometimes means "having sex".
Swearing doesn't just mean what we now understand by "dirty words". It is entwined, in social and linguistic history, with the other sort of swearing: vows and oaths. Consider for a moment the origins of almost any word we have for bad language - "profanity", "curses", "oaths" and "swearing" itself - and the connection is clear.
Melissa Mohr's title, then, is more than just an attention-grabber: the history of swearing is one of a movement back and forth between the holy and the s***. At different times, the primary taboo has been to do either with God, or with the functions of the human body. (The latter subdivides between the sexual and the excremental. Really, this book should have been called Holy F****** S***.)
Though mainly interested in English, Mohr is generous in roping in other examples. A chapter on ancient Roman filth does much to sketch the background, too. How do we know what was obscene in a dead language? By literary genre, essentially: if it was written on the toilet wall but didn't appear in satire, it was likely to be rude.
English has a "big six": "c***", "f***", "cock", "arse", "s***" and "p***" (though Mohr plausibly suggests that "nigger" should now be in there). The Romans had a "big 10": cunnus (c***), futuo (f***), mentula (penis), verpa (erect or circumcised penis), landica (clitoris), culus (arse), pedico (bugger), caco (s***), fello (fellate) and irrumo (er, mouth-rape).
In medieval times, though, the emphasis was on the holy. Common words for places and things contained words regarded as quite innocuous. London and Oxford both had a "Gropec***elane", where the prostitutes hung out, and at a country pond "there would've been a s***erow (heron) fishing, a windf***er (kestrel) flying, arse-smart (water-pepper) hugging the edges of the pond, and pissabed (dandelion) amongst the grass".
It's hard to recapture how shocking medieval people would find a vain oath.
Christianity was founded on oaths and covenants - as was feudal society. To swear an oath was to compel God to pay attention to your promise - and to do so in vain was to dishonour God and risk eternal damnation. Indeed, it was believed that if you swore on God's body - "'sblood", "God's bones", "by Christ's nails" - you physically spilled his blood, broke his bones and tore out his nails in heaven.
Mohr credits the decline in the importance of oaths to the rise of the merchant classes. Feudal society was bound by chains of oaths between lords and vassals, right up to the king. Capitalism moved us to contracts: the oath before God became less important than keeping your word to business partners. Plus, there's the dry, old complaint that swearing constantly "devalues the currency". Between 1640 and 1660, around the time of the English civil war, men might have to swear as many as 10 conflicting oaths of loyalty if they wanted to keep their heads attached.
At the same time there was the idea of privacy. When everybody urinated and defecated in public, and sex would as likely as not take place in a room or a bed shared with others, taboos around bodily functions weren't strong. Chaucer's "swiving", "toords", "queyntes" and "erses" were vulgar and direct, but they weren't obscene. One word was regarded in the late-18th and 19th centuries as so shocking it was otherwise called "inexpressibles", "indescribables", "etceteras", "unmentionables", "ineffables", "indispensables", "innominables", "inexplicables" and "continuations". That word? Trousers.
How things change. By the first world war, soldiers swore so much that the word "f***ing" came to be no more than "a warning that a noun is coming". In Irvine Welsh's novels, for instance, "c***" is more or less a synonym for "bloke".
Mohr's approach twinkles with pleasure and amusement. She gives her chapters profanity-ridden titles and she finds it funny that a paper on urinary incontinence was co-authored by Splatt and Weedon.
I'd like her to have mentioned Viz comic's Profanisaurus. She could have reminded us that Eric Cartman, in South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, saves the world from Satan and Saddam Hussein with a string of expletives followed by the words "Barbra Streisand". But here I pick nits. This is a cracking f****** book, and innominables to anyone who says otherwise.
Guardian News & Media