417: Holy Sh*t by Melissa Mohr

by Gerard


417.2: Mohr, Melissa. Holy Shit: A Brief History of Swearing. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013. 258 pp. ISBN 978-0-19-974267-7.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 400: Language
  • 410: Linguistics
  • 417: Dialectology and historical linguistics
  • 417.2: Dialectology

This isn’t a very easy book to discuss without offending someone. The author even says so much in the introduction. Invariably, in a discussion about swear words, someone will reach their tolerance for vulgarity. Every language in the world has words that are taboo, obscene, graphic, or blasphemous. This goes beyond simple impoliteness; swear words are those that Steven Pinker says “kidnap our attention and force us to consider their unpleasant connotations.” These words steal us from our lives. The longer the period of arrest, the worse the word. Melissa Mohr’s Holy Shit is a unabashed exploration of the evolution of swearing in English, from their Latin beginnings to modern slurs and expletives.

Her basic premise that, historically, swear words have fallen into two main categories: the Holy, which consists of swear words that are offensive due to their blasphemy, and the Shit, which are obscene based on their connection to unpleasant body parts or acts. A third category has arisen in recent times to include racial slurs and epithets, but unfortunately, historically, these words were considered par for the course.

As English-speaking civilizations have grown over the centuries, the two categories have traded supremacy as to which was more offensive. In the beginning, bodily obscenities were the worst, but in the Middle Ages, when Christianity exploded throughout Europe, blasphemous utterances topped the list (and bodily swear words were commonplace and even tolerated at court). The Victorian Age of the late 19th century went back to squelching the bodily, with words that even hinted at human anatomy and sexuality suppressed and relegated to the vocabulary of the unclean.

Nowadays, with a concerted effort towards global tolerance and civility, the third category of slurs are king of the slagheap of the obscene. Since there is no explicitly state-sanctioned religion nor a overarching sense of prudery, holy swear words and anatomical obscenities are partly ineffectual. It’s the words that serve to make a group of citizens second class that rankle us, including those that marginalize the disabled, the rotund, or the foreign.

Mohr’s writing is a bit lofty and, of course, thoroughly peppered with obscenities. The most interesting bits are those that trace the words back to their beginnings and how certain cultural phenomena have faded away. For instance, in the Middle Ages, invoking the Lord’s name in vain was thought to actually injure the holy body of Christ, and that swearing in this fashion was detrimental to all Christians. One wonders what linguists a millennium from now will think of our swearing and what now areas of culture will be considered obscene. This is a great book for niche linguists and explorers of spoken minutiae.