Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing

Overview


Almost everyone swears, or worries about not swearing, from the two year-old who has just discovered the power of potty mouth to the grandma who wonders why every other word she hears is obscene. Whether they express anger or exhilaration, are meant to insult or to commend, swear words perform a crucial role in language. But swearing is also a uniquely well-suited lens through which to look at history, offering a fascinating record of what people care about on the deepest ...
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Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing

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Overview


Almost everyone swears, or worries about not swearing, from the two year-old who has just discovered the power of potty mouth to the grandma who wonders why every other word she hears is obscene. Whether they express anger or exhilaration, are meant to insult or to commend, swear words perform a crucial role in language. But swearing is also a uniquely well-suited lens through which to look at history, offering a fascinating record of what people care about on the deepest levels of a culture--what's divine, what's terrifying, and what's taboo.

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--which were remarkably similar to our own--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 (increased heart rate and greater pain tolerance), 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--and it also just might expand your repertoire of words to choose from the next time you shut your finger in the car door.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
“For more than two thousand years, swearing has alternated between the twin poles of oaths and obscenities,” Mohr writes in the introduction to her study on swearing. Approaching the subject from a variety of angles—linguistic, historical, sociological, and even physiological (swearwords can help us endure pain and even increase heart rate)—Mohr gives readers a remarkably well-researched report on the little words that can mean so much. Beginning with the Greeks and Romans, the author works her way forward, artfully separating the vulgar and blasphemous (“by God’s bones” was one of the most offensive phrases uttered in the Middle Ages) from the more modern concept of “fighting words” (of which the “n” word is arguably the most inflammatory, according to Mohr), noting the more popular applications and meanings from antiquity to today. Unfortunately, her focus on historical accuracy comes at the cost of readability, as the intricacies of various terms (the bulk of which revolve around bodily functions) become tedious. Digressions on the art of equivocation and the etymology of some of the most infamous curses are highlights of the book, but those looking for a Devil’s Dictionary of bad language should look elsewhere—this is some serious sh*t. 17 b&w images. Agency: Veritas Literary Agency. (May)
From the Publisher

"Throughout time, as words have left FCC-monitor territory and entered everyday conversation, we've kept coming up with new ways to express our greatest, angriest, most enthusiastic exclamations. And that process is pretty fucking cool." --Atlantic Monthly

"Intelligent and enjoyable... Ms. Mohr leads us on an often ear-boggling tour of verbal depravity, through the medieval and early-modern periods (via a fascinating analysis of scatological phrasing in early Bible translations) to the Victorian era and then our own time."--Wall Street Journal

"...one of the most absorbing and entertaining books on language I have encountered in a long time" -- Washington Post

"As someone who relies on various forms of obscenity, vulgarity and profanity for roughly 75% of my written and verbal communication, I found this book fascinating and illuminating. Melissa Mohr's scholarship is rigorous, her prose trenchant and delightful; right from page one, Holy Sh*t is a motherf*cker. We are what we swear by and about, and this slim volume represents a significant and deeply enjoyable contribution to our understanding of ourselves." - Adam Mansbach, #1 New York Times bestselling author of GO THE F*CK TO SLEEP

"[Mohr's] approach positively twinkles with pleasure and amusementEL This is a cracking f****** book, and innominables to anyone who says otherwise." -- Sam Leith, The Guardian

"In Holy Sh*t, Melissa Mohr makes curses, oaths, profanities, and swear words the occasion for an entertaining and far-ranging historical journey, from the disputes over religious oaths in the Tudor period to the labored delicacies of the Victorians to our modern debates about expletives in the media and our new-found reticence about racial and religious slurs. One-stop shopping for anyone interested in the nether reaches of the English vocabulary." -Geoff Nunberg, University of California at Berkeley, Language Commentator on NPR's Fresh Air

"Profanity-the language that offends us-tells a great deal about who we are and how we got that way. Melissa Mohr's Holy Sh*t is a fascinating investigation, both provocative and immensely informative. I found it compulsively readable." -Stephen Orgel, author of Imagining Shakespeare

"Digressions on the art of equivocation and the etymology of some of the most infamous curses are highlights of the book, but those looking for a Devil's Dictionary of bad language should look elsewhere-this is some serious sh*t." --Publishers Weekly

"Informed, enlightening and often delightfully surprising."--Kirkus Reviews

Library Journal
Renaissance scholar Mohr presents a history of cursing that is guided by humor and scholarship. She begins by examining pillars of Western civilization, namely Ancient Rome and the Bible. The remaining four chapters and epilog proceed chronologically from the Middle Ages to the present day. Each chapter highlights words most offensive for that period and provides the etymology and historical context. For example, the author compares translations of the Bible, noting intriguing choices between euphemisms (indirect references) and more common terms (the latter often won). Mohr further explains how the progression of 18th-century culture corresponded with the censorship of language and how racial slurs emerged following World War II. She investigates the body's response to swearing (e.g., faster heart rate and higher pain tolerance) and also considers the legal hurdles that James Joyce's Ulysses confronted over the novel's explicit language. Mohr's breadth of knowledge distinguishes this book from others like Peter Silverton's Filthy English or Tom McEnery's Swearing in English. Lacking is a select bibliography. VERDICT Recommended for serious language lovers and history buffs.—Marianne Orme, Des Plaines P.L., IL
Kirkus Reviews
A scholar in Renaissance literature debuts with a chronicle of cursing, from the Romans to R-rated movies. In an account that's a bit textually schizophrenic--the tone and diction range from barroom bawdy to scholarly costiveness--Mohr moves through the centuries in her racy account of how we swear and why. She identifies two major domains of dirty: the Holy and the Shit (the sacred and the secular, the spirit and the body) and shows how each has at times been in the ascendancy. To the Romans and Victorians (the latter thought the body was an embarrassment), words about body parts and functions were highly offensive. Mohr notes that the Victorian Age was also the age of euphemism. But earlier, in the Middle Ages, the more offensive oaths ("the equivalent of modern obscenity") were religious in nature. Swearing by God's body parts--"by God's nails"--alarmed authorities. During the Renaissance, obscenity spread, but playwrights (she uses Shakespeare as an example) employed wordplay, jokes and innuendo. Mohr notes that the Bard of Avon "never employs a primary obscenity." Moving on, she notes that the world wars greatly affected the vernacular, and soon, literature and the other arts were finding ways to accommodate the new, crustier diction. (She reminds us of the "fug" Mailer had to use in The Naked and the Dead.) Mohr then summarizes the obscenity cases of Ulysses and Lady Chatterley's Lover and discusses George Carlin, Tourette's and the scholarly interest in swearing. She confesses that she found it more difficult to write about racial and ethnic slurs than she did about more conventional cursing. Throughout, she lists many naughty words that readers will greatly enjoy learning more about. Friskier diction would have helped at times, but the book is generally informed, enlightening and often delightfully surprising.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780199742677
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 4/29/2013
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 169,742
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Melissa Mohr holds a Ph.D. in Renaissance Literature from Stanford. This is her first book.

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Table of Contents

Introduction
Chapter 1: Romana Simplicitate Loqui: To Speak with Roman Plainness
Chapter 2: On Earth as It Is in Heaven
Chapter 3: Tearing God to Pieces: The Middle Ages
Chapter 4: The Rise of Obscenity: The Renaissance
Chapter 5: How Trousers Became Unmentionable and Legs Disappeared Altogether: The 18th and 19th Centuries
Chapter 6: The Law and Science of Swearing: The Twentieth Century
Conclusion

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