Book review: Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing by Melissa Mohr

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I HAVE a vivid memory of standing in the pantry of the house I grew up in, aged about seven, with my mum as she tried to persuade me there was something I wanted for dinner.

Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing

By Melissa Mohr

Oxford University Press, 256pp, £16.99

“Do you want lasagne?” she said, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to try out a word I’d heard at school. “No”, I said “lasagne’s crap”. In the course of the mild telling-off – more of a “chance to explain” than a reprimand – we established that I had no idea what the word meant.

What I did know was that it was vaguely naughty to say it, and that it meant something disagreeable. Melissa Mohr’s effervescent and entertaining book on the history of swearing has countless examples of how words metamorphose, from a literal meaning, to a metaphorical meaning, to a meaningless meaning: if I hit my thumb with a hammer and shout “oh, crap”, I’m using it merely as an outburst (and, I learned here, doing myself some good: one experiment shows that when groups of people have to hold their hands in freezing water, the ones allowed to swear can keep them there 

Also, thanks to Mohr, I now realise that in any future hammer-thumb related incidents, I could also say sard, bobrelle, gamahuche, rantallion, pintel, kekir or just shout “Oh, box the Jesuit”. Or even “bagpipe”, which Francis Grose describes in the 1785 Classical Dictionary Of The Vulgar Tongue as “a lascivious practice too indecent for explanation”.

Mohr’s book is broadly historical and the title refers to two of the major areas of so-called “bad language”: religion, and bodily functions. It is slightly inelegant to conflate sexual vocabulary alongside all the other bodily functions, but makes for a better title. Mohr begins with the Romans, in part to demonstrate how a different series of sexual mores make for a different set of registers of swear words. Despite their reputation for Stoicism, probity and moral rectitude, the graffiti at Pompeii and the epigrams of Martial show a rich and diverse language of rude animadversion, usually with a sexual dimension. Since latrines were often public, language associated with urination and defecation was far less inflammatory.

The second chapter switches to the Bible, and the other meaning of swearing: “To make a solemn declaration, invoking a deity or a sacred person or thing, in confirmation of and witness to the honesty or truth of such a declaration”. Mohr takes a slight detour into some of the fruitier Biblical passages. There’s the King James version of 1 King 10: “Therefore, behold, I will bring evil upon the house of Jeroboam, and will cut off from Jeroboam him that pisseth against the wall”; also, the delightful fact that the rib from which God makes Eve might actually have meant penile bone, explaining why male humans – like only spidermonkeys, whales and horses – lack a baculum. She doesn’t mention one more recent “find” in terms of Biblical language: the King James has Jesus saying, at Mark 7:19 “Because it entereth not into his heart, but into the belly, and goeth out into the draught, purging all meats”. The word in Mark, aphedron, caused scholars much consternation until an inscription discovered at Pergamon in 1954 revealed that Jesus was saying “into the public privies”.

The real concern though was the role of sworn oaths as civil society developed. The kind of swearing was a contact with the divine, and for the average medieval individual, hearing someone says “God’s wounds”, or “God’s bones”, or “God’s nails” were far more offensive that the c-word (used in the poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer) or the f-work (used in the poetry of William Dunbar) or even such lovely phrases from Elizabethan and Jacobean drama like “turd i’ your teeth and turd i’ your little wife’s teeth too”.

Elizabeth I shocked ambassadors by saying “God’s death” frequently, and, as Mohr observes, this was doubly shocking since Elizabeth was a woman. Her use of “macho” language showed her “princely”, masculine status – a bit like Alan Sugar being allowed to cuss more than his contestants or apprentices. Shakespeare, curiously, is far less bawdy than his contemporaries.

Nowadays, people barely bat an eyelid at others saying “Jesus”, “Christ”, “For the love of God” and so on (though I’m yet to hear “Holy Ghost” or “Hypostatic Union” used thus). Why did religious profanity decline? Partially secularisation, according to Mohr, but also partially mercantile capitalism (you couldn’t be expected to swear on the Bible about the quality of your goods at each and every sale) but also, importantly, the Catholic doctrine of equivocation.

During the persecutions, Catholics were allowed “mental reservations”: their spoken words (“I did not harbour a priest”) were 
accompanied by a silent extension that God would hear (“not that it’s any of your business”).

Or they could use amphibology, a special kind of double-entendre (for example: “what did you think of my book?” “It left me speechless”). Bill Clinton, by one account, used amphibology when he said “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”. Or, again with Clinton, saying “I did not inhale” can mean “since you eat the brownies”.

Mohr traces the vacillating attitude towards religious, lavatorial and sexual swearing through the rise of 18th-century politeness, 19th-century prudery and into our present day coprolalia. There are extremely witty asides on moral panics – Shaw’s desperation for scandal in having Eliza Doolittle say “Walk? Not bloody likely” led to “bloody” being the in-word of the season, sometimes substituted by the play’s title (“not pygmalion likely”). As we swear more, it means less; repetition and ubiquity sap the shock away. At the same time as three top ten songs on the Billboard chart (March 2011) had the f-word in their title, British viewers were accustomed to the surreal and hilarious lengths that Armando Ianucci went to in order for Malcolm Tucker’s swearing to be both funny and full of threat.

It’s a tactic that satirists such as Chris Morris, Charlie Brooker and even Caitlin Moran have used (her referring to David Cameron as a “gammon robot” has all the queasy undertones of a “new” swear).

Mohr identifies that nowadays, racial slurs (as well as attacks on people because of sexual orientation) are deemed far more offensive than even the words this newspaper would only print in an asterisked form. In a very small way that seems like we’re 
growing up.