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Book Review: Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing – Melissa Mohr

Donna Brown633 views
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About Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing (2013)
Holy Sh*tAlmost 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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Review: Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing

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.

Verdict: 4/5

(Book source: Netgalley)

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Donna Brown
Avid reader/audiobook listener, fan of podcasts, prone to the odd Netflix binge. Mum to six crazy and incredible rescue cats. Occasional writer of short stories and poetry.

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