Bits of Books - Books by Title

Holy Sh*t:

a Brief History of Swearing

by Melissa Mohr

Oaths originally very important - in OT, God is fighting a war for supremacy with other Middle eastern gods, and oath swearing is one of his most powerful weapons.

"Fucking" is one of the most multi-purpose words ever invented. It can mean just about anything from really bad to really good.

Ancient Romans didn't think in terms of homo or hetero sexuality. What mattered was whether you were the active or passive partner. Sex was a matter of domination - the active male penetrates 'lesser' creatures, whether women, boys or passive men, defining himself as a real man.

In Roman times, both penis and vulva were obscene words, and vagina was a crude word for anus. Transition happened because through the Middle Ages, Latin was exclusive to educated men. So they could use the language to discuss things that weren't suitable for general conversation, such as sex.

Before the Civil War, it was "the United States of America are ..." but after became "the United States is ..." ie went from a group of states to a single entity. In the same way the first descriptions of God in Bible are plural elohim and only later is the one God named as Yhwh. Scholars who want to believe that Bible always monotheistic interpret the plural form as relating to God and his heavenly angels. Scholars who think monotheism developed gradually throughout the Bible see evidence that Yhwh once had co-creators.

Sometimes Yahweh is just a junior god among many. In Deuteronomy's Song of Moses, the Most High {Elyon} allocates people according to their gods, the Lord's [Hashem's] portion was his people, Jacob his allotted share - ie the tribe of Israel (Jacob) was allocated to Hashem's (one of the standard titles that the Jews used to avoid pronouncing Yahweh's sacred name.The committed monotheists claim that Elyon was just another title for Yahweh, and so this verse just means that he divided the people of the world up and kept the Israelites for himself. Other scholars point out that that still leaves a Yahweh who accepts existence of a multitude of other gods. And they identify Elyon with El, the chief god of the Canaanite pantheon, when Yahweh was a minor war and storm god in Canaan.

Everyone 'knows' that Eve was made from Adam's rib. But word rib does not appear in the Hebrew - only in the Greek translation. The Hebrew word used is tsela which just means 'side'. And in the euphemism-laced OT, side can also refer to genitals. One scholar has argued that should be interpreted as Eve being made from Adam's penis, not a rib. Hebrews would have been as aware as anyone that men and women have same number of ribs, and they would also probably have realized that humans are one of few species which does not have a penis bone. So if Eve was made from that, it would explain the disappearance.

Words that we consider obscene today were not in medieval times. So they called a heron a shiterow, the dandelion was a pissabed, and there were windfuckers (birds), arse-smart and cuntehoare and open arse Plants and trees). Towns had Pissing Alleys, and Oxford Gropecuntlane, where you found prostitutes. Names such as Randall Shitboast, Thomas Turd, Bele Wydecunthe and Robert Clawcunt.

(London Times)

Melissa Mohr's book is learned, charming and - if one had read it 50 years ago - utterly filthy. It is actually about two things. One is swearing, in the sense of oath and curse, the other 'bad language[. The difference can be summed up in the paradoxical sentence: "Gerry Adams won't swear and he says unprintable things about the Brits" (i.e. won't, as a non-attending MP, take the oath of allegiance to the Queen).

Mohr's chronicle starts in ancient times and comes up to the most recent with that twit who tweeted stupid things about the footballer Fabrice Muamba and went to jail for it. Criminally racial bad language is relatively new and so radioactive that Mohr skips over it extremely lightly. Wisely.

But most things where the unspeakable is concerned never change. Lacking paper (for writing, as well as the other thing) the ancient Romans scrawled graffiti on every surface they could find. The eternal city resembled a gigantic lavatory wall. The vilest thing was some variant of cunnum lingere. I can print that without the exonerating asterisk because for hundreds of years Latin was Greek to the oikish population in Olde England. So the few familiar with the ancient tongues could say what they liked in them.

In ancient Britain one of the things that proscribed "that which may not be uttered" was the third commandment ("Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain"). "God's Bones", Mohr informs us, surprisingly, was the worst of bad language in medieval times. Chaucer and others could, and did, use four-letter words, as they were called in the Lady Chatterley trial, with gay abandon. There was a big switch to prohibition on obscenity around the 18th and 19th century, after which you could take the name of the Lord thy God in as vain as you damn well liked but all that jolly Chaucerian stuff was bowdlerised into invisibility.

Mohr is American and she skips over the fact that we are divided by our bad language. Take, for example, the rich lexicon of male self-abuse. Max Miller's immortal quip, "I met this beautiful girl on a narrow mountain path and I didn't know whether to block her passage or toss myself off" would mean nothing to an American. Nor would the immortal truth, "the world is divided into w***ers and plonkers".

As for what the American compound 'shag carpet' sounds like to an English ear or "I've got through 20 fags today. Must give them up" to an American ear, don't ask. At least, not in polite company. Mohr's book set me thinking about different kinds of bad language I've encountered. The earliest, in kindergarten, was an ingenious joke about joysticks and cockpits. It was during the Blitz, and half the planes overhead were trying to stop one reaching school where, as a poetry-reading kind of fellow, you could induce helpless giggles with the remark, "I am very fond of Kipling but I've never enjoyed Browning".

When I was in the Army, I remember my indignation at being called by the drill sergeant a great bag of human waste tied round the middle by a piece of copulating string. But I discovered that the one term of abuse the bastard couldn't use was 'bastard'. I never did work out why.

Mohr, oddly, ignores the rich vocabulary of 'faux expletive'. I had an aunt who was a virtuoso at it. 'Sugar!' she'd say when she dropped something, implying, but not mentioning, something you wouldn't want two lumps of dropped in your tea.

Holy Sh*t is a dead cert for the next loo book of the year; bog book, brick shithouse book, Jake's book. Take your p*ick. Ms Mohr has fascinating riffs on all of them.

(The Guardian)

It's wonderful stuff, swearing. It stiffens the sinews and summons up the blood, and not just metaphorically. Obscenities actually do act on us physiologically. Swearing increases electrical conductance across the skin, pushes the heart rate higher and measurably increases resistance to pain.

Obscenities are also linguistically interesting in themselves: the more currency they have, the more their emotional colouring and the associations they trigger overwhelms what they actually mean. "Fucking", these days, only rarely means "having sex". And they become marvellously plastic, grammatically.

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 .

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 shit. At different times in the history of the west, the primary taboo has been to do either with God, or with the functions of the human body. (The latter, though, does subdivide in a meaningful way between the sexual and the excremental. Really, this book should have been called "Holy Fucking Shit".)

Though Mohr is mainly interested in English, she is generous in roping in examples from outside it. A helpful and interesting 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 properly rude. English has a "Big Six": "cunt", "fuck", "cock", "arse", "shit" and "piss" (though Mohr plausibly suggests that "nigger" should now be in there). The Romans had a "Big 10": cunnus (cunt), futuo (fuck), mentula (cock), verpa (erect or circumcised cock), landica (clitoris), culus (arse), pedico (bugger), caco (shit), fello (fellate) and irrumo (er, mouth-rape).

So the Romans, like us, had a primary relationship between the body and the idea of obscenity – though their sexual schema was a little different, with shame attaching, above all, to sexual passivity. Sexual obscenity also, to complicate things, had a sacramental function - as witness the fruity ways of the god Priapus. Some of that shit was holy.

In medieval times, though, the emphasis was all on the holy. Common words for places and things contained vulgarities regarded as quite innocuous. London and Oxford both boasted a "Gropecuntelane", which is where the prostitutes hung out, and if you visited a country pond "there would've been a shiterow in there fishing, a windfucker flying above, arse-smart and cuntehoare hugging the edges of the pond, and pissabed amongst the grass". At the same time it's hard to recapture quite how shocking medieval people would find a vain oath.

Christianity was founded on oaths and covenants - as was the whole dispensation of 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 oath-swearing to the rise of the merchant classes. Feudal society's scheme of estates was bound by chains of oaths between lords and vassals, right up to the king. Capitalism moved us from oaths to contracts: the oath before God became less important than keeping your word to business partners - and you didn't need eschatological terror to enforce that. Plus, there's the dry, old complaint that swearing constantly "devalues the currency". Between 1640 and 1660, around the civil war, men might have to swear as many as 10 conflicting oaths of loyalty if they wanted to keep their heads attached to their necks.

At the same time, something else was going on: the idea of privacy. In an age when everybody pissed and shat in public, and sex would as like as not take place in a room or even a bed shared with others, taboos around bodily functions weren't all that 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 that it was variously rendered "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 "fucking" came to function as no more than "a warning that a noun is coming". Now even the extremest obscenities have lost their power to shock. In Irvine Welsh's novels, for instance, "cunt" is more or less a synonym for "bloke". It is telling that, where for the Romans the genitals were veretrum or verecundum ("parts of awe" or "parts of shame"), "in today's American slang, the genitalia are devalued as 'junk'".

The only actually taboo language is that of racial insult. Words like "wop", "kike" and "yid" (though not, interestingly, "nigger") were intended to give offence from the off - but only to those on the receiving end. As Mohr writes, the idea that everybody should find them offensive is a relative innovation. Not, it should be said, a bad one.

Mohr's scholarship seems to be sound and her approach positively twinkles with pleasure and amusement. She gives her chapters headings such as "Shit, That Bloody Bugger Turned Out To Be A Fucking Nackle-Ass Cocksucker!", and she's not above finding it funny that a paper on urinary incontinence was co-authored by Splatt and Weedon.

I'd like Mohr's account to have tipped a wink to Viz comic's monumental and still-growing Profanisaurus. Her argument might have been strengthened, too, by reminding us that Eric Cartman, in South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, saves the world from Satan and Saddam Hussein with the words: "Fuck, shit, cock, ass, titties, boner, bitch, muff, pussy, cunt, butthole, Barbra Streisand!"

But here I pick nits. This is a cracking fucking book, and innominables to anyone who says otherwise.

Books by Title

Books by Author

Books by Topic

Bits of Books To Impress