**** Holy Sh*t, A Brief History of Swearing by Melissa Mohr


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.

So I’ve recently gotten into a fantastic linguistics podcast, and it reminded me how much I’ve liked this book that I’ve read a couple of years ago about swearing. I don’t even remember how I came across this book, but the socio-cultural aspect of swearing has always been of interest to me, firstly as a fantasy author who has had to create a bunch of fantasy swears for her novel, and also as a Quebecer. (We use really special swears you guys.)

I also have a special place in my heart for books in which the author has clearly done extensive research and shows it by citing their sources (which should be a given for non-fiction, but you’d be surprised.)

Melissa Mohr takes us through the history of swears, from the Romans to the modern day, and explains to us in a very clear to understand, interesting way the different between « holy » swears, and « shit » swears (oaths and obscenities). What swear a society uses tells us a lot about what it is that they consider taboo, and therefore helps us understand them better. The book is peppered with examples and anecdotes, from dirty graffiti on the walls of Pompeii to the exact thing a peasant might have said to be arrested for public indecency in the middle ages.

Mixing history, sociology, and even psychology, this book is a complete dive into everything you’ve always wanted to know (or didn’t know you wanted to know!) about swears. I absolutely recommend it to everyone, whether you are interested in linguistics, history, travel, or whether you just want to be hip with the kids!

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