Friday, 9 September 2016

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

Pros: absolutely fascinating, in depth, lots of end notes, explains background 

Cons: uncomfortable reading at times, hard to share what you’ve learned without using evasive speech 

This is a surprisingly in depth brief history of swearing in English, focusing in the modern era on America.  It’s told in 6 chapters: ancient Rome, Biblical times, the middle ages, the renaissance, 18-19th centuries, and modern day.  

Mohr’s premise is that swearing has historically taken two forms, bodily functions (bathroom and sexual) and oaths (swearing on a deity).  The first two chapters explain the background necessary for understanding those two factors; body shame from Rome (as many scientific terms for body parts and functions come from Latin) and a veneration for oaths from the Bible.  Both sections included extensive historical references and explanations, so the reader is properly grounded in the appropriate contexts when the history of English begins in the middle ages.

It’s easy to forget just how interconnected everything is in the world.  Mohr shows how religion, social customs, language, and more intersected to create taboos and change what was appropriate and inappropriate to say.  She also showed how changing beliefs over time radically altered those taboos.

There is, naturally, a lot of swearing in the book.  Mohr gives numerous historical examples of things that were considered inappropriate at the time, and things we would consider inappropriate now, but were fine to say in certain eras of the past.  

I personally found the information fascinating, though it was difficult to share what I’d learned with others, as I often had to modify my own speech so as to not cause offence while giving examples from the book.

While I didn’t use the end notes, the book is well researched and references quite a number of sources.  I did however, read the notes at the bottom of pages which often explained quotes and references in more detail than the main text.

This book is VERY interesting.  If you’re interested in language, in how language affects society, in how language changes over centuries, or just in why people swear, read this book.

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