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Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing

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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.

From Publishers Weekly

Mar 25, 2013 – “For more than two thousand years, swearing has alternated between the twin poles of oaths and obscenities,” Mohr writes in the introduction to her study on swearing. Approaching the subject from a variety of angles—linguistic, historical, sociological, and even physiological (swearwords can help us endure pain and even increase heart rate)—Mohr gives readers a remarkably well-researched report on the little words that can mean so much. Beginning with the Greeks and Romans, the author works her way forward, artfully separating the vulgar and blasphemous (“by God’s bones” was one of the most offensive phrases uttered in the Middle Ages) from the more modern concept of “fighting words” (of which the “n” word is arguably the most inflammatory, according to Mohr), noting the more popular applications and meanings from antiquity to today. Unfortunately, her focus on historical accuracy comes at the cost of readability, as the intricacies of various terms (the bulk of which revolve around bodily functions) become tedious. Digressions on the art of equivocation and the etymology of some of the most infamous curses are highlights of the book, but those looking for a Devil’s Dictionary of bad language should look elsewhere—this is some serious sh*t. 17 b&w images. Agency: Veritas Literary Agency.

Customer Reviews


This book is awesome, entertaining, but most importantly it is meaningful and educational. I love the language I speak, how it can convey what's going on in my head and in my heart. This book though it has a lot of explicit words has only helped expand my vocabulary and my ability to understand others.

Entertaining and enlightening

I've always been a fan of micro-histories that explore language or aspects of culture. Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing was a fascinating trip through what many today think is a recent phenomenon. Mohr sets the record straight, however, with a discussion of Ancient Rome and their use of language which shared much with the current way we use obscene words and how we swear. She then brings us through the history of the English language (with a few other European languages thrown in for comparison) and the British and American cultures.

Mohr does a great job of illustrating how our concepts of swearing are related to those larger societal concepts such as religion, privacy, class, and shame. Her examples come from law, literature, and other documents as well as more contemporary media such as film, television and radio. (Yes, George Carlin and Rhett Butler are in here...) She also puts to bed some myths about word origins including a famous one for the F word and one for Sh*t.

Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing
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  • $16.99
  • Available on iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, and Mac.
  • Category: History
  • Published: Apr 01, 2013
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Seller: Oxford University Press
  • Print Length: 336 Pages
  • Language: English
  • Requirements: To view this book, you must have an iOS device with iBooks 1.3.1 or later and iOS 4.3.3 or later, or a Mac with iBooks 1.0 or later and OS X 10.9 or later.

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