HOLY SH*T by Melissa  Mohr


A Brief History of Swearing
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A scholar in Renaissance literature debuts with a chronicle of cursing, from the Romans to R-rated movies.

In an account that’s a bit textually schizophrenic—the tone and diction range from barroom bawdy to scholarly costiveness—Mohr moves through the centuries in her racy account of how we swear and why. She identifies two major domains of dirty: the Holy and the Shit (the sacred and the secular, the spirit and the body) and shows how each has at times been in the ascendancy. To the Romans and Victorians (the latter thought the body was an embarrassment), words about body parts and functions were highly offensive. Mohr notes that the Victorian Age was also the age of euphemism. But earlier, in the Middle Ages, the more offensive oaths (“the equivalent of modern obscenity”) were religious in nature. Swearing by God’s body parts—“by God’s nails”—alarmed authorities. During the Renaissance, obscenity spread, but playwrights (she uses Shakespeare as an example) employed wordplay, jokes and innuendo. Mohr notes that the Bard of Avon “never employs a primary obscenity.” Moving on, she notes that the world wars greatly affected the vernacular, and soon, literature and the other arts were finding ways to accommodate the new, crustier diction. (She reminds us of the “fug” Mailer had to use in The Naked and the Dead.) Mohr then summarizes the obscenity cases of Ulysses and Lady Chatterley’s Lover and discusses George Carlin, Tourette’s and the scholarly interest in swearing. She confesses that she found it more difficult to write about racial and ethnic slurs than she did about more conventional cursing. Throughout, she lists many naughty words that readers will greatly enjoy learning more about.

Friskier diction would have helped at times, but the book is generally informed, enlightening and often delightfully surprising.

Pub Date: May 2nd, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-19-974267-7
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Oxford Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 2013


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