Holy Shit: A Brief History of Swearing
by Melissa Mohr
Oxford University Press, 2013
336 pages (Kindle)
Note: This review discusses words and ideas that some may find offensive.
Leading the reader through the worlds of ancient Rome to the present day, Melissa Mohr’s book Holy Shit: A Brief History of Swearing is a fascinating look at the role obscenities and oaths play in human civilization.
Swearing is a significant part of human communication and clearly there needs to be historical discussions of it. A history of swearing tells us about religion, sexuality, human perceptions of social status, gender, and race. From the blasphemous to the obscene, Mohr moves quickly through an immense history and vocabulary, honestly handling delicate subject matter.
“Certainly for me,” confesses Mohr, “the sections on racial slurs in Chapter 6 and in the epilogue were the hardest to write. I found surprisingly little problem in writing fuck over and over and over, but I balked at thinking about and discussing the n-word.” And yet, as unpleasant as certain words may be, swearing endures. This endurance is partly the result of the physiological:
Scientists today believe that swearwords even occupy a different part of our brain. Most speech is a “higher-brain” function, the province of the cerebral cortex, which also controls voluntary actions and rational thought. Swearwords are stored in the “lower brain,” the limbic system, which, broadly, is responsible for emotion, the fight-or-flight response, and the autonomic nervous system, which regulates heart rate and blood pressure.
There are six chapters in all, with chapter one on “Roman Plainness.” (By the way, this chapter is also a quick tear-off of the band aid for the apprehensive reader.) “The Latin word for ‘obscenity’ is obscenitas. Its etymology is unknown, but speculation has derived it from caenum (dirt, filth) or alternatively from scaena, the stage. In the latter case, obscenity would be what cannot be said except onstage, where, in ancient Greece and Rome, comic ribaldry was licensed.”
In comparing Rome’s “Big Ten” list of swear words to that of English’s “Big Six,” Mohr says that, “obscene words are dirty, whether sexually or excrementally. They refer to parts of the body, and things those body parts do, that are under strong taboos.”
This is followed by tamer territory with an examination of the Bible. Mohr shows how the sacred text provides a model for “oath swearing” and demonstrates a mastery of euphemism. As for the former, the Old Testament God fights “a war for supremacy with other Near Eastern gods,” and the oath is his “powerful” weapon.
Vowing is a very useful practice for a deity such as Yahweh, interested in increasing his influence. If a person’s wish comes true, God gets the credit since it is obvious that he has fulfilled his side of the bargain. If the wish isn’t granted, it is probably because you did something wrong, or because Yahweh is angry with you; such failures can always be explained away.
As to the latter, euphemism, Mohr ventures into many polite alternative phrases (known especially to those who were raised on the King James Version), such as “covering his feet” (for relieving oneself) to “knowing” (have sex with) someone.
This euphemistic language of the Bible makes its strongest appearance in the most obvious book, the Song of Solomon, where Mohr notes the very sexual language of passages like 5:4-6:
My beloved thrust his hand into the opening, and my inmost being yearned for him. I arose to open to my beloved, and my hands dripped with myrrh, my fingers with liquid myrrh, upon the handles of the bolt. I opened to my beloved, but my beloved had turned and was gone. My soul failed me when he spoke. I sought him, but did not find him; I called him, but he gave no answer.
Here erotic double entendres and allusion to orgasm show the Bible as a full of masterful euphemism. Mohr is right when she notes the discomfort that seems to be felt by many theologians when reading passages like this. “It is almost painful to watch scholars insist that this passage has nothing at all to do with sex,” she says, referencing the idea that these passages are seen as “truly and only about God’s love for Israel, Christ’s love for the Church, or the soul’s spiritual union with God.”
Similarly, when I wrote my book Becoming Divine: Jonathan Edwards’s Incarnational Spirituality with the Christian Tradition (2011), I discovered Edwards’s strong resistance to reading the Song of Solomon with an erotic literalness. The thought of the woman rejoicing in the idea of “virgins” enjoying her lover (1:4) seemed far too carnal and human to be acceptable to Edwards (a pietistically-inclined evangelical). His alternative reading is one that spiritualizes the passage and eases his discomfort. The “virgins are the saints, who are spiritual virgins,” he insists, and “this song is intended as a song of love between Christ and the church, or the assembly of saints.” Inviting virgins to “partake” is actually a spiritual way of talking about Christian missions and the invitation to accept Christ. (Apparently, even the Bible’s euphemistic language was too much for him.)
She moves from the Bible to the Middle Ages and the fixation on “god’s bones”—the idea that swearing by a body part of God can literally hurt or tear apart the resurrected body of Christ. The Middle Ages, writes Mohr, “was firmly under the sway of the Holy. Despite using plenty of words that we today would consider to be shocking and offensive, medieval English people were unconcerned about the Shit.” From the medieval world she ventures into “rise of the obscenity” in the Renaissance and then into the delicate euphemisms of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries.
The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw the ascendancy of the Shit, what we today would recognize as fully developed obscenity. Obscenities possessed perhaps their greatest power to shock and offend during this age of euphemism, when even words such as leg and trousers were deemed too scandalous and vulgar for the public sphere.
Landing in the modern period, she says “all bets are off,” as “both obscenities and oaths are flourishing in public discourse, as any look at television, the Internet, or political debate will demonstrate.” It is in this chapter she handles the n-word. “One might say it is our most dangerous word,” she writes, “People have lost their jobs for saying other words that are completely unrelated but sound like it.” And it is very apparent to me that among the pages of swear words I encountered in Holy Shit, this is the one I can’t get myself to actually type. It outranks them all.
Holy Shit is a fascinating read. More could have been done on blasphemy as related to swearing. Not just the rejection of a theological opinion, vocalizing blasphemy was a swearing of allegiance to another belief system. To recant of it was the equivalent of breaking an oath. More importantly, blasphemy was also the equivalent for the medieval church to swearing a curse upon oneself. Punishment for blasphemy, whether it was by exile, prison, or death, was not only intended to keep it from spreading, it was the outcome of that self-curse (as far as earthly judgments were concerned).
More work on scatological language also would have been interesting. Martin Luther engaged in it, repeatedly swearing at the devil and calling him “a shit.” Scatological language was, in part, a superstitious act that was thought by some to push away evil demons. For Luther swearing also put the devil in his place as the lord of shit. It is a reminder to the devil of his real status compared to Christ. Similarly, Luther’s woodcuts showed the devil giving birth to the pope out of his anus, a move to put both the pope and the devil, as Luther saw it, in the same realm. Scatological language, therefore, has a spiritual benefit to it.
These intellectual curiosities aside, there is a lot accomplished in Mohr’s book. Not for the faint of heart, Holy Shit reminds the reader that swearing is not simply the tool of those who cannot think of a better word; sometimes it is used when no other word will suffice.