Holy Shit (in the philosophical mention sense, not the use sense), by Melissa Mohr, is a book I had intended to write. I’m glad Dr. Mohr beat me to it, however, since her treatment would be difficult to top. Few ideas are so arresting as the forbidden topics, and Mohr shows us that swearing occupies a compartment of the brain separate from regular speech, and it may even have therapeutic qualities. A Brief History of Swearing, to use the less offensive subtitle, is not an easy book to read in public. Since most of my reading time is spent in densely packed transit vehicles or waiting areas, I always wonder who might be reading over my shoulder. As a short guy that’s always an issue. Nevertheless, Mohr’s book is fun and informative, and I suspect I will read it again for all the information packed into it.
You see, Mohr uses both words of the title in a literal sense. Beginning with the Romans, but then stepping back to the Bible, clearly swearing has religious origins. While the Bible doesn’t prohibit coarse language in any direct sense, it does believe in oaths. Swearing oaths was serious business, and that seriousness led directly to the concept of swearing. Combine that with the idea of cursing (which the ancients also believed effective—ask Saint Peter) and you get the spectrum covered by the concept of “bad words.” (At least up until modern times.) Although I’ve studied religion my whole life, I was surprised how much I had to learn about the more earthy aspects of spoken sacred language.
As Mohr amply demonstrates, what counts as swearing changes with time. Giving the case of the Lindisfarne Gospels, she illustrates how a glossing priest causally dropped the equivalent of a medieval f-bomb right there on the pages of the holy Gospel. It wasn’t considered swearing at that historical moment in time (and besides, a fair amount of it goes on in the Bible). How far we’ve come. I recall one of my Nashotah House students telling me how he had to take a rather freely expressive classmate aside and tell him he was pretty sure that the f-word was an inappropriate adjective to use when referring to the Trinity. But now I see the wisdom of the ages at play. People use their most powerful words for what moves them most deeply. I doubt Mohr had quite that in mind, but if you read her delightful study you can find out what I may be full of after all.