Holy Sh*t : A Brief History of Swearing, Hardback

Holy Sh*t : A Brief History of Swearing Hardback

3.5 out of 5 (5 ratings)


Swearing is a fascinating thing. Almost everyone does it, or worries about not doing it, from the two year old who has just discovered the power of the potty mouth to the grandma who wonders why every other word she hears is obscene. But more than its cultural ubiquity, swearing is also interesting for what it tells us about language and society, today and in the past. It is a 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 to the truth with your hand on the Bible and calling someone a *#$&!* when they cut you off on the highway.

Mohr explores obscenities in ancient Rome-remarkably similar to some of the things you might hear on the street today-and unearths the history of religious oaths in the Middle Ages, when swearing was 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; and answers a question that preoccupies the FCC, the U.S.

Senate, and anyone who has overheard little kids at a playground recently-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 might just expand your repertoire of words to choose from the next time you shut your finger in the car door.


  • Format: Hardback
  • Pages: 336 pages, Illustrations
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press Inc
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: Language: history & general works
  • ISBN: 9780199742677



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Showing 1 - 5 of 5 reviews.

Review by

I’ve long held the philosophy that swear words – like all words – are just words. By this ‘just a word’ philosophy sh*t is as profane as cat. Yet, I don’t say ‘cat’ when I drop a cup or trap my finger in the drawer or stub my toe. So, can the ‘just a word’ philosophy stick? This seemed like the perfect book to help me find out.<br/><br/>This is really an absolutely fascinating look at the history of swearing – the obscenities and the oaths – and I was incredibly impressed by the depth of research that has clearly been undertaken. Mohr looks at the differences between swearing (obscenely) and swearing an oath, how these arose and the history of certain words. Unsurprisingly, some words that we find offensive now were considered perfectly acceptable previously, yet some words that we use commonly would have caused an 18th century girl to blush.<br/><br/>My conclusion upon finishing Holy Sh*t was that my ‘just a word’ philosophy kind of sticks. If it didn’t, how could the insult of this generation be the tame slang of the next? What makes an obscenity obscene (to me) seems to be less about language and more about tone, expression and body language. It’s also about knowing what will impact, however. In that respect, it has to be more than just a word. Mohr shows that swearing is very much an evolving aspect of language and behaviour, constantly shaped and revised by our culture and history.<br/><br/>If you love language, culture or history, this is an excellent read with some real surprises in store.<br/><br/>**I received a copy of this book via Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review. I did not receive any additional compensation and all views are my own.**

Review by

This isn’t a very easy book to discuss without offending someone. The author even says so much in the introduction. Invariably, in a discussion about swear words, someone will reach their tolerance for vulgarity. Every language in the world has words that are taboo, obscene, graphic, or blasphemous. This goes beyond simple impoliteness; swear words are those that Steven Pinker says “kidnap our attention and force us to consider their unpleasant connotations.” These words steal us from our lives. The longer the period of arrest, the worse the word. Melissa Mohr’s Holy Shit is a unabashed exploration of the evolution of swearing in English, from their Latin beginnings to modern slurs and expletives.Her basic premise that, historically, swear words have fallen into two main categories: the Holy, which consists of swear words that are offensive due to their blasphemy, and the Shit, which are obscene based on their connection to unpleasant body parts or acts. A third category has arisen in recent times to include racial slurs and epithets, but unfortunately, historically, these words were considered par for the course. As English-speaking civilizations have grown over the centuries, the two categories have traded supremacy as to which was more offensive. In the beginning, bodily obscenities were the worst, but in the Middle Ages, when Christianity exploded throughout Europe, blasphemous utterances topped the list (and bodily swear words were commonplace and even tolerated at court). The Victorian Age of the late 19th century went back to squelching the bodily, with words that even hinted at human anatomy and sexuality suppressed and relegated to the vocabulary of the unclean.Nowadays, with a concerted effort towards global tolerance and civility, the third category of slurs are king of the slagheap of the obscene. Since there is no explicitly state-sanctioned religion nor a overarching sense of prudery, holy swear words and anatomical obscenities are partly ineffectual. It’s the words that serve to make a group of citizens second class that rankle us, including those that marginalize the disabled, the rotund, or the foreign. Mohr’s writing is a bit lofty and, of course, thoroughly peppered with obscenities. The most interesting bits are those that trace the words back to their beginnings and how certain cultural phenomena have faded away. For instance, in the Middle Ages, invoking the Lord’s name in vain was thought to actually injure the holy body of Christ, and that swearing in this fashion was detrimental to all Christians. One wonders what linguists a millennium from now will think of our swearing and what now areas of culture will be considered obscene. This is a great book for niche linguists and explorers of spoken minutiae.

Review by

An interesting review of the evolution of profane and obscenity in the English language. The author takes an historical approach to the use, misuse and abuse of words over time, and how some concepts have come in and out of favor, and why some swear words have faded into obscurity, such as swive and sard. It also has a good index as well as good footnotes, although a good bibliography would have been helpful as well.

Review by

An example of how a potentially entertaining topic gets buried in tedious prose suitable for esoteric academia. A few tolerable parts which make the distinction between swearing - as in a religious oath, and the more colloquial style of cursing. Heavily laden with analysis of church history vis a vis language use and obscure etymological coverage. Overall, very disappointing and designed for language specialists, not public consumption.

Review by

A very fun study of the history of swearing in the English language, with Roman and Biblical swearing for background. Useful for writing research purposes in the descriptions of various things considered profane and their degrees over time, as well as concept-categories that are fairly nonsensical to the modern American or English person - they had a number of words for "to spray something with shit" in the Renaissance, which does not speak well to historical bowel health if nothing else. Mohr takes an interesting stance on Biblical history, treating the words of the texts in good faith as written and taking descriptions of God's actions as fact, but also describing Yaweh's path to ascendance over the other regional gods as evidenced in the text. (Brain-bendingly weird to read, but interesting.) It was also enlightening to pay attention to my own reactions as I read, noting what I was surprised by (quite a few things, really; the Middle Ages and early Renaissance were more foreign than we usually suppose), what I was shocked by (very little), and what I was genuinely offended by (more than I thought).