Somerville resident Melissa Mohr has written an eye-opening, academic study of swearing from the time of the ancient Romans to today, a subcultural journey that includes Chaucer’s England, the Old Testament Middle East, and the countercultural comedy routines of George Carlin and Lenny Bruce. Swearing has a long, if largely unsung, role in human history. What Mohr makes clear in “Holy Sh*t” is that “swearing,” which she divides into obscenities (language about bodily functions) and oaths (words offensive to God), has moved back and forth in shock value on a socio-linguistic pendulum. The Middle Ages, for example, attached little shame to bodily functions: hence, what we might deem obscenity today was largely tolerated then. Yet those same Middle Ages, a time of religious fervor, viewed false oaths (invoking the name of God or Jesus) as deeply offensive.
While Mohr examines the fascinating cultural history of swearing, she also explains its impact on the human body. Citing Harvard neuroscientist Stephen Pinker, Mohr notes that “[s]wearwords are stored in the ‘lower brain,’ the limbic system, which, broadly, is responsible for emotion, the fight-or-flight response, and the automatic nervous system, which regulates heart rate and blood pressure.” Swearing removes discourse from the rational to the highly primitive brain, and quickly. People swear to provoke others and those sworn at get the message through their brains and bodies, leading often to hurt feelings and sometimes triggering violence.
In ancient Rome, much like today, graffiti was a hotbed of obscenity, the kinds of sexual boasts and primordial put-downs that we find on public bathroom walls today. Mohr takes us inside the full range of ancient Roman obscenity, exposing their far different sexual mores through the words they used for body parts and functions. For these ancients, Mohr notes, sex was “a means of exercising control,” and Romans seeking to insult others used harsh, sexualized language to describe what one would do to another to achieve domination/penetration (i.e., celebrating the dominant “giver” and stigmatizing the “passive” receiver).
Things changed as Christianity developed a powerful stigma against using God’s name in vain. If you used God’s name to swear that something was true, “you must swear sincerely” and about serious matters only, Mohr writes.
For early Christians, swearing physically brought God into the equation, and doing it falsely was a terrible sin. Oaths were also the foundation of the entire medieval social/political system of complex allegiances, another reason why making false or trivial oaths was forbidden. But as anyone who has read Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” knows, there was a lot of swearing in England, both of the “false oath” and obscene varieties.
Mohr explores how the dual forces of secularizing capitalism and increased personal privacy took Europe out of the Middle Ages and into the modern era: Restrictions on obscenity increased while strictures against oaths decreased. With the Victorian era in the 19th century this trend reached its apex, as obscenity was nearly replaced with euphemism. Mohr explains how Victorians preferred to remain linguistically ignorant of sex, even refusing to use the word legs (“limbs” was the preferred, if imprecise, sanitization) and even “covered up the limbs of their furniture.”
For middle-class Victorians, swearing was also uncouth, a sign of working-class brutality, while refined (if euphemistic) speech was a sign of upward social mobility. As Mohr explains, we’ve retained some of this Victorian class-based bias against swearing: It is stigmatized as a marker of the uneducated or those who do physical labor.
Swearing has a long role in human history. It has moved back and forth in shock value on a socio-linguistic pendulum.
Mohr concludes by examining some landmark 20th-century legal cases regarding obscenity, including the complicated legacy of Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words” case from the 1970s. “The tide of swearing has come in — of Carlin’s original seven words you can’t say on TV, you can now say all but three. . . . Once you hit the Internet, all bets are off.”
While oaths and obscenities are given wide latitude today, Mohr sees the “new” swearing as racist epithets, the kind of stigmatized racial language (the “n-word”) that Bruce would repeat again and again during his stand-up routines in an effort to de-stigmatize them. Bruce, certainly a comedy trailblazer, was both celebrated and demonized for his unconventional brand of humor. As Mohr has made clear, swearing does, whatever else you may think of it, bring attention to itself.