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The Boston Globe


4,000 years of oaths, curses, and obscenity

Melissa Mohr examines the power of swearing—and what our worst curses say about us

When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, its sudden cascade of ash preserved just about every aspect of life in the Roman town of Pompeii: pottery, buildings, and an abundance of bawdy language. The walls of a Pompeiian brothel were covered in crude scrawls about precisely what the men there had done, and to whom; so were the sides of an apartment building. Even then, clearly, bad language was a completely ordinary part of life.

The deep human tradition of taboo words is the subject of Melissa Mohr’s new book “Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing.” Mohr, a scholar of English literature who lives in Somerville, spent five years poring over Biblical commentaries, Latin poetry, Victorian slang dictionaries, and much more to compile a portrait of how bad language has changed—and stayed the same—over the last 4,000 years. Roaming though history, linguistics, literature, psychology, and physiology, Mohr argues that swearing is a powerful tool for bonding, for expressing emotion, and even for containing pain. (In one study, she notes, cursing subjects were able to keep their hands immersed in ice water significantly longer than subjects who repeated a neutral word.)

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