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4,000 years of oaths, curses, and obscenity

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

Dan Zekek/Globe staff

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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Swearing does something else as well: It reveals just what a culture finds most sensitive. Though bad language generally draws power from two major categories—bodily functions and religion—its forms and functions have varied widely. In ancient Rome, Mohr notes, wedding guests sang ribald songs to encourage fertility, while other obscene songs were thought to protect people from evil, but it was a terrible insult to imply that a Roman man was sexually passive. By the Middle Ages, priorities changed: Invoking God’s name frivolously became the strongest taboo, while words we now consider obscene were used in ­grammar-school textbooks. The first recorded example of the F-word comes from a monk’s 1528 marginalia, Mohr writes; in the same text, he apparently abbreviated “damned” because it was too scandalous.

By the end of the 19th century, swearing evolved to something like its current form: Obscene words were used nonliterally, for emotional emphasis, and blasphemy began to lose its punch. World War I opened the floodgates on the F-word, with the authors of a 1930 collection of British songs and slang claiming it was so commonplace among soldiers that it was merely “a warning that a noun was coming.” Today, we seem to be reaching yet another new frontier, with the N-word, Mohr argues, becoming “our most dangerous word.” She speculates that the future of shocking language may include descriptors like “fat” and even words having to do with death.

Mohr spoke to Ideas by phone from her home.

IDEAS: Have people always believed that they’re living through an epidemic of particularly coarse language?

MOHR: I think they have....In the Middle Ages, people were terrified that too much oath-swearing was going to bring about the decline of the legal system, of government, and eventually of society itself.

IDEAS: What were oaths and why were they so scandalous?

MOHR: Oaths were swearing an oath before God. So, “I swear by God to...” whatever. That’s a sincere oath. Those still are thought to be necessary to the smooth running of society. People still swear oaths in court today; politicians swear oaths of office....But then if you do that falsely, ask God to witness a lie, or you just do it too much—which was thought to be a big problem in the Middle Ages, where you’d say, “God’s bones, it’s hot outside today!”—that’s a vain oath, and that’s the kind of speech that people were really, really worried about.

IDEAS: Are there other old curses that 21st-century people would be surprised to hear about?

MOHR: Because [bad words] were mostly religious in the Middle Ages, any part of God’s body you could curse with. God’s bones, nails, wounds, precious heart, passion, God’s death—that was supposedly one of Queen Elizabeth I’s favorite oaths.

IDEAS: Have religious curses like that lost their power as the culture becomes increasingly secular?

MOHR: We still use them a lot, but we just don’t think of them as bad words. They’re very mild. If you look at lists of the top 25 swear words, I think “Jesus Christ” often makes it in at number 23 or something....The top bad words slots are all occupied by the racial slurs or obscene—sexually or excrementally—words.

Melissa Mohr: “Everyone swears.”

Bill Greene/Globe staff

Melissa Mohr: “Everyone swears.”

IDEAS: You mentioned Queen Elizabeth cursing. Do all kinds of people swear?

MOHR: Everyone swears. People tend to think lower-class people swear more, and this is an old idea. There are old [expressions] like, “He swears like a tinker.” The Victorians were convinced that the only people who swore were lower class, uneducated, horrible people. Modern studies do bear out that people in the lower working class...swear the most and use the worst words.

But also there’s this idea historically that aristocratic people swear a lot, and that’s also borne out by modern studies: People in the highest social classes [also] tend to swear more and use worse words. Not as bad as the people in the quote-unquote lower classes, but much worse than people in the middle class. There’s this idea that middle-class people are strivers, who really need to differentiate themselves from the lower class. One way they do that is by having very clean, very proper language.

IDEAS: Are blasphemy, sexuality, and excrement the main themes all over the world?

MOHR: As far as I know, they’re mostly the same with a little bit of regional variation. In Arab and Spanish-
speaking Catholic countries, there’s a lot of stuff about mothers and sisters. But it’s pretty much the same.

IDEAS: It suggests there’s something very elemental going on.

MOHR: Yes, a sort of universal
grammar of swearing.

IDEAS: Racial slurs are now among the most offensive words in English. How did that happen?

MOHR: By the mid-18th century, [the N-word] was a derogatory word. But in order for something to be a swear word, the rest of the culture has to be shocked when they hear it. Obviously people who were addressed as the N-word never liked it, and were shocked and offended, but for a long time it was perfectly OK for other people to use that word and nobody got particularly upset in the rest of the culture. By the 20th century, you could say society developed a conscience in this way.

IDEAS: What’s the next frontier of bad language?

MOHR: Personally I find it very hard to say “retarded”....I think that “fat,” “crippled,” words that try to define people rather than saying, “He’s a disabled person,” or that try to sum up someone in an epithet—I think those are going to be the new taboos, at least in the immediate future, as the sexual ones continue to get less powerful.

IDEAS: So will we always have swearing, but just invent new curses as the old ones are destigmatized?

MOHR: There’s a real difference between telling someone to “F off,” and saying “You’re stupid.”...Swear words, partly because they have these physiological effects, they really are better at doing those things.

IDEAS: Do you curse much in your everyday life, and did working on this book change that?

MOHR: I don’t think I swear very much, and certainly I don’t swear in public. I swear sometimes if I stub my toe. In a funny way, I got very used to referring to these words, I got very used to writing them down, but it still shocks me. I guess that’s testimony to how powerful they are.

Ruth Graham, a writer in New Hampshire, is a regular contributor to Ideas.
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