Brief History of Swearing


The author Melissa Mohr’s takes us back to the Victorian era in a new book Holy S: A Brief History of Swearing. The author traces the history of English swearing back to its Latin roots and explains why we started swearing.

The wide-ranging four lettered words, insults, curses, and offensive words are vulgar dialect used extensively in the English language. In our liberal and secular society, the author asks the question of how foul language has retained the peculiar emotional flaw throughout the ages. We wonder why people still cringe when someone drops an f-bomb in front of a child or a grandmother. These are some of the questions that form the basis of an excellent new book.

Swearwords are commonly used in the English language. Psychologists have conducted several studies and have revealed that the average person uses swearwords almost as much as pronouns and prepositions. Words like goddamn and bloody are a few of the many other profound words used to refer to specific objects and actions. Swear words do act as an emotional intensifier and have a dual psychological function for the user.

In her book, Mohr does a terrific job of describing how swearwords can achieve greater responses than other words do, even emotionally distressing words such as death and cancer. Details of how the skin conductance can indicate the extent of a person’s emotional stimulation by assessing the degree to which his or her skin conducts electricity, therefore, hearing obscene words is literally electrifying.

Psychologist Richard Stephens conducted an experiment and found that swearing is physically liberating, and found that people who repeat a swearword can keep their hands immersed in icy cold water 40 seconds longer than if they say a neutral word.

The physiological control of swearwords and where they are stored in the brain is considered an explanation for the power of offensive words. In the lower part of the brain (limbic structure) where automatic speech is stored like counting, song lyrics, phrases, and that is where the obscene words are kept. This part of the brain is separated from the cerebral cortex, which controls voluntary actions and the structured vocabulary. Of course, the swear words used are associated with the region and cultural framework of the individual.

The author’s principal argument about swear words is that they are hidden away in language, and hidden in reality. During the middle Ages, private space was non-existent and thus there were no obscenities as everything said and done was public. Groups of people, including the wealthy who could afford separate rooms would share their accommodation and their beds with relatives, and servants. Bodily functions were public, and thus the offensive acts and words were no more than ordinary expressions of normal life. During the 16th century, architectural styles changed, and the creation of private single residences surfaced rapidly, and thus bodily functions became private, and public became offensive.

The transition to capitalism during the 17th and 18th centuries portrayed class boundaries and the use of civilized language became prominent. Social position and importance became a significant factor, and the wealth indication was used to avoid the common living quarters of the poor. Mohr argues that the middle class nominated this new polite language to differentiate themselves from the lower classes. It is essentially a conformist invention.

During the Victorian era, the body became so offensive that ordinary words like leg were referred to as limb. Even the word trouser was offensive at that time and was a word not to be said in polite circles. Offensive words in the contemporary English language are defined by a set of social taboos. The Victorian era defined the boundaries by class and biased language, which shockingly was either the holy or the sh*t. Many racial slurs are mentioned in the book although the modern English swearwords such as faggot, nigger and paki being some of the most insulting words in the present English language are not mentioned at all.

The shift of obscenity from “the holy” and “the sh*t” was slow and several factors between the Protestant and Catholic link of words combined with God’s spiritual body. The oath swearing became a commonplace act and forced their followers to swear new oaths of loyalty. The intriguing divide of Holy and Sh*t, in the English swearing could be split into two camps, “the holy”, and “the sh*t”. Religious swearwords were far more offensive than those bodily function words referred to. During the medieval society the violation of the Third Commandment and use of the Lord’s name in vain, was thought to tear God’s body apart.
Graphic descriptions of moral bodies were not considered profane.

The book delves into the historical narrative of swearing. The combination of oath swearing, the Abrahamic religion, and the Freudian psychology describes the physiological power and social taboo. This book Holy S: A Brief History of Swearing, does cast a better understanding relating to the controversy surrounding the multicultural vulgarities of today.

Written by Laura Oneale

You must be logged in to post a comment Login