Towards the beginning of Melissa Mohr’s Holy Shit: A Brief History of Swearing, something clicked for me. “People swear about what the care about,” Mohr writes. This idea was one of many that clicked throughout the book, but it’s one that stood out to me for several reasons, in large part because it felt like something that I knew without ever having articulated it. I’ve always been curious about the things that make us as a society uncomfortable as it seems that whatever those things are get to the root of our fears, uncertainties, and insecurities.
Mohr touches on this concept several times throughout her book, and the title itself hints at the two main ways that we have been offended throughout the years. More than just being an obscenity in its own right, Holy Shit points towards the division of swear words: Holy references the religious oaths and swears while Shit catches all the various and varied ways we talk about all the stuff a body can do (alone and with other bodies).
Part history text (it starts with the Romans and ends with us) and part linguistic study, Holy Shit delves into issues of religion, privacy, nationalism, and the paradoxical need to define that which we wish to be as removed from as possible. It’s that last bit that I’m especially drawn to; this seemingly compulsive need to keep in touch with those ideas that we find so repulsive.
I think, in part, one of the reasons people react so strongly to words they deem offensive is that those words are a semi-direct link to the act itself. An example that Mohr gives is the Medieval oath God’s bones (or some bodily variant: God’s blood, wounds, etc), which was supposed to literally rend the body of God with each spoken iteration. Mohr posits that, as bodily functions became more private, the words associated with them become more obscene, as the offered an unwelcome reminder of what we’d like to otherwise ignore.
The book, if nothing else, drives home the fact that our language is as much a reflection of our society and culture as anything else. The words we use and, perhaps most importantly, the words we avoid say a lot about our hopes and fears as well the things we hold dear and the things that we wish to forget. As our perspective on the world changes through time, so does our idea of what is considered profane and what we’re willing to accept in “proper” society. As some of the more offensive words of the past lose their power, I’m interested to see what words rise to take their places. It seems that, at the end of the day, we’ll always have something we’re both ashamed and intrigued by enough to relegate it to the taboo.