What’s In a Swear? (Book Review)

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**This post contains bad words. If you do not wish to read bad words do not read this post**

One of the perpetual questions from those learned their language habits in the halls of fundamentalism is this: what makes a word bad? For people to whom “crap” and “butt” were just as forbidden as “shit” and “ass” the answer is far from simple.

To help with this and other questions, author Melissa Mohr has written Holy Sh*T: a Brief History of Swearing. The book is a journey of verbal discovery that starts in ancient Rome, sails through Victorian England, and ends up with the words you can’t say on modern television. It’s an easy read and for anybody who has ever felt guilty about expressing themselves forcibly it’s a real eye-opener.

Early in the book, Mohr draws a line between the two types of language that we have now compiled into the list of modern “swear words.” On the one side is “the holy” and on the other is “the shit.” The first has to do with flippantly or vainly invoking sacred ideas. The latter has mainly to do with sex and bodily functions. It’s interesting to note that over the last 100 years or so the shift has been completely made from using religious imagery as our strongest language (damn you) to using bodily imagery instead (fuck you). In an increasingly secular society there’s almost nothing in the holy realm of swearing that you can’t say on television.

A note for those who say that swearing is a lazy or boring way to express yourself: emotional stress response tests have demonstrated that the use of swear words actually creates physiological reactions that lesser words don’t manage. People can withstand pain for longer, for example, if allowed to swear than they can when forced to say other words. Strange but true.

Beyond the mere etymology of the words,however, I was struck by some memories from my childhood, hearkening back to being told that “darn” and “drat” were every bit as bad as saying stronger words. By some strange magic, the fact that I was told that only served to imbue those expletives with even more power than they would otherwise have had. Words only have the power that we give to them. By putting more and more words on the naughty list, fundamentalism only serves to create MORE swearing in the world, not less. How perverse.

The book also made me reflect on the language that we do hear preachers use in fundamentalism. Tony Hutson screams “God Help!” in the same tone and manner that others might say an obscene phrase. Is it better to scream “God Bless!” when you smack your thumb with a hammer than it is to yell “oh, shit!”? What is more important to you, really? In modern times, outhouses would appear to have more power than church houses in America.

As a bonus there’s also a great passage on swearing in the King James Bible and some of the coyness of the translators in using euphemisms so as not to offend the sensibilities of the culture around them. Those who constantly call for “literal translation” should find that a little perplexing: is it better to be literal or prudish? I’ll leave it to them to decide.

129 thoughts on “What’s In a Swear? (Book Review)”

        1. Happy Birthday to you,
          You’re four hundred two!
          You used to know Shakespeare,
          And Frank Bacon too!

        1. Thanks, though it does weird me out when people on here know who I am elsewhere. I do try to keep the two worlds fairly separate.

    1. No no no, try it again:

      “Fucking first!”
      “First! Fuck yeah!”
      “First with a flying fuck!”
      “Firsties fucksties!”
      “Fuckin’ number one, muthafuckas!”

      So much fun to be had. :-()

  1. Samantha Field has a series on her blog called “Learning the Words,” for fundamentalists who had to learn the true meaning (and power) of words as adults, anything from “truth” to “love” to my submission about learning to swear

    It amazes me sometimes just…how much we didn’t know or weren’t allowed to know in that world, and how freeing language is now. It’s powerful.

    1. Fundies do this with almost everything, and have been for quite some time. Jesus addressed this many times, telling the religious leaders of his day that fornication, etc., came out of the heart, instead of entering into a person through, for example, a certain kind of dressing. It must be a tough lesson to learn, because many in every generation, and every in some generations have totally lost sight of that.

  2. My friends and I, back in Children’s Church in an IFB cult way back in the day, would not infrequently get in trouble for snickering at phrases in the verses near the verses we were supposed to be reading. I’m sorry, but you can’t be surprised when a 12 year old erupts in uncontrollable laughter upon seeing phrases like “Balaam saddled his ass” or “he that pisseth against the wall.” 😀

    1. An elderly preacher I know once was speaking on the subject of Balaam and, according to witnesses (I sadly was not present), took about five minutes trying to reword the phrase “Balaam sat upon his ass” into something less… you know… before giving up and moving on.

      Now as to why such a refined gentleman knew the alternate meaning of that word–well!

      1. Our English teacher in high school (ibf school) used the quote: “If God can use Balaam’s ass he can certainly use….,” and he said, “yours” instead of “you.”

    2. Of course, “ass” in the Bible is not obscene or risque. It just means donkey, not a part of the human body.

      But if you insist on KJV-only, I guess you can’t substitute “donkey.”

      1. I’m trying to muse on how a donkey can also have an ass, that is, a set of buttocks. And of course, then there’s the connection to the famed Butt Cushion.

        1. I do love the joke, BG! For close to a decade now I have named every hand trunk that I’ve used a “dolly llama”.

        2. Rob, do you mean a dolly lama?

          As Ogden Nash noted in “The Lama”:

          The one-l lama,
          He’s a priest.
          The two-l llama,
          He’s a beast.
          And I will bet
          A silk pajama
          There isn’t any
          Three-l lllama.*

          (to which Nash appended the footnote
          *The author’s attention has been called to a type of conflagration known as a three-alarmer. Pooh.)

        3. I’ve always used the 2 l “llama” when I refer to a hand truck. IDK if Lama is considered a sacrilegious term or not, and it seems funnier to me anyway to use llama.

        4. The correct pronunciation of llama is actually “yama” (Spanish ll = English y), but that spoils countless good puns.

  3. As a former fundy (whose parents were very proficient with corporal punishment) I swear very little. Words like “damn” are what I have used.

    But my daughter and my wife get very prim and disapproving whenever I do. My daughter says I swear “all the time” (completely untrue! But even a little affects her perception) and my wife decides to ignore me “if you are going to talk that way.”

    Never mind that their attitudes about it make me want to swear all the more! No, I used “bad words” and I have to be punished.

    Getting out of fundystan is hard!

    1. My language degrades with my frustration level. Went to visit my daughter when she was living in New York, and through the indignities and irritations of air travel, breaking the handle on my suitcase on the train, not enough sleep and an idiot in the seat next to me who *cut his toenails* mid-flight, by the time I got to her place every other word was scatalogical. We were in her kitchen making dinner when one of her roommates came home, and a few minutes later she came in the kitchen and introduced herself, declaring that she thought I was cool, because she’d never heard a mom cuss like that before. I broke out laughing, which felt good.

      I learned to cuss in a costume shop, and I’ll tell you, when you have just run your hand through the sewing machine (which I’ve done more than once), profanity is NECESSARY.

  4. As a former sailor, this is a subject dear to my heart.
    Leaving out the possibly blasphemous words, let me comment on the ‘other’ words.
    After the Norman conquest of England, the French speaking Normans became the nobility, while the German speaking Angles and Saxons became the peasantry. The Peasants, being rude, crude, and socially unacceptable, used words that were ‘inappropriate’, and Germanic in origin. The Nobles, of course, used ‘proper’ words, which were French or Latin in origin. So Nobles were allowed to use the toilet to excrete, the Peasants were forced to use the outhouse to…

    Just showing off my history knowledge, don’t mind me.

      1. Interesting, but it’s something of a straw man argument. The author refutes the idea that ALL taboo words in English are of Anglo-Saxon origin– something I’ve never heard anyone claim in such an absolute form. Meanwhile, the evidence given in the piece actually supports the notion that Anglo-Saxon words TEND to be considered more coarse or vulgar than words of French, Latin, or Greek origin.

        1. He does, however, successfully refute the idea that it came from the days of peasant Anglo-Saxons and noble Normans. Instead, it seems to have come later, where the uneducated continued to use the German-rooted words and the educated used the French/Latin words. Still class related, though.

    1. I too am a former sailor. When the situation warrants it, I let fly with vintage, coarse, and salty Coast Guard vocabulary. I’m not proud of it, nor do I revel in it, but there it is. Two of my sons are Marines and we have compared and concluded that the Marine lexicon and Coast Guard vocabulary are identical. I’m going to venture a guess that Army dialect and Air Force verbosity is probably very similar, making the spewing forth of colorful expletives a universal military activity, fraught with volume and forceful utterance.

      1. I have spent major effort ‘cleaning up’ my language, first when I married and again when my first child was born. I am proud to say that all my children’s first curse words (and they all have them) were in Spanish, meaning that they were imitating my Venezualan wife and not me.
        Not that I am perfect. Late in my naval career, I overheard some of my men… “No, he’s not really mad, he didn’t curse this time.”

  5. I find quite interesting the idea, which I have also read elsewhere, that until about the 20th century, swearing usually had blasphemous, rather than excretory or sexual, content.
    Saying something like “By the feet of the baby Jesus” now just sounds funny, not offensive, but for centuries it was a real swear that had the power of saying something like “Fuck my mother” in our day.

    But even the words that were “dirty” in my childhood seem to have lost their power to offend now. There aren’t many movies or plays or even TV shows any more that aren’t full of the standard four-letter and five-letter words.

    I think that just as body terms replaced religious ones a hundred or more years ago, racial and ethnic terms have now become the only words with the true power to offend. When O. Henry and Mark Twain were writing, and even in Damon Runyon’s stories a few decades later, it was OK and even amusing to use derogatory names and stereotypes of minority groups of people. But now it is so disturbing to most people that simply saying some ethnic names in public (“nigger,” “macaca,” etc.) can lose someone his/her job or make him/her lose an election. I don’t necessarily think that’s wrong, but it’s very different from how things were 100 or 150 years ago.

    1. One place where the bad words are still religious is Quebec. Their absolute baddest words are taken from Roman Catholicism.

      “Tabernacle” is one of the rudest things a Quebecker can say.

  6. Language was one of the first things that started me on my path out of the fundy lite (independent christian) churches I grew up in. Once I realized that all the “bad” words had real meanings, I started to realize that it was ridiculous that saying poop was ok but crap or shit was not.

    Then I did a bible search about language and my mind was really blown. Nearly every time the bible talks about bad language, it contrasts it with tearing others down. This led me to the realization that what really matters is how a person uses their words. The person who starts a terrible rumor about someone else has a dirtier mouth than the person who says fuck every other word and is always encouraging others.

    The realization that easy answers like “don’t say these 10 words” are not sufficient led me to start examining all the other easy rules I had been taught. Now I’m a heathen Episcopalian who isn’t offended by “bad” words, but who tries to love people the way I would like to be loved.

  7. Wow, what a great book! Gonna have to go out and get a copy. I, too, remember being told that words like “crap,” and “sucks,” or “shoot,” were bad words, but Dad never really explained why. Just that they were euphemisms. Then along came the infamous Tony Miller rant from the BJU dorm meeting that explained it all a bit better.

    I like swearing now. Very emotionally freeing. And I use the actual words, not the euphemisms or the kiddie versions. I just explain to my kids that these are adult words they’re allowed to start using when they are 18, just like drinking.

      1. All U.S. states, I think.
        It used to vary by state, but Congress mandated a national minimum drinking age of 21 some years ago.

        But in your own home, you can let your kids drink alcohol at whatever age you see fit.

        1. It wasn’t so much mandated by Congress as it was manipulated by Congress. The decree went forth that you could have whatever drinking age you want, but if you made it 21, you’d get highway funding. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t.

          Funny how all 50 states caved on that one.

        2. Correct.
          But the state that doesn’t crave federal highway funding more than it craves independence does not exist.
          Not even Alaska, which has only four paved highways in the state.

  8. I find it odd that, when the phrase “God damn” is said on TV, they bleep out “God” but not “damn.” I suppose it’s because the word “God” intensifies “damn” and may offend people’s religious sensibilities, but when I first noticed this I wondered if they were considering “God” a “bad word.”

  9. I am also learning some things about the concept of ‘taking God’s name in vain’. I don’t think that means what we have been led to believe either. It goes deeper than just saying unacceptable words or phrases. I can’t articulate it the way I want at the moment because I haven’t completely figured it out for myself.

    1. Yes, I believe this is very true elfdream!!!! I don’t know if this is exactly what you are meaning, but take this example.

      When Tony Hutson says, “God help”, he no more wants God to actually help than the doorway to the sanctuary wants God to help. I believe he is actually depreciating the situation or individual he is speaking about. I can’t think of an exact scenario right now, but just for instance if he says, “The liberals in our country are ruining our country, they want to [insert topic for rant]…. God help.” Is he really requesting God’s help or is he just punctuating how repulsed he is by “what those liberals are doing”? If it truly is the former, no problem, if it’s the latter, he has just taken God’s name in vain… IMO.

      1. AHHH, and just as I hit post, I realized I am judging the intent of his heart by the words that come out of his mouth. I know how most people on here feel about this man, but that aside, I should not say “he no more wants God to actually help than the doorway to the sanctuary…”. I can’t see his heart, so MAYBE he does really want God to help. Based off of HOW he says it, kind of as a way to finish his sentence, is what makes me feel he isn’t REALLY requesting God’s assistance as much as punctuating his disgust.

      2. I’ve heard God’s name taken in vain much more often in church than on the streets.

        When I hear “God told me” or “God lead me to tell you” I’m hearing his name taken in vain, IMO. It’s being used to control or manipulate, as a rule.

        1. I’m extremely hesitant to ascribe to God much of any day to day circumstances. It drives my mom nuts cause she thinks when she finds a nickel in her purse God put it there, or when someone else had a major car accident it was God protecting her. Many years ago I might’ve tried to explain the fallacy of that, but I just know better than to try now.

      3. I know this thread is nearly two years old. My humble opinion: taking the Lords name in vain has nothing to do with two simple words used together. What is does have to do with is imposing your will on yourself or others, and claiming it is Gods will, or performing an action and telling others that God told you to do it when he did not.

    2. I firmly believe that taking the Lord’s name in vain has much more to do with using His name to baptize whatever I want to do than with just dropping an “oh my god”. I believe that preachers and politicians are some of the worst offenders because they will often say “God told me to …” or “Vote for me because God…”.

      I still don’t say “oh god” because I believe it is a form of taking the name in vain, but I think that’s more innocuous than using God’s name to legitimize our own goals and desires.

    3. Dear elfdream:

      I’ve often wondered about the propriety of reciting that ubiquitous creed, ‘God bless America.’

      I was once given the job of changing those ridiculous sign that churches post on their lawn. As the Sunday preceding July 4 approached, I posted this:

      ‘God HAS blessed America. Let America bless God.’

      Council agreed quickly that my talents could be better employed in other avenues of kingdom service.

      Christian Socialist

    4. I forget who said it, on the blog or the forum.. (paraphrasing) A fundy Mog is by definition taking God’s name, i.e. ‘speaking for God’. A fundy Mog is by definition spouting endless streams of horseshit. Therefore a fundy Mog is by the nature of his position taking the Lord’s name in vain.

        1. Ah yes, circular reasoning at its finest.
          Grew up in Ohio, with lots of sweet corn in the fields, lots and lots of shucks there.

        2. Your Grace,

          You heard what the humble country boy said when he was told he was the world’s greatest corn husker, haven’t you?

          “Aw shucks!”

      1. Dear J. Knox:

        HOLY shit,’ you say … That’s a new one 😉

        Thank you. I was concerned that an excellent link would be entirely overlooked.

        Christian Socialist

        PS: I once did a version of that for a friend, not realizing that there was an elderly nun behind me. I apologized profusely, but she assured me that she was fine with it. I wouldn’t have gotten off so easily had it been an IFB preacher, but I wish it was so that I would have had the pleasure of verbally eviscerating him.

  10. We weren’t allowed to say anything that even resembled swearing. I got in trouble for saying my own name under my breath. My mother thought I said “Dammit”. So a few years ago we were watching fireworks with our previous fundy pastor’s family. The first big BOOM went off and my 3 yo daughter said, quite loudly, “WHAT THE HECK???!!!” The look on the pastor’s face… I was laughing so hard I was crying and couldn’t breathe. (Even his wife was laughing.) Freedom!!!!

  11. I remember sitting on the back porch and having my mind blown when my UMC preacher grandpa said “damn” while singing with Jim Croce’s “Bad Leroy Brown”.

    As a floor nurse, my mom said she often times had to speak to someone in such a way as they would understand her clearly.
    I learned the truth in that as a police dispatcher.

    What are taboo words for some folks are the only words that will convince others that you are really serious. I saw my officer’s dash cam video wherein a well placed F-bomb (stand the FUCK down) saved a man from getting shot — the officer’s deployment of tactical language convinced the man that he was not tough enough to win that fight.

    That being said, I am much more comfortable with cuss words than my wife. She is trying (and generally succeeding) to make a better man out of me and would greatly prefer fewer expletives than I currently employ.

      1. Same here, though I’ve been out of the loop for over a year and I’m proud to say that don’t know what “intentional” means in terms of a relationship, which is nice.

    1. LOL! I love the group names. The ones I recall from my church in the early 2000’s, I wasn’t in most of these, but the names are easy to remember: Burn Unit, Souled-out, Element, Area51, X-Life (This was in the 90’s when I attended during furlough).

      I also remember the unspoken prayer requests (which in my teenage years, everyone knew meant porn or masturbation).

      Good times!

    1. Interestingly, in that sentence, “shoot” may be a swear word, but “shit” is not, because “shoot” is used to express exasperation or anger, while “shit” is used for its literal meaning.

      1. Sometimes when dealing with literal or figurative excrement, “shit” is the best descriptive word available. In any case, the use of the euphemistic word “poop” should be limited to individuals under the age of six.

  12. I have been known to use the occasional prohibited word or phrase for effect or to emphasise a point but I would not make a habit of it. I find a constant stream of obscenity to be both irrItating and depressing. In one of my previous jobs I worked with a couple of guys who managed to insert foulness into practically every sentence. Especially the F-word. It really grated on my nerves after a short time and I I tried to get them to tone it down a bit. Bed idea, it only made them worse. In the two years I was in that job I heard enough obscenities to last me for all eternity.

  13. I remember a Fundy faculty member at Pillsbury taking several class periods to go over every word or combination of words that had a hidden “bad” intent that the “world” used because us Fundies were “separated”.
    My maternal grandmother was a hard-core alcoholic and got drunk every day for decades. I heard incredibly vile language on a daily basis from the time I was just a little guy.
    To me then being told that gee-whiz, dang, golly, fiddlesticks, etc. was cussing and had a hidden sinister evil intent tells me these clowns lived a sheltered and strange life or just competing with one another.
    I also heard copious volumes of blasphemous words growing up I wish to this day wish were not ingrained in my memory and I don’t use them. I wish they weren’t there.
    I also wish hooting and hollering at high decibels levels AAAAaaaMaaayan!!!!! and “You Dirty Filthy Rotten Sinners” and “Sermonettes for Christianettes” weren’t in my memory either.
    I in no way personally condone crude vulgarity or blasphemous language, but being told that fiddlesticks is somehow implying the F-bomb to an outsider like me looking in…….well who’s really the oddball here. I don’t think it’s me. I hope to heck it’s not my sorry posterior.

      1. Oh, I remember that one! It was someone’s rant against Episcopalians.

        Funny that. The 15 minute talk by my priest (who smokes, BTW) is more memorable, helpful, and Scriptural than the 45-plus minutes wasted by the IFB preachers.

        1. Based in part on the endorsements of the Episcopal Church by you and Liutgard and also Claire English’s recommendation, I have visited a couple of churches. They seem to largely be a Protestant version of the Catholic Church and to be honest, I liked one of those churches. Not nearly ready to formally join though.

        1. Unfortunately, unlike at the waste treatment plant, after the skimming, the memories are still there.

  14. Sometimes my 3 year old says his words wrong.
    When we were weaning him from sucking his thumb, I bought him a slushy one day and told him it was flavored “thumb sucker.” He thought it was so funny he told my wife, “Daddy got me a some f*cker slush.”

  15. A young man in one of the churches I served once got an A- from his state university English professor for a paper he wrote on the etymology of “fuck”. He pointed out in the paper that it’s the only word in the English language that is variously used as a noun, verb, adverb, adjective, and gerund!

    1. Dear WearyPilgrim:

      At Fundy U, a paper using the word ‘fuck’ would be returned with instructions for a redo. At Snob Clones, a paper using the word ‘fuck’ would be graded ‘0,’ and the offending phucker [student] would be saddled with 50 demerits. Never mind that Jones family cult dysfunctionality is perpetuated across generations because of fucking Jones.

      Christian Socialist

  16. Great article on the science of swearing:

    http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/publications/observer/2012/may-june-12/the-science-of-swearing.html

    Some interesting points:

    -“Swearing can occur with any emotion and yield positive or negative outcomes. Our work so far suggests that most uses of swear words are not problematic.”

    -“We have never seen public swearing lead to physical violence. Most public uses of taboo words are not in anger; they are innocuous or produce positive consequences (e.g., humor elicitation).”

    -“Recent work by Stephens et al. even shows that swearing is associated with enhanced pain tolerance. This finding suggests swearing has a cathartic effect, which many of us may have personally experienced in frustration or in response to pain.”

    -“Swearing is positively correlated with extraversion and is a defining feature of a Type A personality. It is negatively correlated with conscientiousness, agreeableness, sexual anxiety, and religiosity. “

  17. My dad was really inconsistent in this area. He had no problem with “shit,” but had a problem with “darn.” He also got on my mom for speaking gibberish when she was hurt or surprised. He said she could be cursing in another language. What are the odds of that?

  18. The caption reminded me of how some people used the word “swear” as a noun like “He said a swear!” instead of “He swore” or “He said a swear word.”

    1. The noun form is “oath.”
      People used to say, “He emitted an oath,” meaning he had used some “cuss words,” but you rarely hear that usage any more.

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