Category Archives: Books

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.

Two Rulebooks

I was reading along in The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap when the following passage by Matt Taibbi smote me in the eye:

As a very young man, I studied the Russian language in Leningrad, in the waning days of the Soviet empire. One of the first things I noticed about that dysfunctional wreck of a lunatic country was that it had two sets of laws, one written and one unwritten. The written laws were meaningless, unless you violated one of the unwritten laws, at which point they became all-important.

So, for instance, possessing dollars or any kind of hard currency was technically forbidden, yet I never met a Soviet citizen who didn’t have them. The state just happened to be very selective about enforcing its anticommerce laws. So the teenage farsovshik (black market trader) who sold rabbit hats in exchange for blue jeans outside my dorm could be arrested for having three dollars in his pocket, but a city official could openly walk down Nevsky Avenue with a brand-new Savile Row suit on his back, and nothing would happen.

Everyone understood this hypocrisy implicitly, almost at a cellular level, far beneath thought. For a Russian in Soviet times, navigating every moment of citizenship involved countless silent calculations of this type. But the instant people were permitted to think about all this and question the unwritten rules out loud, it was like the whole country woke up from a dream, and the system fell apart in a matter of months. That happened before my eyes in 1990 and 1991, and I never forgot it.

This sounds so familiar to me. In the dorm rooms, classrooms, church auditoriums, and camp cabins of fundamentalism there are also two rule books. Don’t listen to music with a beat, unless you’re the son of a favored deacon. Don’t go to the beach, unless you’re a big tither. Don’t wear the wrong clothes, unless you’re the pastor’s granddaughter.

And above all, don’t fall from grace or else the indulgences granted to you by the local Baptist pope will be rescinded and you’ll find that the same rules that apply to the unwashed masses are suddenly laid on you as well.

Famous Fundy Novels


photo by Stewart Butterfield

Call me…Pastor. (Moby-Dick)

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a preacher boy in possession of a bible school diploma, must be in want of a wife. (Pride and Prejudice)

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. (no change required to 1984)

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life is a foregone conclusion. I’m an evangelist, how could I not be? (David Copperfield)

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness. We went soulwinning anyway. (Paul Clifford)

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel, the only real channel that any good Christian should be watching given the filth on television these days. (Neuromancer)

I am a sick man . . . I am a spiteful man . . .(no change required to Notes from Underground)

It was like so, but wasn’t. At least that’s what the pastor kept insisting. (Galatea 2.2)

All this happened to the evangelist, more or less. (Slaughterhouse-Five)

Elmer Gantry was drunk. (no change needed to Elmer Gantry)

It was a pleasure to burn Vatican Corrupted Bibles. (Fahrenheit 451)

Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by frumpy jean jumpers. (Middlemarch)

Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person. (No change needed to Back When We Were Grownups)

He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull. Then he’d introduce himself as Doctor Pastor Brother Hyles. (Lord Jim)

Justice?—You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law. (no change needed to A Frolic of His Own)

They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the fundamentalist people did. (Wide Sargasso Sea)

Do you have any to add? Let’s hear them!