Oxford, £14.99. Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

Book review: Holy Sh*t: a Brief History of Swearing, By Melissa Mohr

Noxious verbal refuse, or a creative safety-valve? Make up your own bleeping mind

Bloody hell, this is a good book! Heretofore swearing has not attracted many authors and publishers. Melissa Mohr puts that right in this pithy, amusing and thoughtful study. She goes back to Ancient Greece, to Rome, to early Christianity and the Renaissance to place swearing in an historical context, and comes up to date with film, broadcasting and rap, distinguishing throughout between Oaths and Obscenities.

Get money off this title at the Independent bookshop

She considers whether swearing demonstrates the failure of language (lazy and limited) or is, on the contrary, its most highly charged expression. In doing so she charts, through a history of language, a map of the emotions that have mattered most to us. When did fuck replace sard or swive? Why were the Victorians so disturbed by gamahuche, godemiche and huffle ?

In the early Middle Ages Aldred, a monk in Lindisfarne who produced the earliest surviving English version of the Gospels, rendered the Commandments as "Don't sin, and don't sard another man's wife". Bollocks, sard and cunt were not considered obscene words; insults were typically concerned with sexual immorality (whore) or dishonesty (thief, robber, knave).

False swearing, which damaged God's reputation, was seen as far more serious than obscene language. However, in the 17th century the poetry of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, is awash with cunt, frig and prick. Obscenities replaced oaths as the words that shocked.

Swearing on the Bible, which had cost men their lives in earlier generations, lost its potency. The 1689 Toleration Act introduced the right to affirm rather than swear before God, though when Lionel de Rothschild was elected as an MP in 1847, and declined as a Jew to swear on the Bible, he was not allowed to take his seat.

Mohr identifies the 19th century as the Age of Euphemism. Words that described bodily functions were unmentionable. "Limb" was preferred to "leg". Thomas Bowdler and, in the US, Noah Webster in the dictionary, expurgated the Bible and Shakespeare. The Victorians found huffle (a blow-job or fellatio) "a piece of bestiality too filthy for explanation".

Today we may smile indulgently at the Victorians but the 20th century had its struggles. Ulysses and Lady Chatterley's Lover needed trials (in 1933 and 1960 respectively) before they could be widely published, and the BBC continues to bleep words from interviews and songs.

Mohr identifies "nigger" as today's most taboo word. She notes the rise of rap with its constant use of swearwords but does not consider what effect Twitter and Facebook may have on obscenity – or Evangelical Christianity, and/or the rise of Islam, on swearing.

Overall, this clear-eyed book celebrates the "beautiful history" of swearwords and makes a strong case for the importance of swearing as a form of conflict that avoids physical violence. It should damned well be required reading for all politicians and commentators who seek to regulate the media.

Mark Fisher's 'Britain's Best Museums & Galleries' is published by Penguin

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing