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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.

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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

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