This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review website on 30 July 2016. It contains some bad language. Obviously.
It is the greatest binary in human thought. The divine and the earthly. The sacred and the obscene. Or, as Melissa Mohr puts it in her debut book, the Holy and the Shit. Mohr has a PhD in Renaissance Studies from Stanford University, which puts her expertise in the middle of the period covered by Holy Sh*t, which chronicles foul language from ancient Rome to the present day. The basic appeal of the book is a kind of Horrible Histories for grown-ups: an examination of the rudest aspects of human speech, lent respectability by virtue of being published by OUP. Your opinion of the book will likely depend on whether seeing the dialectic of history applied to swearing causes you to shake your head or grin like a schoolboy. But while taboo thrills are certainly fulfilled, the book provides an interesting glimpse into history and culture, even if this 2016 paperback release hasn’t added much in the three years since the hardback came out.
The book starts with ancient Rome, and the Latin ancestors of modern swearwords. Subsequent chapters focus on swearing in the Bible, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and then the eighteenth to twentieth centuries. Mohr states from the outset that her primary focus is on swearing in Britain and North America, and she distinguishes between two types of swearing – oaths, and obscenities. That is, swearing in a religious sense (such as ‘By God’s bones!’ or ‘Oh my God!’) versus swearing which refers to taboo acts or body parts (words like fuck or cunt). It’s an intriguing dichotomy, even if it seems to leave a lot out: positive obscenities, like ‘fucking brilliant’ or ‘it’s the shit’ don’t get a look-in. But Mohr handles her topic with wit and panache, and the book is most interesting when the two categories begin to bleed together, as in phrases like, well, ‘Holy Shit!’
The Holy, originally, was the more powerful of the two. Mohr notes that “Medieval people were, to us, strikingly unconcerned with the Shit… The Holy provided the strongest taboos and most highly charged language.” It was even believed that swearing could physically wound Christ himself. Mohr recounts a fourteenth-century fable in which the Virgin Mary confronts a swearer with her son’s mutilated body. “Here is my son… his head all broken, and his eyes drawn out of his body and laid on his breast, his arms broken in two, his legs and feet also. With your great oaths you have torn him thus”. It was with the decreasing power of religious institutions from the Renaissance onwards that “the Shit started to make a comeback”, and swearing by the human body started to become more offensive than swearing by divine ones.
But the Holy and the Shit, while entertaining in themselves, are a lens to focus on the wider culture of the historical periods in which they were used, and Mohr’s anecdotes provide entertaining colour. Her treatment of the Victorians is especially interesting, as she tells us that John Ruskin was shocked at the sight of his wife’s vulva, and that Robert Browning used the word twat in one of his poems without apparently knowing what it meant. Mohr argues that euphemistic Victorian language “covered up twat and the rest of the female body so thoroughly that that they disappeared altogether for our two eminent Victorians”. The erasure of the female body in language is rich in its implications, and insights like these are proof that Mohr’s potty-mouthed approach can yield valuable historical insights.
In this same chapter a new type of foul language crops up, which represents a problem for the book. Mohr argues that the rise of European nationalism “also led to the creation of a whole new category of swearing – racial and ethnic slurs.” It’s an awkward moment – Mohr is unflinching in her discussions of racist words, but she’s conscious that they do not fit comfortably into the Holy/Shit paradigm she’s been exploring for the last two hundred-odd pages. Racial and ethnic slurs haven’t even been mentioned up this point, despite Mohr’s admittance that they existed prior to this. As such, the theme feels under-developed – the following chapter, on ‘Swearing in the Twentieth Century and Beyond’, does better, but the transition still jars. The book spends so much time on the power of the Holy and the Shit that it seems unwilling to introduce a third category, only nodding towards such language when it reaches critical mass. This final, and many would argue most heinous, type of obscenity is left without a category of its own.
There are also some minor nitpicks, most notably that the ’Postscript’ of this 2016 release feels tacked-on and brief, adding little of value to the book overall. It serves to drag out an already disappointing epilogue, which offers little beside lukewarm speculations about the future of swearing. But while the ending is a disappointment, the journey is undoubtedly worth taking. Mohr takes obvious pleasure in her subject, and the book has a light touch which makes the intricacies of Renaissance theology just as entertaining as the etymology of the work fuck. Calm, precise, and terribly good fun, Holy Sh*t is a must-read for the foul-mouthed and the clean.