Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Holy Sh*t

Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing
Today’s Nonfiction post is on Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing by Melissa Mohr. It is 316 pages long including notes and an index. It is published by Oxford University Press. The cover is brown with the title in a black asterisk. The intended reader is adult and that is best but I will get to that in my review. There is very strong language in this book, sexuality, and talk of violence but with what this book is about how can there not be? There Be Spoilers Ahead.

From the dust jacket- Determining what is obscene is a timeless preoccupation, nearly as timeless as the search for words that adequately express a relationship with the divine. As Melissa Mohr shows in this imaginative and illuminating tour through linguistic history, those preoccupations are not separate. “Swearing” is what we do when we forge a bond with a higher authority, as when we tell the truth and nothing but the truth; it is also what we do to break that bond. In both cases, certain words are endowed with the power to shock or to awe. Obscenities tend towards the earthly and generally remind us that we have bodies. Oaths are lifted to heaven and serve to remind us that we have souls.
Holy Sh*t brilliantly and entertainingly investigates these two kinds of swearing- obscenities and oaths- from ancient Rome and the Bible to the present, uncovering the history of sacred and profane language in English through the ages. It is a journey with a number of surprises. Obscenities in ancient Rome were remarkably similar to our own; George Carlin would have felt completely at home. With the rise of the Church came a new sense of how language should be used, or not- and the difference was often a matter of life and death. Holy Sh*t tracks the advancement of civility and corresponding censorship of language in the eighteenth century; considers the rise of racial slurs after World War II; examines the physiological effects of swearing (increased heart rate and greater pain tolerance); and answers a question that preoccupies the FSS, the U.S. Senate, and anyone who has lately visited a junior high school: are we swearing more now than people did in the past?
A gem of lexicography and cultural history, Holy Sh*t is a serious exploration of linguistic totem and taboo. It charts the way swearing had changed over the centuries, and considers the cultural concerns that gave way to those changes. By looking at the words that have expressed our deepest emotions, high and low, Holy Sh*t reveals the shifting relationship between the divine and the dirty.

Review- This is an interesting book if you are interested in linguistic history as I am. The reason that I say this book is really adult only is not because of the language or content. It is because this is written at a college or higher level. I really think that this is Mohr’s doctoral thesis. At times this book is a struggle to read because of the nature of the language but in the end I really enjoyed it and I think that learned some interesting history. Be prepared for long chapters. On the down side her notes are just notes they do not really add to the text if you just a casual reader like me. Knowing what I was going into this book gives what I was expecting and what I wanted. I wanted to learn more about swearing and how the words changed over the long course of human history and Mohr does that.

I give this book a Five out of Five stars. I get nothing for my review and I borrowed this book from my local library.