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Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing Hardcover – April 29, 2013

ISBN-13: 978-0199742677 ISBN-10: 0199742677 Edition: 1st

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Editorial Reviews


"Throughout time, as words have left FCC-monitor territory and entered everyday conversation, we've kept coming up with new ways to express our greatest, angriest, most enthusiastic exclamations. And that process is pretty fucking cool." --Atlantic Monthly

"Intelligent and enjoyable... Ms. Mohr leads us on an often ear-boggling tour of verbal depravity, through the medieval and early-modern periods (via a fascinating analysis of scatological phrasing in early Bible translations) to the Victorian era and then our own time."--Wall Street Journal

"...one of the most absorbing and entertaining books on language I have encountered in a long time" -- Washington Post

"As someone who relies on various forms of obscenity, vulgarity and profanity for roughly 75% of my written and verbal communication, I found this book fascinating and illuminating. Melissa Mohr's scholarship is rigorous, her prose trenchant and delightful; right from page one, Holy Sh*t is a motherf*cker. We are what we swear by and about, and this slim volume represents a significant and deeply enjoyable contribution to our understanding of ourselves." - Adam Mansbach, #1 New York Times bestselling author of GO THE F*CK TO SLEEP

"[Mohr's] approach positively twinkles with pleasure and amusementEL This is a cracking f****** book, and innominables to anyone who says otherwise." -- Sam Leith, The Guardian

"In Holy Sh*t, Melissa Mohr makes curses, oaths, profanities, and swear words the occasion for an entertaining and far-ranging historical journey, from the disputes over religious oaths in the Tudor period to the labored delicacies of the Victorians to our
modern debates about expletives in the media and our new-found reticence about racial and religious slurs. One-stop shopping for anyone interested in the nether reaches of the English vocabulary." -Geoff Nunberg, University of California at Berkeley, Language Commentator on NPR's Fresh Air

"Profanity-the language that offends us-tells a great deal about who we are and how we got that way. Melissa Mohr's Holy Sh*t is a fascinating investigation, both provocative and immensely informative. I found it compulsively readable." -Stephen Orgel, author of Imagining Shakespeare

"Digressions on the art of equivocation and the etymology of some of the most infamous curses are highlights of the book, but those looking for a Devil's Dictionary of bad language should look elsewhere-this is some serious sh*t." --Publishers Weekly

"Informed, enlightening and often delightfully surprising."--Kirkus Reviews

About the Author

Melissa Mohr holds a Ph.D. in Renaissance Literature from Stanford. This is her first book.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (April 29, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199742677
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199742677
  • Product Dimensions: 8.2 x 1.2 x 5.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (53 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #53,159 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Melissa Mohr has recently been dividing her time between writing a book about swearing and hiding it from her kids. She received a Ph.D. in English Literature from Stanford University, specializing in Medieval and Renaissance literature. She lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Customer Reviews

Would recommend to anyone interested in origins/history of swear words.
Jason Nunez
It is not dry and the author uses humor and wry observation well to keep up a good pace to the book.
Wayne A. Smith
It's a really fun read and you won't feel like you've wasted your time reading this.
Mary C

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

25 of 25 people found the following review helpful By PAUL MCNEIL on May 6, 2013
Format: Hardcover
Kaylee: Come on, admit it. It's true.
Simon: No, I won't, because it's not. I use swear-words, like anybody else.
Kaylee: Oh really? See, I never heard you. So when is it that you do all this cussin'? After I go to bed, or...
Simon: I swear... when it's appropriate
Kaylee: Simon, the whole point of swearin' is that it ain't appropriate.
(From Firefly, Ep. 4)

We often wonder where certain swear words come from, and there are quite a few etymologies out there, some of them humorous and most of them false. What we wonder about less is how swear words have even come to exist, and why we have our particular batch of naughty words, or even what was considered bad language 50, 100, or 2000 years ago. Luckily, Melissa Mohr has come to the rescue with Holy S***: A Brief History of Swearing, which takes us from Roman times, through the Bible and up through the Middle Ages and to the modern age to get to our present take on swearing in English. Along the way, we get a fascinating look at how "swearing" has historically dealt with two main types of taboos- the "holy," including God and biblical injunctions against swearing, and the "s***," or words related with feces, sex and sexual organs, and other physical taboos. We see how different eras had stronger ties to different sides of the equation, so people in Middle Ages England used references to Christ's body to swear, while some of those same people had last names that would make most people today blush and/or laugh out loud. Class and gender play a role as well, with the phrase "swearing like a lord" being a former equivalent to today's "swearing like a sailor.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Mary C on April 1, 2013
Format: Hardcover
If you like to learn cool facts and to be entertained, this is a book for you. There are so many interesting and insightful stories about vulgar language and oath swearing in this book. I've gone through life swearing and not thinking about why I swear. Now I know why we do it and I've learned a few new words along the way.

The author explains swearing trends through the ages by painting a picture of society during various eras in history. Through swearing, she retells us how they lived, reveals class systems, what they valued, believed, and feared. Not only will you learn about what comes out of someone's mouth and why, but you'll also learn about toilet practices throughout the ages (middle ages were disgusting). The Roman and Bible chapters were a fun too. There are a lot of amazing facts -- just take a look at the preview.

The book is concise and well researched. The tone is clever and approachable. It's a really fun read and you won't feel like you've wasted your time reading this. If you want to have something interesting to say about our language at the next dinner party, read this book. Or, to expand your swearing vocabulary, go to the archives of our language in this book and pick out a zinger and swear away and express yourself in a new-old way.

I'm going to recommend this for my book club. It's guaranteed to make for an entertaining discussion.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By D_shrink VINE VOICE on May 27, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
We find out that, "[B]y the late nineteenth century, people were swearing in much the same manner as we do today." [p230]

But the author discusses swearing and taking of an oath from way back in ancient Roman and then brings us up to date while discussing a fair amount of neuroscience along the way. As we find out that most speech is a function of the cerebral cortex yet swearwords are a formed in the limbic system a much lower order part of the brain and is one reason why when some people suffer from dementia they may not be able to speak except for swearwords. [p5]

But some parts of the history lesson just seems gross by today's standards as when we learn of the Roman latrine called a FORICAE which was a unisex arrangement with up to a hundred seats with no dividers for people doing the same thing at the same time. [p23] That may even gross out the members of Animal House! ;--0 There is much more revealing about the Romans that the author tells us about, but I don't want to spoil all the details for you.

As we move to the middle ages in Europe we learn that "Medieval people would be much less likely to see representations of sex acts, but would be much more likely than modern ones to witness the actual performance of these acts." [p106] This was primarily due to two things, they generally slept in the nude and due to a lack of separate rooms males and females slept in the same room often with the kids and even servants of both sexes sleeping on the floor next to the bed. Hey,, somebody had to empty that chamber pot in the middle of the night.

As we quickly move up in time we are told that "[T]he lower classes swear more than the upper and middle class...
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Wayne A. Smith VINE VOICE on September 16, 2013
Format: Hardcover
This is a fascinating book that delves into a subject everyone is familiar with (swearing and cursing) but almost none know anything about.

The author covers two strains of impolite conversation: swearing or oath taking (saying things at odds with God or religion) and using curse words (Think most of George Carlin's list and then some). What I found interesting, and I think is a compliment to the author, is that she manages to print and discuss all the naughty body part words without seeming prurient or salacious.

To the naughty bits first. The book starts with Roman times and the various treatments of sexual acts and behaviors. She provides an interesting etymology of words we take for granted and offers some of the surprising roots of these words. Her discourse also offers a fascinating picture of human life and habitation. From ancient times up through the the 1700's or so most families lived in one room. And, in villages that offered little privacy. Thus, sexual relations were frequently observed and heard during everyday living. This tended to render some of what are considered today's most vile body part and function names relatively tame or at the most bawdy instead of obscene.

The real obscenity for much of the period covered was swearing or oath taking. Swearing until relatively recently was considered an offense against God. It was thought that a swear ("By God's bones" for example) would cause God to actually suffer pain at the swear. In a monolithic religious culture as existed in Europe during the Middle Ages, this was a high offense and caused much more angst and distress upon listeners than hearing or using slang for body parts and relations.
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Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing
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