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Swearing: A Social History of Foul Language, Oaths and Profanity in English (The Language Library) [Hardcover]

Geoffrey Hughes
3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)


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Book Description

April 16, 1992 0631165932 978-0631165934 1
From the earliest times swearing has existed in many variegated forms, from the deadliest curse to the most trivial expletives of annoyance. Hedged about with all manner of complex pressures, personal, societal, religious, sexual and other forms of taboo, it remains a phenomenon only imperfectly understood. Geoffrey Hughes traces these two contrasting strands through our linguistic history. His discussion starts with the use of language as magic in 'primitive' society, the binding oath of heroic commitment in Anglo-Saxon warrior society and the emergence of blasphemy in the medieval age of faith. With the Renaissance came a shift from a religious to a secular idiom of swearing, a period combining rich exuberance in language with severe restraint. This oscillation between institutional censorship and individual defiance continues to modern times. Professor Hughes includes in this broad-ranging survey such topics as xenophobia and the racist basis of abuse, graffiti, the sexual and sexist patterns of swearing, the multifarious forms of euphemism and the curious varieties of verbal duelling known as 'flyting' and 'sounding'. His book is a tireless exploration of a little discussed but irrepressible part of our linguistic heritage.


Editorial Reviews

Review

"Excellent, non-prescriptive history." Literary Review

"Erudite and splendidly researched book ... quite fascinating." Daily Telegraph

"A provocative and stimulating book." Glasgow Herald

"Professor Hughes shows real skill in handling the social history aspect of the book, blending theme and chronology into a digestive mixture." Punch

From the Back Cover

From the earliest times swearing has existed in many variegated forms, from the deadliest curse to the most trivial expletives of annoyance. Hedged about with all manner of complex pressures, personal, societal, religious, sexual and other forms of taboo, it remains a phenomenon only imperfectly understood. Geoffrey Hughes traces these two contrasting strands through our linguistic history. His discussion starts with the use of language as magic in 'primitive' society, the binding oath of heroic commitment in Anglo-Saxon warrior society and the emergence of blasphemy in the medieval age of faith. With the Renaissance came a shift from a religious to a secular idiom of swearing, a period combining rich exuberance in language with severe restraint. This oscillation between institutional censorship and individual defiance continues to modern times. Professor Hughes includes in this broad-ranging survey such topics as xenophobia and the racist basis of abuse, graffiti, the sexual and sexist patterns of swearing, the multifarious forms of euphemism and the curious varieties of verbal duelling known as 'flyting' and 'sounding'. His book is a tireless exploration of a little discussed but irrepressible part of our linguistic heritage.

Product Details

  • Series: The Language Library
  • Hardcover: 296 pages
  • Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell; 1 edition (April 16, 1992)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0631165932
  • ISBN-13: 978-0631165934
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,542,568 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

3.5 out of 5 stars
(6)
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
31 of 32 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback
This is an excellent history of the rich lexicon of the true English language. Shows how various traditions such as verbal baiting (flyting), 'blasphemies', and 'profanities' developed in in the tapestry of English ... and interesting in that it describes only a few hundred years ago or less the "four letter words" were just everyday language whereas blasphemy was regarded as beyond the pale. Interesting topsy-turvy compared to today's use!
Learn where common or archiac expressions developed etc. Marvel at the rich linguistic traditions of working class English and the broad variation that Australian swearing can give to a single word.
Although some reviews have said this is "academic" in tone (meaning well researched and footnoted I suppose) and it is indeed rigorous, it is a VERY LIVELY read which any moderately literate person can get excellent enjoyment from.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Such Language, Mr Hughes! March 30, 2010
Format:Paperback
Swearing, A Social History of Foul Language, Oaths and Profanity in English, Geoffrey Hughes, © Geoffrey Hughes, 1991, 1998; Penguin Books, London

It would appear that swearing and/or the use of oaths is a universal human constant regardless of language, culture, social mores, etc. I really have to wonder if the first recognizable word to come out of the mouths of our most ancient ancestors wasn't an oath or a swear word prompted by the impact of that stone axe on a bare toe or foot. What Geoffrey Hughes has given us here is a history of this human activity in the English language, from its Anglo-Saxon roots to the mid to late 20th Century.

A professor of linguistics and a scholar of language, especially as people actually use it, Geoffrey Hughes presents a solid and readable survey history of the uses and preferences for oaths and swear words in the English language in some 250 pages divided into 11 chapters. The author introduces us to his topic with a discussion of curses, expletives, oaths, swearing, taboos, and how they overlap or differ from each other in our speech over time. He then proceeds in succeeding chapters to discuss the Germanic inheritance of English swearing and oath-ing, its evolution in Middle English, the later influence of French and other languages, and the impact of our changing attitudes about religion, the church and other authorities, how we talk about foreigners and the "other" in our lives, how swearing relates to sex, and how it reflects the changes in the world at large. At several points, Mr. Hughes embellishes his discussion with lists of different swear words and their often changing meanings or usage by historical period.
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16 of 41 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Written for academics August 30, 2000
Format:Paperback
If you are looking for a studious history of foul language, this book might be for you. Everything in author Hughes' book is well documented and footnoted. In my research for my own book, CUSS CONTROL (Three Rivers Press, April 2000), I purchased the 1993 edition of this book. It contained some valuable information, but I found it difficult to read. The author was, and perhaps still is, a professor in South Africa, and his writing style is intellectual and formal. His intention and his audience are different from mine, so a comparison is not really fair. However, unless you are looking for a comprehensive and esoteric study of the use of profanity through the ages, I suggest you page through the book before making a purchase.
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