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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
This review is from: Swearing (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. This I found particularly useful as a living historian/reenactor as it provided some idea of the changing vocabulary over time and geography.

I like very much that there are endnotes at the end of each chapter rather than at the end of the book. Endnotes aren't quite footnotes but are much handier than having all of the notes buried at the end of several hundred pages. There is also a five and a half page bibliography that provides grist for the mill of anyone interested in further reading or research on a particular period. This is a good selection for either the interested general reader or the academic.
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