Holy Shit: A Brief History of Swearing 
by Melissa Mohr.
Oxford, 316 pp., £16.99, May 2013, 978 0 19 974267 7
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Roll up, roll up all you ‘mangie rascals, shiteabed scoundrels, drunken roysters, slie knaves, drowsie loiterers, slapsauce fellows, slabberdegullion druggels, lubbardly lowts … fondling fops, base lowns, saucie coxcombs, idle lusks, scoffing Braggards, noddie meacocks, blockish grutnols, doddi-poljolt-heads, jobbernol goosecaps, foolish loggerheads, slutch calf-lollies, grouthead gnat-snappers, lob-dotterels, gaping changelings, codshead loobies, woodcock slangams, ninnie-hammer flycatchers, noddiepeak simpletons, turdie gut, shitten shepherds, and other suchlike defamatory epithets’. As these few tasters from Sir Thomas Urquhart’s translation of Rabelais indicate, swearing can be fun: ‘slabberdegullion druggels’ (slovenly dimbos) and ‘noddie meacocks’ (limp-wristed wimps) have the surreal energy of abuse forged in the heat. But Urquhart’s list of obscenities does gradually tail off. ‘Shitten shepherds’ is tired and formulaic. It’s time to move on. Foulness quickly becomes boring. Really good swearing relies on formulaic elements, but needs to be precisely adapted to the moment. In this respect dear old Robin in the 1960s Batman TV series was one of the best swearers, though his lips were never soiled with a common-or-garden profanity. He could combine ‘Holy’ with more or less anything in order to create his trademark ejaculations, which were always to the point. Number two in my list of all-time favourites is ‘Holy chocolate éclair!’ Number one has to be ‘Holy uncanny photographic mental processes!’

You can see how difficult it is to swear really well by asking a computer to do it. Those with masochistic tendencies might seek out the verbal rough-housing on offer from the potty-mouthed webservers at foulomatic.hnldesign.nl or the more tastily named sweary.com. The results, though, are disappointing. A true poet of the foul would never have come up with the computer’s ersatz ‘toe erection’, or its ‘son of a wank biscuit slapper’, though I confess that I had to look up ‘biscuit’ in a slang dictionary to discover its filth potential: ‘ass’ is the relevant sense, though it can apparently also function in similar ways to the British English slang use of ‘crumpet’. The robot swearers go in for indiscriminate transposition of nouns into adjectives and vice versa (‘semen dog raper’, ‘dripping vomit udder’) in ways that would make even the most versatile rapper cringe.

The badness of automatically generated abuse is significant. Swearing is one of the most basic human acts. Those who believe that brain scanners can tell us things about our linguistic behaviour report that swear words are associated with activity in the limbic system or palaeomammalian part of the brain, which is supposedly linked with ‘lower’ forms of brain activity such as the emotions and memory. Dogs when they bark at you might perhaps be doing something like swearing: certainly Kingsley Amis, a writer not unacquainted with the palaeomammalian brain, used to imitate a dog barking ‘fuck off’. But human swearing is also a complex social activity, which often marks or tests or breaks social boundaries. When Eliza Doolittle says ‘Walk? Not bloody likely! I am going in a taxi’ in Shaw’s Pygmalion she gives away her social origins by her choice of intensifier. When the actress Mrs Patrick Campbell said the line onstage in 1914 she tested the tolerance of London theatregoers to the limit: they paused, then laughed uproariously. A swear word became known as ‘a Pygmalion word’.

‘Swearing’ in English covers two distinct but interconnected activities. If I say ‘bugger’ when my grocery bag splits and the yoghurt bursts all over the floor I do something which the OED temperately calls ‘the uttering of a profane oath’ (we should remember that the OED was fuckless and cuntless until its supplement of 1972, and remains a chaste organ: it thinks ‘biscuit’ is just ‘crisp, dry bread’, though it’s more sound on ‘crumpet’). But we also call it swearing when we affirm that we will tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth (‘the action of taking an oath’), or swear by black Hecate and the night that we will get our revenge on someone. We can swear on our own (‘Fuck!’), as an act of aggression (‘Fuck off!’), as an expression of frustration (‘For fuck’s sake!’), in company as an act of bravura or camaraderie (‘Fuck you!’), and as a comic performance of anger (‘Fuck you, and the horse you rode in on!’). We can also swear by my hat, by my faith, or by some greater authority, that we will perform a particular act, and we can make such oaths in jest or in earnest. Or both at once.

Our routine bad language instantly says something about who we are and where we are from. Americans tend not to use ‘bloody’ as a swear word unless they are trying to sound British. British people use it quite a lot less than Americans think they do and a great deal less than British people think Australians do. In John O’Grady’s poem ‘Integrated Adjective’, an Australian in a bar is overheard saying he’s been ‘Up at Tumba-bloody-rumba shootin’ kanga-bloody-roos’. The poet describes the integration of the group around the use of the inte-bloody-grated adjective:

Now their voices were a little loud, an’ everybody heard
The peculiar integration of this adjectival word.
But no one there was laughin’, an’ me I wasn’t game,
So I stood around an’ let ’em think I spoke the bloody same.

Which presumably he doesn’t quite, since his own use of the offending adjective is pointedly unintegrated. The English can integrate their own favoured adjective too: a friend of mine who worked on a building site was asked by the foreman to ‘Get us some Mar-fucking-mite, mate’. More or less every memoir of days in the forces in the 1940s includes examples of soldiers’ adventurous insertions of ‘fuck’ at unusual places into normal discourse. Holy integrated adjectives, Batman! These closely integrated homosocial groups do absobloodylutely love ’em.

As Geoffrey Hughes noted in his excellent Swearing: A Social History of Foul Language, Oaths and Profanity in English, the more charged a swear word is the more susceptible it becomes to grammatical transformation.* This means that the boundaries between nouns and adjectives and adverbs can all get completely fucked up by swear words, and before you know it the little fuckers are everywhere. At first swear words are used just on or just over the usual limit of propriety. Then they become a bit more common (in the sense of frequent; they may also come to be regarded as less ‘common’ in the social sense). They do so because they can perform so many social and grammatical functions. They can fill in pauses, establish gender identities, build a group, or serve as all-purpose markers of emphasis. Once they spread they have to be used in increasingly inventive ways to recreate or sustain their emotive force. At about that point in their life cycle their flexibility can be comically tested in public and in fiction – as in the scene in The Wire when the detectives McNulty and Bunk Moreland spend four minutes reconstructing a murder scene, during which every word uttered is a variant of ‘fuck’ or ‘motherfucker’. Then a swear word burns itself out and gets superseded by something else, ruder or different, more energetic and more adaptable.

The chances are that even the young audiences of the 1960s Batman TV series knew that there was something Robin was not saying every time he uttered a variant of his catchphrase. (I was there. It felt naughty.) A formula for generating euphemisms can be as creative as a formula for generating swear words: ‘frog’s knickers’ was my mother’s favoured way of flirting with the ‘f’ word, but we also have ‘effing’ and ‘frigging’ and (on Battlestar Galactica) ‘frakking’ too, though that particular euphemism may have had its day now that ‘fracking’ means frakking up the landscape in order to squirt gas out of it. One thing Robin never dared say, bless his little golden rayon cape, was ‘Holy Shit’, the uttering of which would certainly have KAPOWED him right off prime-time TV in those tender-eared days. Melissa Mohr comes right out with it on the title page of her history of swearing, though the dust-jacket chastely presents the book as Holy Sh*t. Her argument is straightforward. It is that there are two main sources of bad language. One is the holy, which encompasses making oaths in the name of God or parts of his body, such as ‘by God’s wounds’, which later became ‘zounds’, and which George Farquhar in 1699 describes being comically gentrified into ‘zauns’. The other is the shit, which encompasses taboo bodily activities from buggery and beyond to the child’s favourite ‘poo’. In different periods, she argues, either the holy or the shit is the prime source of obscenity. The book gallops through the history of bad language with admirable briskness from Roman times to our own. Few readers will find here nothing they didn’t know, and only the most po-faced will find nothing to make them smile. Browning’s unfortunate belief that a ‘twat’ (which made it into the 1916 OED under the definition ‘pudendum muliebre’) was an element in a nun’s attire – because he had read a satire on Sir Henry Vane which said ‘They talk’t of his having a Cardinalls Hat,/They’d send him as soon an Old Nuns Twat’ – is something of an old chestnut, but there are some other less well-known juicy bits here. The late 18th-century use of the word ‘huffle’ in the sense ‘perform fellatio’, for instance, was new to me, and indeed to the OED, which limply presents it as meaning only ‘to blow, or inflate’.

Mohr’s story begins in ancient Rome, where she finds shit in the ascendant. She has fun explaining how to be a Latin coprolaliac. Unsurprisingly perhaps, threatening to stick your dick in someone’s mouth was considered highly impolite, as in Catullus’ ‘pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo’ (‘I’ll bugger you and fuck your mouth’), which is very rude partly because, as Mohr solemnly notes, being penetrated in the ancient world was regarded as unmanly, but surely also because the sequence of the verbs leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. The rare and obsc. English word ‘irrumate’ was kept out of the OED until the supplement of 1976, and even then was only defined by reference to a quotation from a work beautifully entitled The Plague of Lust as ‘to erect the penis and insert it into the mouth of another person’. That medically stiff use of ‘to erect’ as transitive verb is one of the quiet masterpieces of the lexicographer’s art, though it does soften the edge of a word which is the only term we have for oral rape.

Having dealt with the mentulae and cunni (use your imagination) not to mention the verpae (penises with the foreskin drawn back; the contemporary ‘bell-end’ is the rough modern equivalent) of the Roman world, Mohr turns to her principal historical claim: that Judaeo-Christian monotheism shifted the centre of obscenity from bodily and sexual taboos to oath-making and breaking. Yahweh, being a jealous God, insists that people swear by him alone. According to Mohr, ‘swearing is a key weapon in God’s campaign to become the one true God.’ By the Middle Ages, vain oaths by God’s blood or bones ‘had the form of an oath but the force and register of an expletive’, while cunts and turds and coillons (testicles) were ‘ordinary words’. The reason for this was, she claims, that the doctrine of the Real Presence forged a sacred connection between the language of oaths and the body of Christ, and consequently ‘swearing by God’s body parts is in fact a perverse version’ of the Eucharist. (Rule 73 in the ‘Dodgy Prose Guide’, which one day I will write, states that the phrase ‘in fact’ generally prefixes the statement of a tendentious opinion.)

The Renaissance, Mohr says, changed things. Protestantism stopped people believing in the Real Presence, and so oaths by God’s body began to carry a less profound charge. Capitalism made contracts rather than personally binding oaths the foundation of commerce. She also suggests that the practice of mental reservation or equivocation by Jesuits in making oaths further devalued the holiness of swearing in the late 16th century. By the later 17th century the proliferation of conflicting oaths of allegiance required of loyal subjects accelerated the decline of the holy as the main source of the obscene and enabled the rise of the bodily profane. Enter the Earl of Rochester, his remarks about Charles II’s sceptre and his prick being of a length, and his description of how in St James’s Park the ‘Poor pensive Lover in this place/Wou’d frigg upon his Mothers face/Whence Rowes of Mandrakes tall did rise/Whose lewd Topps Fuckt the very Skies.’ These mark ‘a brave new era of obscenity’, after which we have an age of euphemism, which extends more or less until the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP, with Eliza Doolittle’s onstage ‘bloody’ in Shaw’s Pygmalion an early herald of change.

It’s all good dirty fun, though not all of it is quite true. Passing over the minor errors that are inevitable in a work that draws together secondary sources about a very long period of time (there isn’t an area of England known as ‘the Arden’, and Sir John Harington wrote a prose treatise rather than a mock heroic poem about the flushing toilet), the larger problem with the book is its thesis that monotheism transformed obscenity for good. This doesn’t hold water unless you ignore the extremely rich use of sacred oaths in the ancient world. These mattered so much that they could be said with only slight exaggeration to lie at the very origins of the Western literary tradition. At the start of the Iliad Achilles swears by Apollo that he will protect the prophet Calchas no matter what he reveals about the cause of the plague that is harming the Greeks. He later swears on his staff that he will not fight for Agamemnon any more. These oaths are accompanied by a series of insults to Agamemnon, which, although they sound rather chaste by comparison with Catullus’ threats of irrumation, are in the context of a heroic poem quite strong stuff: ‘dog-face’, ‘people-devouring king’, ‘coward’.

A mixture of holy oaths and rather more explicit bodily language is widespread in ancient comedy. At the start of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata the women solemnly swear (over a wine flagon) to abstain from sex until their men make peace. The Spartan woman Lampito repeatedly emphasises her assertions with an oath by Castor and Pollux. ‘By the twin gods,’ she says, ‘it’s difficult for females to sleep alone without a hard-on’ (psōlē is a penis with the foreskin drawn back, probably equivalent to the Latin verpa). Roman comedy, too, is full of divine oaths: characters regularly swear by Hercules (‘mehercle’) or Pollux (‘edepol’). Different social groups tend to use these oaths by the names of gods in slightly different ways: women are presented as being much more likely to swear by Pollux than by Hercules and to abbreviate ‘edepol’ to ‘pol’ (to which we might compare the tendency for ‘Lord have mercy’ to become the genteel ‘lawks’ in the mouths of women in 19th-century fiction). Polytheists could indeed at times swear more colourful holy oaths than monotheists, just because they could reinforce their vows by appealing to such a multiplicity of deities. The slave Chrysalus in Plautus’ Bacchides swears by 17 deities and personifications ‘and all the other gods’ that he is not lying. Yahweh may just have picked up where Zeus and Apollo left off, or he may have drawn his oath-making practices from ancient Near Eastern sources, as the Greeks did.

The other main problem with Mohr’s argument isn’t really her fault. Swearing is boring if it just follows the same old formulae. That makes it a tricky subject for a large-scale cultural history, which inevitably describes the dominant conventions of an age rather than savouring unusual or aberrant usages. Often her descriptions of the conventions surrounding obscene language in particular periods are too rigid. No one would deny that there were fewer constraints on the ways in which bodily functions could be described in a London tavern in the later Middle Ages than there were in upper middle-class female society in Victorian England, but that doesn’t mean that only oaths by the holy body were regarded as truly obscene in the 14th century. Robert of Brunne’s early 14th-century Handlyng Sinne does indeed have the Virgin say that those who swore by Christ’s body have torn the Christ child apart, and that thought is echoed by Chaucer’s Pardoner. But Chaucer’s actual representation of swearing is extremely and deliberately diverse. In The Canterbury Tales the Knight, for instance, ‘nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde’. The Prioress swears only by St Loy, while the free-speaking host, Harry Bailly, really rams home the rude. He can do routine semi-euphemised oaths like ‘for cokkes bones’ or ‘for Goddes bones’ as well as the colourful alternative ‘by nayles and by blood’. He also has some recondite fuckadoodledoos for special occasions, such as ‘by Seint Ronyan’ – possibly a pun on the rare English word for penis, ‘runnion’. His signature oaths don’t just stick with the holy but comically conjoin the holy with the shit. When Chaucer the pilgrim is blundering his way through his comically incompetent tale of Sir Thopas, the host interrupts with ‘“By god,” quod he, “for pleynly, at a word,/Thy drasty [crappy] rymyng is nat worth a toord.”’ When the Pardoner suggests that the host has a special need of his holy relics because he is so profane, Harry Bailly retorts with a wonderfully turdidulous profanity: ‘But, by the croys [cross] which that Seint Eleyne fond,/I wolde I hadde thy coillons [bollocks] in myn hond/… They shul be shryned in an hogges toord!’ Swearing is not just different in different periods. It’s different moment by moment, person by person. The clever scholar of Oxford, ‘hende’ (‘cool’ perhaps captures the word’s range from ‘courteous’ through to ‘clever’ and ‘dextrous’) Nicholas in the Miller’s Tale, swears ‘by Goddes corpus’ (he is a learned fellow, so can swear in Langlish) when he is bursting with laughter because the foppish Absolon has been made to kiss Alison’s arse. When Nicholas has a red-hot ploughshare shoved up against his own arse, however, he lets rip with ‘Help! Water! Water! Help, for Goddes herte!’ – an oath (all that poncy Latin burnt out of him by the sizzle of metal on flesh) that probably carries a force similar to ‘for fuck’s sake!’ today. Without doubt oaths by God’s body were what you reached for in extremis in the 14th century, but there is a whole delicate scale of profanity beneath that bloody apex.

Mohr’s claim that the holy oath was in decline by about 1600 is also broadly true, but is again a rather rough guide to literary practice. Acts of swearing are particularly prone to turn into cliché or aural rubble, and tend to enter written sources at a point when they still have a slight thrill of the forbidden but before they have become completely routine. This means that the force of an oath can be hard to detect in retrospect, since we may simply filter out a phrase which in its day had traces of profane power but which came soon afterwards to function as a more or less neutral conversational filler. ‘Swearing’ in the dual sense of using bad language and making holy oaths is absolutely central to Othello, for instance, but it’s sometimes difficult for our ears, attuned to highly-coloured techno-filth, to hear its force. Take this exchange between Othello and Desdemona:

OTHELLO: What, not a whore?
DESDEMONA: No, as I shall be saved.
OTHELLO: Is’t possible?
DESDEMONA: O, heaven forgive us!
OTHELLO: I cry you mercy, then: I took you for that cunning whore of Venice
That married with Othello.

Desdemona swears on the future of her soul, ‘as I shall be saved’, that she is true. She is the only person in Shakespeare to use that phrase, though it’s said to have been quite common in spoken English of the period. In the written record, however, it tends to be used with great seriousness by those swearing to the truth of a piece of evidence. In a sense Desdemona’s tragedy is that she uses slightly commonplace language when she really really wants to swear she means it. She does it again with ‘O, heaven forgive us!’, which again says exactly what she means, but which at this date could function as a general exclamation rather than as a specific prayer for divine mercy. Othello’s response to her oath is incredulous, and suggests that he regards it as a piece of soul-threatening perjury lightly tossed off in order to get out of an awkward encounter: his ‘Is’t possible?’ has the force of ‘Can’t you hear that you’re damning yourself by swearing on your salvation to a lie?’ And Desdemona’s oath plays a part in goading him to make an exceptionally violent insult. Calling a lover a ‘whore’ to her face is in Shakespeare almost unutterably foul. Antony refers to Cleopatra as a ‘whore’ after she has betrayed him in battle, but does so only in her absence. Posthumus in Cymbeline calls Innogen a whore, but again not to her face. The only other person in Shakespeare to use the ‘w’ word directly of and to his wife is Iago. Desdemona herself won’t allow the word past her lips except in quotation marks (‘Am I that name, Iago? … I cannot say “whore”’). Even Othello softens the insult first with ‘What, not a whore?’ and then flinches from its direct use with ‘I took you for that cunning whore of Venice.’ Neither of the characters, nor their relationship, can survive this moment, which violates two key principles: that you accept someone’s solemn oath, and that it is unutterably wrong to call your wife a whore. The performance of swearing – not only speaking bad words but also formally making oaths – drives this play along.

Mohr ends by welcoming swearing as a good thing. We need to exercise the palaeomammalian brain from time to time, and we should ‘appreciate that our language has so many such useful words that can be employed in such a wide variety of ways’. She also speculates that future swear words will probably come from some of the milder taboo areas in modern life, such as death and disability. Should we be quite so cheery about swearing or its future? Swear words and oaths often gain their expletive force from the circumstances in which they are uttered. The badness of saying ‘whore’ or ‘God’s wounds’ or ‘bastard’ depends on who you say it to and why – as Queen Elizabeth I’s lord deputy in Ireland Sir John Perrot discovered when his secretary told on him for saying ‘God’s wounds, this it is to serve a base bastard pissing kitchen woman.’ Oaths can carry their potential to hurt or shock into normal conversation, which is why they can be used simply as intensifiers. Maybe we should just say ‘what the hell’ (or the expletive of our choice) and let this happen, because it does happen and will happen. But it isn’t simply prudish to reflect on the dangers of being foul. Many of us now liberally sprinkle our language with words that show we have a liberal attitude to sex and to bodily functions. But words grounded in racial difference (‘pikey’, ‘yid’, ‘paki’) are generally regarded as toxic. The offensive force of those words crucially depends on who says them to whom. Terms of racial and sexual abuse can and do work their way out of their nasty little corners despite the efforts of the law and social propriety to contain them. They are the most likely sources of future bad language. British teenagers now often use ‘gay’ to mean ‘pathetic’ or ‘lame’. ‘Paki’ is even used as a term of abuse (a particularly violent term of abuse) between young whites. Swearing is an action, and one that can hurt, harm, engage and enrage, as Homer and Aristophanes and Chaucer and Shaw knew. When a swear word is used casually as an intensifier it can carry a residuum of the pain and shock that it is capable of inflicting in other circumstances. That transfer of shock is part of what we do when we swear, whether we want to or not.

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Vol. 35 No. 20 · 24 October 2013

Colin Burrow doesn’t mention that swearing can replace vocabulary when driven out by fear (LRB, 26 September). Growing up in Belfast during the Troubles, a young man I know used to help his father, who worked as a courier for a chain of betting shops, at weekends. One of his father’s tasks was to transport sacks of betting slips to the main shop. A clockwork timing device in each sealed sack prevented cheating. One Saturday evening he and his father were stopped at an army checkpoint by a young and clearly nervous soldier. He ordered them out of the car and asked them to open the boot. Seeing the sacks and hearing the ticking, he feared the worst. ‘Right, you fuckers!’ he screamed. ‘Get over to the fucking fucker and get your fucking fuckers above your fucking fuckers!’ As my friend put it, only the soldier’s frantic gestures with his rifle helped them to understand that he really meant: ‘Right, gentlemen. Could I ask you to walk over to the wall and put your hands above your heads?’

Martin Westlake

Vol. 35 No. 21 · 7 November 2013

I was interested to learn from Colin Burrow that the ‘OED was fuckless’ until 1972 (LRB, 26 September). Here in the Antipodes we were dragging the chain as usual and it was 1985 before the word was used on Australian television – on the staid ABC of all places. It turned out to be less of a breakthrough than an aberration and just a year later the managing director of the ABC decided on a whim to ‘de-fuck’ the network. I was one of its two censors and we laboured long and hard to excise the word wherever it appeared. So vigilant were we in this task we became known around the traps as ‘the fuck police’. Sanity eventually prevailed, and the offending word was quietly restored. These days you will hear it a dozen times on most nights.

Garth Clarke

Here is a further story about repetitive swearing (Letters, 24 October). During his National Service, Anthony Burgess was a passenger in an army truck that broke down. A mechanic was summoned. After determining the cause of the breakdown he announced ‘the fucking fucker’s fucking fucked.’ Burgess was delighted: such economy of expression, a complete sentence with adjective, noun, adverb and verb.

Alec McDonald
London SW15

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