If you said the "s" word in the ninth century, you probably wouldn't have shocked or offended anyone. Back then, the "s" word was just the everyday word that was used to refer to excrement. That's one of many surprising, foul-mouthed facts Melissa Mohr reveals in her new book, Holy S- - -: A Brief History of Swearing.
Though the curse words themselves change over time, the category remains constant — we always have a set of words that are off-limits. "We need some category of swear words," Mohr says. "[These] words really fulfill a function that people have found necessary for thousands of years."
Mohr joins NPR's David Greene to talk about curses through the ages and how the words that offend us reveal a lot about society and its values.
On why we swear
"People swear for lots of different reasons, but the main three are for catharsis, to relieve pain and frustration, and also to ... express happy emotions. They swear to insult people; and swearing can be a way of bonding. Different groups of people will swear ... as a way of sort of bonding together against other people. ...
"People have done studies about workers versus management — and the workers sort of swearing together whereas the people on the management level have a more 'refined' sense of diction and don't swear. The sort of canonical example is from Randall L. Kennedy's book which I can't say — the N-word — where he talks about African-Americans using the N-word in a positive way to sort of bond together."
On words that some people can 'get away' with saying
"You see it with epithets. Where if you are a member of a stigmatized group you have a right to use that word whereas ... anyone else not in that group can't."
On the evolution of the 's' word from an everyday word to a swear word
"It only really started to become obscene, I would say, during the Renaissance. ... It basically involves increasing privacy. In the Middle Ages ... when that word wasn't obscene, people lived very differently. The way their houses were set up, there wasn't space to perform a lot of bodily functions in private. So they would defecate in public, they had privies with many seats, and it was thought to be a social activity. That you would all get together on the privy and talk while you did this. ... As the actual act became more taboo because you could do it in private now ... the direct word became taboo."
On swears that shocked people in the Middle Ages
"In the Middle Ages a phrase like 'Oh my God' or 'By God' or especially 'By God's bones' were really, really shocking, offensive. And especially the body part ones. So people would swear in these incredibly creative ways: ... 'By God's nails,' 'By Christ's bones,' 'Christ's precious blood.' And these were believed to actually be able to injure Christ, because in Catholic tradition, when Christ died he ascended into heaven and then his physical body sits up at the right hand of God and when you would say one of these body part [swears] it was thought to actually be able to break his bones or pull out his nails."
On what's off-limits today
"I think what you really can't say are the racial slurs and epithets that sum up people in some way. ... I think that's a good sign that we are becoming more considerate of other people and that as a society think, 'Oh gosh actually saying this derogatory word about someone is hurtful.' ... I think it's positive."
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Next, we're going to have a conversation about the English language. But first, here's a warning. We're talking about swear words, curses, obscenities. OK, this is a bit uncomfortable.
Melissa Mohr's new book is called "Holy (bleep)." It is a brief history of swearing. She offers insights into the development of curse words through the ages. And she told us that the second word in the book's title, which I'm not going to repeat, is one of the earliest obscenities she could find. But back before the Renaissance, it wasn't actually a bad word at all. In fact, it was pretty ordinary.
MELISSA MOHR: People lived very differently. The way their houses were set up there was in space to perform a lot of bodily functions in private. They had privies with many seats and it was thought to be a social activity that you would, sort of all, get together on the privy and talk while you did this.
GREENE: Did that. But then when people started to live in a more private setting, it became a word that was less acceptable, I guess.
MOHR: Yes, as the actual act became more taboo - 'cause you could do it in private now - and then the direct word for it became taboo.
GREENE: You know, I have a friend who we had a debate in college about whether Oh, My God was insulting in some way or whether was it something that anyone could say. And that raises a point that you talk about a lot in the book, that there've been different times in history when using a swear word or phrase with God in it was terrible.
MOHR: Yet, in the Middle Ages a phrase like Oh, My God or By God, or especially By God's Bones were really, really shocking, offensive and especially the body part ones. So people would swear in these incredibly creative ways by God's body parts. So: By God's Nails, By Christ's Bones, Christ's Precious Blood, and these were believed to actually be able to injure Christ.
GREENE: You really do take us on a tour of history by using swearing as the lens. And I guess I wonder the fact that today saying something like, By God's Heart would be OK. But saying some of these obscene words that have to do with the body, not OK. What does that say about society and, you know, us today?
MOHR: Well, I think it says, first of all, that these words really fulfill a function that people have found necessary for thousands of years.
GREENE: We've got to have something that's off-limits.
MOHR: Yes, we've got to have something that's off-limits 'cause sometimes we do want to shock and offend. And it probably says that in the Middle Ages people were sort of, I guess, much less prudish. And that, you know, during the Victorian era they got really prudish with this parts of the body having to be concealed; that was when the sexual obscenities had their greatest power.
GREENE: Are we prudish today?
MOHR: I would say that we are getting less prudish, at least from the swearing angle. And I think what you really can't say are the racial slurs and epithets that try to sum up people in some way.
GREENE: And I guess the question is what does that say about us today if, you know, racial insults are really the absolute worst thing that we can do?
MOHR: I suppose I think that's a good sign that we are becoming more considerate of other people. And as a society think, Oh gosh, actually, you know, saying this derogatory word about someone is hurtful.
GREENE: Melissa Mohr is the author of a new book on the history of swearing. It is called "Holy (bleep)." Melissa, thanks for being here.
MOHR: Yeah, well, thanks very much.
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GREENE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.