13 April 2013
Did he just say what I think he said? In late 2010, Britain erupted in merriment when a radio interviewer attempted to introduce his guest, “the culture secretary Jeremy Hunt,” and accidentally replaced the first letter of the man’s surname with an earlier-used consonant. Swearwords, even in our proudly informal age, have lost none of their power to offend or amuse. Last year, the Supreme Court earnestly discussed whether the Federal Communications Commission could punish broadcasters for “fleeting expletives”—words that “unexpectedly” arise during live conversation. For the moment, the court decided, the FCC can, though it was advised to reconsider its overall “indecency” policy.
One long-standing response to regulation and social censure has been to adopt an innocent expression and just change a letter or two. Norman Mailer’s World War II novel, The Naked and the Dead, featured salty-tongued sailors saying “fug” and “fugging.” More recently, Syfy’s much-admired TV series Battlestar Galactica had swearers in space saying “frak” and “frakking.” (Today these words are more likely to evoke a method of getting at shale gas.) One can be even more direct with homophony. Generations of students have giggled in not-quite-innocent pleasure over Hamlet’s asking Ophelia: “Do you think I meant country matters?”
We can safely assume that humans have been both reveling in and claiming to be offended by language deemed “obscene” for as long as they have been talking. Or at the very least, as Melissa Mohr demonstrates in her intelligent and enjoyable new book, since Roman times, when there were already a variety of names for acts and body parts, from proper to very lewd (the guessable “cunnus” and “futuo”; the more obscure “landica” and “irrumo”). In Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, 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. She also makes a serious point, cutely captured in the book’s title. Our idea of “swearing” is irredeemably muddled—caught between the sacred, as in the taking of oaths (the title’s “Holy”), and the profane, as in the use of terms for evacuatory and erotic adventure (the title’s other word).