As I write this review it is early morning, the time when the cat needs the most attention. She has been fed, petted, and her water dish refilled. And now she just wants my attention – not petting or picking up or anything physical, she just wants to be followed around while she wanders from room to room. Asshole.
I don’t swear much, but Melissa Mohr’s book, Holy Sh*t – A Brief History of Swearing, looked interesting and entertaining. I picked it up.
For the most part I am inured to swearing unless it seems particularly out of place or excessive. I remember once being on a double-decker bus tour and having to listen to a young Australian man’s use of the word fuck every 3 or 4 words. Not angry at what he saw, not amazed either, just… language. But I’m not like that, and rarely swear.
Again, cat? Fuck off and leave me alone.
I have discovered from Melissa’s book that words I never thought of as swearing (as in swearing an oath to God), or common everyday words, have their origins in swearing or in body parts and may have once been deemed as obscene. I also learned that what was once considered swearing or obscene language was based not on sexual orientation but on sexual activity versus passivity.
Fascinating. Which by the way, has its origins in the word penis and therefore is, well, kind of a swear word.
Cat, what the hell do you want? I’ve walked around with you almost a dozen times, I swear.
Melissa intertwines language, culture, sex, violence, sexism, graffiti and history for a lighthearted romp through the ages. Lesbians, or tribos in ancient times, make their appearance in the early part of the book, not only with an explanation of tribadism (which frankly is a word even I recall reading about in my early coming out years, so I guess I am as old as shit), but with the more recent use of the word lesbian.
Melissa explores the worlds of ancient Rome and Greece and their curses and oaths – including a short piece on a lesbian who was deemed to be a fucker, futuo, in a time when women were given only passive sexual language (women could only be fucked). Daring to join cuntss, or having a “monstrous” clitoris (landica), were curses toward lesbians in particular.
In English we don’t really have a swear word for the clitoris. There’s clit, but it’s just not that offensive and it is rarely used. If you call someone a clit, you’ll probably get a puzzled laughter or even a pitying look. Perhaps English speaking women should be insulted that clit face, and clit for brains, are more funny than shocking. The clitoris doesn’t register high enough in the cultural consciousness to deserve it’s own swear word.
Holy Sh*t lives up to its name by investigating the origins of both the holy words and the shit words. The spiritual and the physical, sometimes together and sometimes alone, form the basis of almost all of our English swear words. Melissa’s travel through ancient language is funny and informative, but when she got to medieval times, though, the emphasis was on the holy. Kind of boring for me. I don’t care much if someone tells a lie after first swearing to tell the truth. Swear to God.
Cat! What the actual fuck!? This is at least the 20th time, leave me the fuck alone! I’m busy!
Christianity is based on various oaths and covenants. Swearing an oath is to force God to pay attention to your promise – and to do so in vain is to dishonour God, cause His bones to break and blood to be spilled and wasted, and to risk eternal damnation of your soul.
But through a combination of constant oath-swearing (to king, to country, to God, to the lord of the land), the emergence of the mercantile middle class’ preference for legal contracts over religious oaths, and the growing desire for privacy, we switched from God-fearing swear words to body-focused swear words.
Fuck off cat! Leave me the fuck alone! Go walk by yourself for chrissake! Jesus!
Now, where was I? Oh yes, the Victorians.
For a group of people who, for the most part, started out shitting and pissing in public, they turned privacy and therefore swearing, on its head. Body functions and body parts became so obscene that, according to Mohr, even the word trousers (or should that read tr***ers?) was considered obscene and improper based merely on what they covered up.
Swear words come and go in our language. Mohr rightly tackles racist epithets as obscene in today’s language, and goes into the dangers of even sounding like you are using a racial slur as our culture change (but apparently not some people’s illiteracy).
Cat! Fuck off! Fuck the fuck off. Leave me alone you shitfaced asshole I haven’t even written a thousand fucking words! It’s only 7 o’clock in the fucking morning why are you bothering me like this?! Okay, I’m done. You’ve broken me, I am walking away from this review. Pissy little fuck-faced shithead! I can’t take this fucking cat who just fucks around all day and pisses me off biting my fucking office chair!