The deep human tradition of taboo words is the subject of Melissa Mohr’s new book “Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing.” Mohr, a scholar of English literature who lives in Somerville, spent five years poring over Biblical commentaries, Latin poetry, Victorian slang dictionaries, and much more to compile a portrait of how bad language has changed—and stayed the same—over the last 4,000 years. Roaming though history, linguistics, literature, psychology, and physiology, Mohr argues that swearing is a powerful tool for bonding, for expressing emotion, and even for containing pain. (In one study, she notes, cursing subjects were able to keep their hands immersed in ice water significantly longer than subjects who repeated a neutral word.)
IDEAS : Have people always believed that they’re living through an epidemic of particularly coarse language?
MOHR : I think they have....In the Middle Ages, people were terrified that too much oath-swearing was going to bring about the decline of the legal system, of government, and eventually of society itself.
IDEAS : What were oaths and why were they so scandalous?
MOHR : Oaths were swearing an oath before God. So, “I swear by God to...” whatever. That’s a sincere oath. Those still are thought to be necessary to the smooth running of society. People still swear oaths in court today; politicians swear oaths of office....But then if you do that falsely, ask God to witness a lie, or you just do it too much—which was thought to be a big problem in the Middle Ages, where you’d say, “God’s bones, it’s hot outside today!”—that’s a vain oath, and that’s the kind of speech that people were really, really worried about.
IDEAS : Are there other old curses that 21st-century people would be surprised to hear about?
MOHR : Because [bad words] were mostly religious in the Middle Ages, any part of God’s body you could curse with. God’s bones, nails, wounds, precious heart, passion, God’s death—that was supposedly one of Queen Elizabeth I’s favorite oaths.