When I was five or six years old, my father used certain words only when doing carpentry. We children were not to use those words at all. In my mind, four-letter “square words” were related to carpentry and the four sides of a square.
Drafting a fictional medieval dialogue recently led me to Melissa Mohr’s delightful and instructive Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing. Starting with roots in ancient Israel (the “holy”) and Rome (the “shit”), Mohr traces the interplay of oaths and obscenities through centuries of English language and culture.
Swearwords serve an important linguistic purpose. Vulgar and offensive, breaking stringent cultural taboos, they are our most powerful words for expressing strong emotion. They increase heart rate, skin conductance, and tolerance for pain. They are stored in the brain’s limbic system and may survive brain damage or dementia when other words fail.
Cultural shifts change swearing over time. In the Middle Ages, when physical privacy was rare, body parts or functions carried little emotional charge. The power to bind or shock lay in religious oaths. Properly sworn, oaths underlay all the interpersonal obligations of feudal life. Misused, they could damage the physical body of God.
Human bodies are the big deal today. Powerful taboos surround the C-word (woman’s genitals) and the N-word (racial group). Milder terms like queer or pussy get reclaimed to make a point. Fuck is losing its power through widespread use. Click here to listen to Mohr or check out her book for a fascinating read.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.