Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, by Melissa Mohr

Holy Sh*t
A Brief History of Swearing
(A History of the English Language in Four Letters)
Author: Melissa Mohr
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Publication Date: May 2, 2013
Melissa Mohr's Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing has gotten a lot of positive response, but I'm going to go against the grain and say that I was underwhelmed. It amounted to a whole lot about not much. Leaving no tangent unexplored, Mohr spends much of her time telling us about biblical translations, theological debates, swearing oaths in court, the history of fashion, and Tourette's syndrome, but very little actually tracing the linguistic histories of the words she claims to be talking about. 

And while we're at it, the specific words she chooses seem, at best, arbitrary. She classifies all swearing into two categories: the religious (which she calls "the Holy") and the profane, specifically referring to sexuality or excrement (or, "the Shit"). She fits racial slurs clumsily into these categories. And though she claims that her conclusions are based on both British and American English, they are clearly meant for British readers. She occasionally references differences in American English, but it's clear that is for the benefit of her British readers and not the other way around (I had to look up what she meant by "why Americans have faucets in the bathroom and roosters in the farmyard" because I did not know about stopcocks, or whatever the British word is she was referencing).

I've read a lot of books about the history of language, and a fair number about the history of swearing, but this was by no means the most informative, nor the most entertaining. She clearly did a lot of research, but she didn't seem to know what to do with all the anecdotes she had accumulated. She sure did enjoy using those swear words though. You'd think that would have at least made the book more fun to read but...meh.

Disclaimer: I received a digital galley of this book free from the publisher from NetGalley. I was not obliged to write a favourable review, or even any review at all. The opinions expressed are strictly my own.


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The Book of Vice
Sh*t My Dad Says

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