“My page is wanton, but my life is virtuous” - An awesome quote from Roman poet, Martial.
When I had the opportunity to read Holy Sh*t, my first thought was “fuck yeah!”
I’m a professional writer and content consultant, and an amateur word nerd. Words and I go way back – back to the first word I ever uttered which was – delightfully – shit. And why not? I’m sure it was said around me. And the contexts in which people use expletives make these words sound powerful and important – they are uttered with force and conviction, no doubt leaving a stronger impression on a young mind than, for example, chair.
I’ve done some writing recently about feminism and about parenting – one makes me curse, and the other makes me think about trying to limit my cursing. At my daughter’s preschool parent-teacher conference, I apologized in advance for any f-bombs she may drop. Totally mea culpa.
And I really enjoyed reading this book. Most of us read Chaucer in school, and may recall lots of fart jokes and some of the saucier sections. But Holy Sh*t takes it way back beyond ancient Rome and their phallus obsession (oh, how little some things change) and explains what swearing meant in the Old Testament – what things meant, how they were used, what was considered off-color or off-limits, and how the concept of oaths went from a solemn promise to a casual obscenity.
Mohr explains that “for us today, certain words possess an offensive power far in excess of their literal meaning…” And one thing I missed was a better explanation of where the word “cunt” gets its excessive power today. Why should this word should be considered so very shocking? But I did like its introduction:
There is no record of cunt in English until the twelfth or thirteenth century, in Gropecuntelane, the name of a London street in the red-light district.
Overall, the book takes a pretty academic look at the long and proud tradition of dirty words – and doesn’t get too sensational… or perhaps sensational enough. You want a book about cursing to be juicy, no? But I can appreciate how hard it must have been to whittle down what to cover here – language is constantly evolving, the multitude of media available to the regular speaking public today has enabled probably a rapid and decentralized narrative that is easier to track since it’s all recorded, yet harder to parse since there is just so much data.
I did learn a lot about the bathroom habits of the ancient Romans (in a word: ew), and how swearing and oaths migrated from their originally religious context – consisting of solemn promises made between God and man – to more earthly pursuits. For anyone interested in language and culture, you can learn a lot about a society by what it deems saucy or offensive. Our juiciest words say a lot about us.