Holy Sh*t | Melissa Mohr

Summary of: Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing
By: Melissa Mohr


Dive into the riveting world of swearing as we explore ‘Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing’ by Melissa Mohr. This summary takes you on an intriguing journey, from ancient Roman graffiti to the modern-day usage of expletives. Along the way, uncover the transformation of society’s stance on swearing, the power of oaths, and the ever-shifting boundaries of what is deemed offensive. Get ready to demystify the complex and fascinating world of forbidden language, with a focus on shedding light on how and why certain words became curse words.

Obscenities in Ancient Rome

The Romans had their unique take on sex and gender, which dictated their worst obscenities. Sex was viewed as either active or passive, so accusing a man of having a passive role in a sexual act was highly offensive. Cunnilingus was the most derogatory insult a man could receive in Roman times. The Romans believed that being penetrated was a sign of femininity, so a man who performed cunnilingus was emasculated and shamed. This cultural norm explains why penetrating someone was considered desirable, and being penetrated was not.

The Importance of Oaths

The Old Testament highlights the significance of oaths as a promise made in the eyes of God. Swearing by God catches His attention, making Him a witness to the speaker’s statement, and ensuring the validity of the person’s word. The use of oaths was vital for the smooth operation of society and allowed for deals and agreements to go forward. However, as oaths relate to God, they must only be used for matters of great importance and taken very seriously. False oaths dishonor God and reduce His omnipotent powers, making such expressions an offense to Him. As such, the third commandment warns against taking God’s name in vain and turning an oath into an expletive. The use of oaths in the Old Testament provides insight into the cultural and societal values of the time.

Regulation of Language in the New Testament

The New Testament emphasizes the need to regulate language, forbidding vulgar language and even euphemisms. Jesus warns that every word spoken will be accountable on judgment day and that language without positive effects is a distraction. The New Testament differentiates between unnecessary words and vulgar language that compels people to do bad things. The apostles believed that vulgar language leads to sinful thoughts and actions and Christians should not only avoid immoral deeds but also refrain from uttering words that evoke impure thoughts.

Medieval Curses and Swearing

The use of curse words and swearing in medieval times was quite different from modern times. While words relating to the body and bodily functions were commonly used and not considered obscene, vain and false swearing had the power to shock and offend. Innocence or guilt could be proven through oaths, making false swearing the ultimate sin.

The Rise of Obscenities and the Fall of Oaths

With the rise of Protestantism, oaths lost their efficacy and swearing shifted away from the holy and toward the obscene. The fall of feudalism and the rise of capitalism also contributed to this shift as oaths were no longer necessary to maintain networks. The increase in physical privacy erected figurative walls between people and caused them embarrassment at the mention of bodily functions. Interestingly, such instances were only deemed embarrassing if they involved people of equal or superior social status. The sixteenth century saw the rise of privies, which were small rooms to leave a “sirreverence,” a euphemism for “turd.” This change in culture made obscenities even more powerful than in the Middle Ages.

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