Books, Brokenhearted Theology, Contemp Culture, Meaning, Pedagogy, Quotes, Ramblings, Reading Reflections

Why We Swear (and Other Obscene Thoughts)

I posted briefly about this on Facebook yesterday and got quite a few comments. Here’s a few more comments about the book, some of which were posted on Facebook.

I just finished reading Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing (Oxford University Press, 2013). Fascinating book, surveying the usage of the language considered obscene, vulgar, and profane throughout history (primarily in North America with a bit of Greco-Roman history thrown in).

The author traces the lineage of the two main categories of obscenities: the holy (words connected to the sacred/divine, swearing oaths, etc.) and, well, the excremental (words connected to bodily functions and activities).

A few things you might want to know.

(1) Obscenities are stored in a different part of your brain than normal speech. You swear from your limbic system (connected to emotions) rather than your cerebral cortex (where most of our language is stored). 

(2) Swearing has been scientifically shown to help people cope with pain and discomfort. You can withstand more pain if you swear. Move aside, Advil.

(3) There is an ongoing pendulum swing regarding which category of swearing is “the worst.” In some cultures, the holy/religious language is seen as the ultimate in offensive language. For others (like 21st century American culture), “holy obscenities” are not nearly as offensive as vulgar language connected to our human bodies and actions. Mohr suggests our culture’s next move may be to normalize words connected with the “human” and, again, find the greatest offense in those connected with the holy. This is, I think,  a fascinating hypothesis given the trends towards increased marginalization and individualization of religion in North America. It will be interesting to see how the sociological/demographic shift away from organized religion will affect our cultural linguistics.

(4) In this “brief history of swearing,” nearly an entire chapter is dedicated to the Christian practice of Eucharist (which I happen to be writing a large project on for a doctoral class – so this was research!) and, specifically, how the perceived/actual presence of the divine in the midst of our humanity can create heightened reactions to the use of language. People were killed because of the ways they spoke of the Eucharist, which were perceived as profane and obscene in the eyes of the religious majorities and power-brokers.

(3) This book was (not surprisingly) rather crude – not for the faint of heart or for those who read on their Kindle with a large font on an airplane with people sitting right next to you looking over your shoulder!

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