The Magazine

Uncivil Tongues

The evolution of forbidden language.

Dec 23, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 15 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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The early British and American reviews of this book are hilarious—hilarious, that is, in the sense of proving two of Melissa Mohr’s minor theses. In her account, the sex-based swear words so reviled by the Victorians have become almost commonplace: No real stigma attaches to their use these days, although certain classes may still feel a little antiquated frisson when they write or say them. The real swear words of our time, she notes, are race- and gender-based epithets, which polite society has banned—words that, indeed, almost define polite society by their absence.

‘Mother, Wilfred wrote a bad word!’

‘Mother, Wilfred wrote a bad word!’

the granger collection, new york

And sure enough, the reviewers (especially the British ones) have gleefully put into print all the once-prohibited words they know for fornication and excrement. Nouns, verbs, adjectives, gerunds, even adverbs—all-purpose bits of grammar that seem intended mostly to prove, among the writing classes, that their users want us to admire them for having broken free from the stultifying strictures of the linguistic past. Then, when they reach Mohr’s discussion of racial and sex-preference terms, they suddenly turn into prissy Victorian matrons, clicking their tongues in disapproval. A little euphemism, a lot of typographical gesturing, some elaborate circumlocution—it takes work to review a book about these modern unspeakables and not actually quote them. 

The hypocrisy of the self-congratulation would be sad if it weren’t so unselfconsciously comic.

And yet, why shouldn’t writers avoid such weighted terms? It is the polite thing to do, after all, and modern hypocrisy rests only on the Edwardian delusion that we have escaped polite convention even while we are actually swimming in it. Social taboos surround us, as well they ought; the only error is thinking that, having set aside old ones in favor of new ones, we are somehow free of them.

Of course, as Mohr demonstrates, linguistic politenesses occur in every era of every culture, even if our own is more moralistic than most. Mohr, who has a newly minted doctorate in medieval and Renaissance English literature from Stanford, lives in Somerville, Massachusetts, dividing her time between bringing up her young children and hiding from them the actual research she was doing while writing this, her first book.

We lack a good single term for the prohibited speech that Mohr traces through a few thousand years of Western history—which is peculiar, given how intuitive their combination seems. Bodily functions and religion are the two main sources of prohibitions, she argues, and the word “obscenities” gathers them under the bodily origin. Most of our possible vocabulary, however, unites them under the religious source: “blasphemies,” “profanities,” “cursing,” even “swearing.” 

A word like “vulgarities” captures the notion of class-bound politeness for either source, but it implies that the lower class is solely responsible for the history Mohr relates, when, in fact, the process is often reversed. It was the Renaissance upper and middle classes, for example, who turned theologically dreadful oath words into casual curses: “strewth” (from “by God’s truth”), “zounds” (from “by Christ’s wounds”), and the like. (A common folk etymology traces “bloody” to a similar root in “by Our Lady,” but that proves unlikely.) Queen Elizabeth I was demonstrating not her vulgar origin among the common folk but her upper-class masculinity when she studded her speech with frequent ejaculations of “God’s death,” to the shock of visitors.

Whatever we want to call these terms, Mohr begins her history by noting that the ancient Romans had their full share of them. The epigrams of Martial, for example, are full of terms we know are obscene, mostly because the titillating Martial used them. So, too, the graffiti at Pompeii—and Mohr notices that bodily functions provided far more everyday exclamations for the Romans than did religion. If we take obscenity as a guide, fornication was seen as “a means of exercising control,” she suggests, since many Roman vulgarities involve an active (and often mockable) penetrator and a passive (and always mockable) recipient.

From there, Mohr switches to the Bible and the Christianizing of Europe into the Middle Ages. The Bible, she observes, was generally forthright about bodily functions (although she misses some biblical euphemisms), even while circumlocutions about God and the holy abound. This combination continued to define the linguistic pattern for a millennium. For the medievals, defecation and sex often occurred in public. Even the wealthy couldn’t afford, or wouldn’t use, private spaces, and the openness about body functions was echoed in an openness about the language for them. 

Or so Holy Sh*t claims. Here, a stronger understanding of the distinction between the bawdy and the obscene would have helped Mohr. Even while Chaucer, say, is quite open about swiving and defecating and urinating and farting, it’s hard to avoid the fact that he is hardly casual, much less coldly scientific, about them. They all have a tinge of the mockable, comic, and ugly about them. Everyone does them—but then, this is a fallen world, and everyone has a tinge of the mockable, comic, and ugly about them.

Early modernity saw the invention, if that’s the word, of privacy, and the new use of the word “privy” suggests the transference of bodily functions out of public space. Mohr blames, in part, the rise of the middle class and the combination of capitalism and the Protestant Reformation—Max Weber’s old plaint about the “disenchantment of the world”—for the change in language from religion-based curses to body-based obscenities. As classes became more fluid, the need to establish linguistic markers between them became more pressing. The privacy the new rich could afford for bodily functions was reflected in the prissiness of the language they used about those functions.

Only the poor, in other words, were still old-fashioned, and the Victorians saw the full flowering of the new understanding of vulgarity—a sense that failing to use circumlocutions about the body was a class sign marking a lack of education and morality. A lack, that is, of civilization. The Edwardians started the rebellion against that Victorian consensus, Mohr suggests, and it continues down to our time, as demonstrated by the writers who still feel a thrill from using what a Victorian would have counted as obscenities, though our contemporaries pay no social price for doing so.

Mohr concludes with an interesting discussion of racial slurs and offensive terms about sexual orientation, but she can’t quite bring herself to draw the conclusion her work suggests. If the holy and the bodily are the sources of linguistic taboo, and we have proudly abandoned most of the old prohibitions against naming fornication and defecation, where do our modern taboos come from? The only option she seems to have left is the holy: These words are rendered unspeakable by the recent elevation of our distaste for them. They are banned by what seems essentially a religious taboo. We are the Victorians, in other words—or, rather, the imaginary Victorians, as they have come down to us as a byword for the prissy and moralistic. 

As it happens, I’m a fan of the prissy and moralistic in language; but Melissa Mohr reminds us that we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously. Just like the Victorians—just like people in every culture that has ever existed—we take some language as beyond the pale: a marker of the failure to possess education and morality, the failure to be civilized. 

Joseph Bottum is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.