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.