A world of swearing

The Boston Globe has a short but fascinating interview on the history of swearing where author Melissa Mohr describes how the meaning of the act of swearing has changed over time.

IDEAS: Are there other old curses that 21st-century people would be surprised to hear about?

MOHR: Because [bad words] were mostly religious in the Middle Ages, any part of God’s body you could curse with. God’s bones, nails, wounds, precious heart, passion, God’s death—that was supposedly one of Queen Elizabeth I’s favorite oaths.

IDEAS: Have religious curses like that lost their power as the culture becomes increasingly secular?

MOHR: We still use them a lot, but we just don’t think of them as bad words. They’re very mild. If you look at lists of the top 25 swear words, I think “Jesus Christ” often makes it in at number 23 or something….The top bad words slots are all occupied by the racial slurs or obscene—sexually or excrementally—words…

IDEAS: Are blasphemy, sexuality, and excrement the main themes all over the world?

MOHR: As far as I know, they’re mostly the same with a little bit of regional variation. In Arab and Spanish-speaking Catholic countries, there’s a lot of stuff about mothers and sisters. But it’s pretty much the same.

Interesting, there is good evidence that swear words are handled differently by the brain than non-swear words.

In global aphasia, a form of almost total language impairment normally caused by brain damage to the left hemisphere, affected people can still usually swear despite being unable to say any other words.

Author Melissa Mohr has just written a book called Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing which presumably has plenty more for swearing fans.

Link to Boston Globe interview (via @leraboroditsky)
Link to details of Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing.


  1. Posted May 17, 2013 at 1:15 am | Permalink

    Really interesting. Would perception of the word determine “where” it lands in the brain? Some people I know who work with the public learn to swear in different languages, but the word obviously wouldn’t be sectioned off if they didn’t know what it meant, or maybe a word isn’t considered offensive depending on which country you’re in.

  2. Posted May 20, 2013 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    Reminds me of the article on MindHacks back in 2008 regarding swearing/tourettes in Sign Language!

    “Two cases of compulsive swearing – in sign language”

  3. Posted May 22, 2013 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    In Dutch, we swear a lot by using diseases (cancer, typhus, cholera etc).

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