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In people's social life, obscenities are known as tools for breaking social and cultural customs, to express and exaggerate emotions, and even to provide a common identity to the users. As these goals reflect human nature, not surprising is that the use of obscenities to offend, arouse, and define social identities appears to be universal and timeless, existing across diverse human languages, cultures, and epochs. Also not surprising is that obscenities and their uses have captured the attention of laypersons and scientists alike (Pinker, 1994), becoming not only a window into the forbidden soul of a culture (as for a layperson exposed to an unfamiliar language who quickly learns the 'bad words' used by the speakers of that language), but also a means to understanding human nature (as for a scientist who relies on 'bad words' as stimuli to trigger specific emotions).
As objects of scientific scrutiny, obscenities can be studied in different ways, depending on the goals of the researcher (see Vingerhoets, Bylsma, & de Vlam, 2013). At the descriptive level, utterances are categorized, frequency and context of use are recorded, and variations between/among cultures are documented. At deeper levels of analysis, involving prediction and understanding of mental and behavioral phenomena, obscenities can be objects of examination (as when a scientist examines the emotions that accompany the production of specific utterances) and/or a tool to investigate the human mind (as when a scientist measures brain changes in individuals who are reading neutral and taboo words). Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing by Melissa Mohroffers a window into swearing that is by and large a detailed description of the linguistic utterances that people have used across the ages, from the time of the Roman empire to the present. Particular attention is paid to whether uniformity of meaning is maintained across time. Mohr's descriptive level of analysis offers valuable insights into the psychosocial phenomena that sustain the activity of swearing, making it a necessary step for any inquiry devoted to the understanding of the ubiquitous presence of obscenities across cultures, languages, and times. For this reason, Mohr's Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing can be considered an essential read not only for laypersons who are curious about customs and norm violations, but also for scientists in the behavioral and social sciences.
Important to remember though is that Melissa Mohr's methodical investigation does not focus much on the mind that yields to the action of swearing, but on taboo words and their evolution or stability in form and meaning across time. Imagine a tour guide whose task is to offer tourists a comprehensive narrative of a wing of the Vatican Museums. The guide's narrative would attend to the features of the most notable objects, share some historical information about their origins, and offer a glimpse of the societies and people they once represented. Mohr's narrative is much like that of a generic tour guide who might briefly discuss the intentions of the artist who produced a given object, of the individual(s) who commissioned the object, and of the people who might have protected it or damaged it. Yet, the tour guide would not be expected to devote much time to discuss the cognitive, affective, neurophysiological, and behavioral processes that accompanied the creation of the object and guided the actions and reactions of those who commissioned and handled it at different times. Thus, underlying mental processes would remain in the background as mere conveyors of the object itself and its most notable features which would be the main focus of his/her narrative.
Also important to consider is that Mohr's descriptive overview attends mostly to taboo words used by citizens of England and the United States, merely treating Roman times as a necessary starting point of a journey into the world of obscenities. Her narrative does not explicitly examine the extent to which the words used for swearing in different languages and cultures exhibit the same frequency and context of use. Consequently, if contextual and frequency differences indeed exist, her narrative fails to explore whether differences reflect specialized functions that obscenities may serve in particular cultures (above and beyond the standard generic functions described above). Mohr's narrative also does not question whether obscenities are indeed unique entities, thereby begging the question of whether other utterances exist that may have some of the properties and functions that obscenities are claimed to possess. Fortunately, research has shown that general categories of obscenities (e.g., sexual references, profanities, scatological allusions, and terms referring to psychological, physical, and social deviations) are shared across a variety of cultures and linguistic groups and that specific taboo words can easily be translated from one language to another, making it possible to conduct studies of taboo words in bilingual or multilingual speakers (see Harris, Gleason, & Ayçiçeği, 2006; Jay, 2009). Furthermore, research has shown that not only taboo words, but also childhood reprimands, when encountered in speakers' primary language, produce instinct-like reactions (i.e., increased arousal as measured by skin conductance) that are rarely found in the corresponding utterances when produced in the secondary language (see Harris, Ayçiçeği, & Gleason, 2003). Thus, the forbidden nature of obscenities as norm breaking and the power of reprimands as pointing attention to actions that reflect rule breaking are at the core of the powerful influence that these utterances have on a speaker and his/her audience. This property makes obscenities and childhood reprimands an integral aspect of the fabric of a society, connecting them both to norm violation, which is perpetrated by the former and noted by the latter. The existence of commonalities between taboo words and childhood reprimands weakens the argument that obscenities are utterances with unique properties and functions while it allows the reader to understand a critical aspect of their nature (i.e., the source of their power to incite strong emotions). The author's unrelenting focus on the frequency and context of use of obscenities within a selected group of speakers illustrates the strength of her narrative, but it deprives the reader of opportunities to understand the properties and functions of obscenities better as expressions of broader psychological and psychosocial motives.
Notwithstanding some of the self-imposed constraints of Mohr's analysis, Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing offers a window into swearing that is generally a detailed description of the linguistic utterances that people have used across the ages, from the time of the Roman empire to the present. As expected, Mohr's overview confirms that although the specific words used for swearing and the occasions and opportunities for their use might have changed across the centuries along with cultural norms, the goals of swearing appear to have remained the same. As noted by other researchers (e.g., Jay, 2009, Pinker, 2007), swearing has been used and is still used to express strong emotions, as a cathartic tool to respond to such emotions, to offend others, and/or even to illustrate the ties that exists within a social and ethic group. Thus, if a reader is interested in understanding swearing and its motives within a society, Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing is a valuable starting point of a journey into the thick, but porous borders of the permissible.
Harris, C. L., Ayçiçeği, A. & Gleason, J. B. (2003). Taboo words and reprimands elicit greater autonomic reactivity in a first than in a second language. Applied Psycholinguistics, 4, 561–578.
Harris, C. L., Gleason, J. B. & Ayçiçeği, A. (2006). When is a first language more emotional?
Psychophysiological evidence from bilingual speakers. In A. Pavlenko (ed.), Languages and emotions of bilingual people, pp. 257–283. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Jay, T. (2009). The utility and ubiquity of taboo words. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 4(2), 153-161. doi:10.1111/j.1745-6924.2009.01115.x
Pinker, S. (1994). The language instinct. New York: W. Morrow.
Pinker, S. (2007). What the F***? New Republic, 237(7), 24-29.
Vingerhoets, A. M., Bylsma, L. M., & de Vlam, C. (2013). Swearing: A biopsychosocial perspective. Psihologijske Teme, 22(2), 287-304.
© 2013 Maura Pilotti
Maura Pilotti, Ph.D., Ashford University