Author Melissa Mohr on the history of swearing

First aired on Q (15/8/13)

Earlier this summer, major TV networks petitioned the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to loosen the regulations around the use of swear words. Cable shows have no such restrictions, and coarse language is commonplace in shows like The Wire and Veep. Are we the most foul-mouthed era ever? According to academic Melissa Mohr, author of Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, cursing has always been with us and every age has its own taboo language.

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"I think we swear because swear words are sort of uniquely capable of expressing various kinds of emotion," Mohr told guest host Stephen Quinn. "They're the best way to insult someone, but they're also the best way to express joy, frustration, they relieve pain." In her book, she describes a study in which people hold their hand a bucket in a painfully cold bucket of water. People could hold their hand longer in the water if they repeated a swear word, rather than something neutral like "shoot."

Mohr explained that swear words are "uniquely arousing because they're actually stored in a different part of our brain." They're connected to the limbic system, or the lower brain, as it's colloquially known, and thus tied to our autonomic nervous system and our emotion centres." That's why when people get Alzheimer's or some other brain injury, they sometimes lose their ability to form a sentence but can still swear.

Swearing has always been around, but the words that are taboo have changed through the ages."Swear words reflect what's culturally taboo," Mohr said. "In Ancient Rome, these were somewhat similar to ours today, they were sexual and excremental taboos. In the Middle Ages, it was based on religious taboos. In the Victorian era, again, sexual and excremental."

Mohr believes that nowadays we are "moving away from sexual and excremental...many people would argue the really worse words right now are racial slurs, like the n-word."

Mohr said "there has always been a lot of swearing, and certainly there have always been people really worried about swearing and its effects." Bu the words have differed over time. In the Middle Ages, religious oaths were the worst words you could say. The word "leg" was taboo for the Victorians. "You weren't supposed to say leg, or breast, or even trousers. anything sort of thing that gestured at the body," she said. "That was not supposed to be talked about."

Swearing entered the public realm in a big way because of the world wars. Soldiers were using this language, and reporters covering the war also used the language. "People think that now the taboos are gone," Mohr said. "But if you look at the racial the Victorian era, they weren't taboo, they were, unfortunately, just words that some people used to stigmatize others."

Mohr doesn't believe that swear words will ever disappear, though they will likely change. "Racial slurs, obviously, are incredibly hurtful to people," she said, adding, "I think, like the f-word, eventually the racial slurs are going to become less of a big deal."

Mohr believes that other epithets will become taboo. "Any word that sums someone up by size or mental ability or physical ability," she said. Words "like fat, or retarded, or crippled, are going to be much, much worse in the future."

She went on to suggest a new frontier for swearing. "I wonder if we'll eventually get swear words that sort of centre around death. I think that might be our next source of taboo."

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