A Year in Books/Day 227: Swearing

  • Title: Swearing A Social History of Foul Language, Oaths and Profanity in English
  • Author: Geoffrey Hughes
  • Year Published: 1991/This Edition: 1998 (Penguin Books)
  • Year Purchased: 2003/2004
  • Source: A bookstore in Buffalo
  • About: A book about swearing sounds titillating, eh? Actually, the word titillating sounds titillating, but that’s another train of thought. If you think that this book is just an excuse by the author to use words like piss and fuck with impunity, like some naughty school-boy, you’re wrong. (You didn’t really think that, did you?) Swearing by Geoffrey Hughes is one of the many books that make up a larger-than-you’d-expect canon on the subject of the history of impolite language. This late 20th century work is one in a long line of books that date back hundreds of years. It’s a fairly sedate entry, but it offers a fascinatingly detailed history of the origins and subsequent variations of bad words in English. You don’t have to be word mad to be entertained by the fluid nature of profanity. It makes for seriously fun reading, even if the scholarly tone isn’t your normal cup of tea. The best part of the book revolves around religious oaths and how they have become bastardized (ahem) and watered down over the centuries. If you come across this book, it’s worth taking a gamble on; the worst thing that can happen is that you will have a more measured understanding of the words and phrases you use, and a richer vocabulary to inflict on the people around you.
  • Motivation: Words. I love them, in all of their magical, maddening, changing variety. I like to get to the bottom of why things are as they are, and discover, if at all possible, how or what they once were.
  • Times Read: 1
  • Random Excerpt/Page 22: “It might be useful to bring into play at this point two observations which raise swearing above the prosaic. G.K. Chesterton commented that ‘The one stream of poetry which is constantly flowing is slang.’ (From The Defendant 1901, cited in Partridge’s Slang (1960), p. 24). Louis MacNeice comes closer to our themes in his poem ‘Conversation’, 1929. ‘Ordinary men, ‘ he writes, ‘Put up a barrage of common sense to baulk Intimacy, but by mistake interpolate Swear-words like roses in their talk.'”
  • Happiness Scale: 9

6 thoughts on “A Year in Books/Day 227: Swearing

  1. Damn, your reading is eclectic! I also wonder what profanities are common in other languages. I suspect that they may be more in the line of cursing or oaths which may have some difference from profanity i.e. “Your mother is the whore of the devil.” I made that up by the way and no personal reference intended.


    • I owe that to my mom’s insistence that I be allowed to read what I wanted, even when I was super young. I’m not sure about the history of swearing in other languages, but in English there’s a huge number of oaths (including many that have become so diluted as to be unrecognizable as oaths).


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