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

[Intermezzo] I bought this mug because it reminded me of Sylvia Plath

Cold, mossy gravestones whisper laments as I stroll past them in the shadowy pathways on an autumn morning. The tree swaying outside my apartment shouts poetry through the window. The pavement beneath my mobile feet croons a love song to the beauty of the late afternoon sunlight that dances across its craggy surface. Squirrels leaping across wires recite snippets of stories. I experience words everywhere I go: sometimes they are new combinations, asking or demanding to be written down. Stories waiting to be told. Sometimes they belong to other people. Stories waiting to be retold.

The bus stop across from the gallery would like permission to transform into flash fiction./The memory of a creepy photograph, seen briefly weeks ago, wants to be reborn as a horror story.

Chilly October evenings evoke the landscape of Hardy, so I’ve been reading The Return of the Native after the sun sets./ The Roebling Bridge, which connects Ohio to Kentucky, brings to mind Hart Crane./Then there’s my Sylvia Plath mug.

The trees of the mind are black.*

The trees of the mind are black.*

*From The Moon and the Yew Tree by Sylvia Plath.







A Year in Books/Day 192: The Right Word II

  • Title: The Right Word II A Concise Thesaurus Based on the New American Heritage Dictionary
  • Staff: Houghton Mifflin Company Reference Division
  • Year Published: 1983 (Houghton Mifflin Company)
  • Year Purchased: 1980s
  • Source: My lovely mother
  • About: Concise is the key here. The Right Word II is the sparest thesaurus I’ve ever read. Although not meant or marketed as such, I think it is ideal for a bright child’s use: tiny, portable, informative and easy to navigate. I relied on it for countless elementary age writing projects. I was a budding playwright then, before switching to short stories and essays in middle school. During the genre shift, I upgraded to a thicker, wordier thesaurus. I still own both of them, and every other reference book I have ever used. Even though I have not consulted this one in years, there is so much nostalgia attached to it that I cannot throw or give it away. It reminds me of why I wanted to be a writer in the first place, so it will live forever on a shelf in my studio.
  • Motivation: I didn’t need this for school, as one might assume given my age. I’ve always loved reference books, and have been collecting them since I was 5.
  • Times Read: Unknown
  • Random Excerpt/Page vi: “Discriminated Synonymies. The foundation of The Right Word II is a block of synonym paragraphs in which the meaning shared by all the words is supplemented by additional material that discriminates the various shades of meaning for each word.”
  • Happiness Scale: 10 (as a child)