The Anatomy of Swearing

"The fact is swearing is an instrument, which like any other can only be effectively played
when it is sustained by a sufficient amount of feeling."

It sounded good. I found The Anatomy of Swearing by Ashley Montagu randomly at the Library hoping it might bear resemblance to one of my favorite books of recent times, The Anatomy of Disgust. (Also, I was amused at the idea of swearing being parsed by someone who may as well have called himself Percy, Lord Foppington)

Swearing is fundamental to human behavior, providing a psychological as well as physiological release. Montagu asserts that it is "a means of expressing anger and potentially noxious energy is converted to a form that renders it comparatively innocuous." He explains distinctions between swearing that draws strength from invoking sources of religious power and the sacred, and swearing that calls upon the secular, the "prohibited" and the prurient. Also, that swearing owes much to the form of the judicial oath, (May I be gutted like an oyster if its not true) whereas cursing invokes some evil to be cast upon the subject (A pox to thy bones). Obvious perhaps, but interesting enough, none-the-less, to someone who never thought about it before. He sets out to cover swearing from antiquity (did you know swearing was sex-determinant in Greece and Rome? Ostensibly women swore by female deities, men, male gods) onwards up through an unintentionally humorous analysis of motherfucker (“It may be used as a pejorative or as an honorific”).

Yes! the book is a bit high-flown, could you tell? Montagu revels in the British love of wit and wordplay (he touches admiringly upon invective and sportive swearing, essentially skillful put-downs as performance art). Here's a magnificently dashed off explanation which I loved:

Damn remains the great English shibboleth, the most widely used of intensives, and the one most likely to steer the swearer clear of the Scylla of profanity and the Charybdis of vulgarity.
Getting beyond the basic groundwork, though, I often found the book difficult to follow... The distinctions between swearing, oaths and cursing start muddying since definitions or partial definitions are given numerous times in differing ways. Mostly, I think, I got lost amidst the liberal excerpts from Shakespeare, Rabelais, Sterne, Smollett, Byron and on and on... Far, far too many long and digressive quotes, pages really, reproduced verbatim which was just a tad too much for this attention-challenged reader to handle.

I was hoping to get profanity, blasphemy, vulgarity and obscenity laid forth in a buffet of verbal amuse-bouche, but I got a fucking five- course sit-down dinner instead.

1 comment:

Robert Arvanitis said...

See also the scholarly work:



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