Last week I read a new book called HOLY SH*T: A BRIEF HISTORY OF SWEARING, by Melissa Mohr. (Yes, that’s how the title is printed on the cover, fortunately, so I can cite it without typing a word that used to be called “unprintable.”) Lots of fascinating material! The author concentrates mainly on English, from the Middle Ages onward, but she begins with chapters on ancient Rome and the biblical constraints on swearing. She makes the important point, with many illustrations from primary sources, that up until at least the Renaissance cursing and swearing in the strict sense—invoking the Deity’s name fraudulently or blasphemously, or calling down divine wrath upon other people—was viewed much more gravely than the use of “dirty” words for bodily parts and functions, including sexual references. Those words became “obscene” only in recent centuries. The author traces this transition over the centuries, to the present situation in English-speaking countries (some other cultures still have strong taboos against religious swearing) where references to God and damnation are considered the mildest of the various types of profanity and obscenity. That development to its present extent, by the way, has happened in my lifetime. In the time and place of my childhood and teens, no polite person would say “hell,” “damn,” or today’s ubiquitous “oh my God” in mixed company or the presence of children. What especially intrigued me in Mohr’s book was her e...