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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Next, we're going to have a conversation about the English language. But first, here's a warning. We're talking about swear words, curses, obscenities. OK, this is a bit uncomfortable.

Melissa Mohr's new book is called "Holy (bleep)." It is a brief history of swearing. She offers insights into the development of curse words through the ages. And she told us that the second word in the book's title, which I'm not going to repeat, is one of the earliest obscenities she could find. But back before the Renaissance, it wasn't actually a bad word at all. In fact, it was pretty ordinary.

MELISSA MOHR: People lived very differently. The way their houses were set up there was in space to perform a lot of bodily functions in private. They had privies with many seats and it was thought to be a social activity that you would, sort of all, get together on the privy and talk while you did this.

GREENE: Did that. But then when people started to live in a more private setting, it became a word that was less acceptable, I guess.

MOHR: Yes, as the actual act became more taboo - 'cause you could do it in private now - and then the direct word for it became taboo.

GREENE: You know, I have a friend who we had a debate in college about whether Oh, My God was insulting in some way or whether was it something that anyone could say. And that raises a point that you talk about a lot in the book, that there've been different times in history when using a swear word or phrase with God in it was terrible.

MOHR: Yet, in the Middle Ages a phrase like Oh, My God or By God, or especially By God's Bones were really, really shocking, offensive and especially the body part ones. So people would swear in these incredibly creative ways by God's body parts. So: By God's Nails, By Christ's Bones, Christ's Precious Blood, and these were believed to actually be able to injure Christ.

GREENE: You really do take us on a tour of history by using swearing as the lens. And I guess I wonder the fact that today saying something like, By God's Heart would be OK. But saying some of these obscene words that have to do with the body, not OK. What does that say about society and, you know, us today?

MOHR: Well, I think it says, first of all, that these words really fulfill a function that people have found necessary for thousands of years.

GREENE: We've got to have something that's off-limits.

MOHR: Yes, we've got to have something that's off-limits 'cause sometimes we do want to shock and offend. And it probably says that in the Middle Ages people were sort of, I guess, much less prudish. And that, you know, during the Victorian era they got really prudish with this parts of the body having to be concealed; that was when the sexual obscenities had their greatest power.

GREENE: Are we prudish today?

MOHR: I would say that we are getting less prudish, at least from the swearing angle. And I think what you really can't say are the racial slurs and epithets that try to sum up people in some way.

GREENE: And I guess the question is what does that say about us today if, you know, racial insults are really the absolute worst thing that we can do?

MOHR: I suppose I think that's a good sign that we are becoming more considerate of other people. And as a society think, Oh gosh, actually, you know, saying this derogatory word about someone is hurtful.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: Melissa Mohr is the author of a new book on the history of swearing. It is called "Holy (bleep)." Melissa, thanks for being here.

MOHR: Yeah, well, thanks very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: This is NPR News.

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