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(Still) Groping for Words: Usage and Slang Guides, Revisited: Cursing, Swearing, and Profanity

by Edwin L. Battistella

Cursing, Swearing, and Profanity

The literature on vulgar language of a different sort has seen a resurgence of late, and works like Ashley Montagu’s 1967 The Anatomy of Swearing seem quaint today, with chapters like “Why Do Men Swear?” and “Swearing in Shakespeare.” Geoffrey Hughes’s Swearing: A Social History of Foul Language, Oaths, and Profanity in English updates the history, covering everything from Anglo-Saxon oaths to American speech of the late twen-tieth century. In An Encyclopedia of Swearing: The Social History of Oaths, Profanity, Foul Language, and Ethnic Slurs in the English-Speaking World, Hughes provides an alphabeti-cal compendium of (mostly British and American) foul language and related topics from arse to zounds.

The F-Word, edited by Jesse Sheidlower, focuses on just one word, giving its history and tracking its use in hundreds of compounds and phrases, all with citations. Melissa Mohr’s Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing and Michael Adams’s In Praise of Profanity plumb the history and function of cursing. As the title suggests, Mohr’s work is a cultural history of both profanity and vulgarity from ancient to modern times. Adams delineates the boundaries of profanity, obscenity, and vulgarity, drawing on the both the OED and pop-ular culture and showing the ways that profanity can and cannot be used effectively.