But also there’s this idea historically that aristocratic people swear a lot, and that’s also borne out by modern studies: People in the highest social classes [also] tend to swear more and use worse words. Not as bad as the people in the quote-unquote lower classes, but much worse than people in the middle class. There’s this idea that middle-class people are strivers, who really need to differentiate themselves from the lower class. One way they do that is by having very clean, very proper language.
IDEAS: Are blasphemy, sexuality, and excrement the main themes all over the world?
MOHR: As far as I know, they’re mostly the same with a little bit of regional variation. In Arab and Spanish-speaking Catholic countries, there’s a lot of stuff about mothers and sisters. But it’s pretty much the same.
IDEAS: It suggests there’s something very elemental going on.
MOHR: Yes, a sort of universal grammar of swearing.
IDEAS: Racial slurs are now among the most offensive words in English. How did that happen?
MOHR: By the mid-18th century, [the N-word] was a derogatory word. But in order for something to be a swear word, the rest of the culture has to be shocked when they hear it. Obviously people who were addressed as the N-word never liked it, and were shocked and offended, but for a long time it was perfectly OK for other people to use that word and nobody got particularly upset in the rest of the culture. By the 20th century, you could say society developed a conscience in this way.
IDEAS: What’s the next frontier of bad language?
MOHR: Personally I find it very hard to say “retarded”....I think that “fat,” “crippled,” words that try to define people rather than saying, “He’s a disabled person,” or that try to sum up someone in an epithet—I think those are going to be the new taboos, at least in the immediate future, as the sexual ones continue to get less powerful.
IDEAS: So will we always have swearing, but just invent new curses as the old ones are destigmatized?
MOHR: There’s a real difference between telling someone to “F off,” and saying “You’re stupid.”...Swear words, partly because they have these physiological effects, they really are better at doing those things.
IDEAS: Do you curse much in your everyday life, and did working on this book change that?
MOHR: I don’t think I swear very much, and certainly I don’t swear in public. I swear sometimes if I stub my toe. In a funny way, I got very used to referring to these words, I got very used to writing them down, but it still shocks me. I guess that’s testimony to how powerful they are.
Ruth Graham, a writer in New Hampshire, is a regular contributor to Ideas.