Swearing: A Social History of Foul Language, Oaths and Profanity in English by Geoffrey Hughes - review by Andrew Billen

Andrew Billen

The Reason Why Counts Became Earls

Swearing: A Social History of Foul Language, Oaths and Profanity in English

By

Blackwell 280pp £16.95 order from our bookshop
 

I have a female friend whose scrupulous upbringing prevents her from telling her favourite joke. It is the one about the tramp who knocks at the window of a Rolls Royce to ask the driver for the loan of a pound. ‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be – Shakespeare,’ replies the driver pompously, pressing the button to rewind the window. The hobo pauses, then taps the glass again. The window comes down. The tramp looks the driver in the eye: ‘Cunt – D H Lawrence.’ 

Geoffrey Hughes’s excellent, non-prescriptive history does its best to solve the ultimately unknowable mystery of why that word in particular retains, along with perhaps ‘fuck’, its occult power to shock and offend. It cannot, let us be clear, be due entirely to its literal meaning or else city streets would

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