The best books on swear words

Philip Gooden Author Of Bad Words: And What They Say about Us
By Philip Gooden

Who am I?

I write fiction, mostly historical mysteries, and non-fiction, generally about the English language. Both aspects of my writing reflect an interest in the past and how it continually shapes the present. The roots of English go back thousands of years to Latin, Anglo-Saxon, French, and many other sources. Yet the newest term to the vast storehouse of language may have been added only last week. Recently I’ve been writing about oaths, swear words, and bad language.

I wrote...

Bad Words: And What They Say about Us

By Philip Gooden,

Book cover of Bad Words: And What They Say about Us

What is my book about?

Bad Words investigates the most controversial words in the English language in a way that is both anecdotal and analytical. Intriguing and provocative, the book delves into expressions connected to religion, ethnicity, nationality, and politics, and examines contemporary issues like political correctness and elitism.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Filthy English: The How, Why, When And What of Everyday Swearing

Why did I love this book?

Silverton starts with the moment when one of the Sex Pistols used a four-letter word live on afternoon TV in 1976. It’s an appropriate beginning for a highly entertaining ramble through the dirtier byways of the English language, encompassing historical research, pop culture , and personal anecdotes, and showing just how ingrained bad language is in everyday life. His enjoyment and approval spring from every page.

By Peter Silverton,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Filthy English as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When the Sex Pistols swore live on tea-time telly in 1976, there was outrage across Britain. Headlines screamed. Christians marched. TVs were kicked in. Thirty years on, all those words are media-mainstream - bandied about with impunity on TV and in the papers. This is the story of our bad language and its three-decade journey from the fringes of decency to the working centre of a more linguistically liberal nation. Silverton takes a clear, comprehensive and witty look at swearing and the impact of its new acceptability on our language, our manners and our society. He considers how we have…

Lady Chatterley's Lover

By D.H. Lawrence,

Book cover of Lady Chatterley's Lover

Why did I love this book?

It may seem odd to include a novel in a feature about swear words but Lawrence’s famous/notorious book Includes several taboo terms. True, these relate to sex rather than swearing but there is considerable overlap between the two. This is the long-banned account of the affair between Constance Chatterley, a lady, and Mellors, the gamekeeper on her husband’s estate. Lawrence knew it would not be published openly in Britain in his lifetime. The watershed Old Bailey case in 1960 cleared the book of obscenity and (depending on your point of view) opened the floodgates of filth or ushered us towards the sunlit uplands of the permissive society.

By D.H. Lawrence,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Lady Chatterley's Lover as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

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LADY CHATTERLEY'S LOVER was banned on its publication in 1928, creating a storm of controversy. Lawrence tells the story of Constance Chatterley's marriage to Sir Clifford, an aristocratic and an intellectual who is paralyzed from the waist down after the First World War. Desperate for an heir and embarrassed by his inability to satisfy his wife, Clifford suggests that she have an affair. Constance, troubled by her husband's words, finds herself involved in a passionate relationship with their gamekeeper, Oliver Mellors. Lawrence's vitriolic denunciations of industrialism and class…

Book cover of The Compleat Motherfucker: A History of the Mother of All Dirty Words

Why did I love this book?

Is it possible to write a whole book on a single word and a swear word at that? The answer is yes and the proof is Jim Dawson’s witty and comprehensive history of the MF word. The title, a spin on the 17th century classic The Compleat Angler, shows that Dawson will be wide-ranging in his references. Crammed with examples and interesting stories, it also settles the question of whether, when it comes to uttering expletives, Bruce Willis or Samuel L Jackson is Hollywood’s most proficient MF.

By Jim Dawson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Compleat Motherfucker as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"I've had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane!" shouted Samuel Jackson in the movie Snakes on a Plane. It was the use of the famous expletive that brought on huge promotional buzz. The best-selling book On Bullshit won its audience from its shockingly unapologetic treatment of its title rather than its fairly pedestrian academic inquiry.

The Compleat Motherfucker is an entertaining and informative investigation into the offensive slang, touching on African American culture and other curious seeds of American subcultural and pop cultural movements.

Author Jim Dawson also wrote the brisk-selling previous study of fartology, Who Cut…

Book cover of Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing

Why did I love this book?

This American title is at the more academic end of books on swearing and oaths. Mohr shows how obscenity evolves over time. Words now considered indecent were acceptable in the Middle Ages while careless invocations of God and Jesus were taboo (that’s not to say they weren’t used). The very title of the book neatly illustrates a difference between US and British culture, with the asterisk being used to soften potential offence in the States. By contrast in the UK, the word usually appears naked and unashamed on the cover (as in Frankie Boyle’s My Shit Life So Far).

By Melissa Mohr,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Holy Sh*t as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Almost everyone swears, or worries about not swearing, from the two year-old who has just discovered the power of potty mouth to the grandma who wonders why every other word she hears is obscene. Whether they express anger or exhilaration, are meant to insult or to commend, swear words perform a crucial role in language. But swearing is also a uniquely well-suited lens through which to look at history, offering a fascinating record of what people care about on the
deepest levels of a culture-what's divine, what's terrifying, and what's taboo.

Holy Sh*t tells the story of two kinds of…

Book cover of Odd Job Man: Some Confessions of a Slang Lexicographer

Why did I love this book?

Jonathon Green is the doyen of dirty words. Or, more respectfully, he is the premier lexicographer of the graphic, the dubious, and the obscene. For decades Green has been trawling obscure publications and other outré sources for examples of slang in the English language, and publishing dictionaries that are unmatched in their scope and detail. No term, however racist, sexist, classist, or any other kind of -ist, is too small to go unnoticed. In Odd Job Man, a mixture of autobiography and ruminations on bad language, Green describes himself as an ‘anatomist of the underbelly cutting not into ripe cadavers but into riper language.’ It’s a life’s work.

By Jonathon Green,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Odd Job Man as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For thirty years Jonathon Green has been collecting slang - the indefinable language of the gutter, the brothel, the jail, the barroom - producing a succession of dictionaries, most recently the three-volume Green's Dictionary of Slang, that have been recognised as the most comprehensive and authoritative ever compiled. In this fascinating memoir Green reveals that he first began collecting slang in the 1970s, noticing that the contemporary authorities (notably Eric Partridge) preferred the past to the present, unaware of the huge array of new slang being coined by the counter-culture. He ponders why he still does this strange, lonely job,…

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