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.

The books I picked & why

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

By Peter Silverton,

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

Why 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.

Lady Chatterley's Lover

By D.H. Lawrence,

Book cover of Lady Chatterley's Lover

Why 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 Lawrence knew it would not be published openly in Britain in his lifetime.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.

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

By Jim Dawson,

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

Why 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.

Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing

By Melissa Mohr,

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

Why 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).

Odd Job Man: Some Confessions of a Slang Lexicographer

By Jonathon Green,

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

Why 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.

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