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Holy Sh*t

A Brief History of Swearing

By Melissa Mohr
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Holy Sh*t by Melissa Mohr

Holy Sh*t (2013) is a journey through the history of swearing. Starting in ancient Rome and coming up to the present day, these blinks delve into the cultures of different periods to highlight the rich evolution of swear words and obscenities throughout history.

Key idea 1 of 9

The Romans swore like sailors, but about different things than modern people.

Imagine you’re strolling through the column-lined walkways of Pompeii, Italy, a city preserved just as it was nearly 2,000 years ago. As you’re taking in the ancient Roman architecture and basking in the history of the place, you suddenly encounter some seriously obscene graffiti.

That’s right, the Romans were no strangers to swearing, although they swore slightly differently to how we do today; the words thought of as most offensive in ancient Rome were the result of a unique take on sex and gender.

Instead of seeing sexuality in terms of heterosexual or homosexual, as is common today, the Romans viewed sex as either an active or passive act. Being active was related to masculinity and, therefore, implying that a man held a passive role in a sexual act was considered the greatest offense. According to Roman sexual norms, an “active” man should have the desire to penetrate; whether that desire was for women, men or boys was totally irrelevant.

Given this cultural norm, the worst insult you could hurl at a Roman man was to accuse him of cunnum lingere, or as we know it today, cunnilingus. As a result, one of the pieces of graffiti in Pompeii reads Corus cunnum lingit, or “Corus licks cunt.” Naturally, it’s somewhat shocking for us to read these words now, and they were just as obscene in Roman times.

The tremendous taboo surrounding cunnilingus can be attributed to the ancient Roman belief that penetrating another person is desirable, while being penetrated by someone is a sign of femininity. Therefore, a man, with the ability to penetrate, who instead chose to perform cunnilingus was shamed and seen as emasculated.

One Roman epigram that highlights this fact reads, “Zoilus, you spoil the bathtub washing your arse. To make it filthier, Zoilus, stick your head in it.” To break it down a little, since Zoilus performs cunnilingus, the speaker asserts that his mouth is dirtier than his rear.

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