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Weekly Reviews: The Power of Words

Why do some words have more power than others? Today we look at two very different ways of looking at that crucial question.  The first, Melissa Mohr’s Holy Shit, is an earnest, well-researched history of the most powerful words in the English language: curse words.  Some people (for example, me) have tried to claim that swearing is just another form of expression, and should have no more power than any other type of words.  Far from validating this viewpoint, Mohr maps the dual paths of the two main types of curse words, and explains how these words came to have their peculiar power–even going so far as to show that these words have a direct, measurable effect on our brain patterns.  The history itself is fascinating, and of course the subject matter is one that is close to the heart of many a teen.  And for anyone who cares to object to the strong language, I would just say that Mohr handles these words with considerable delicacy and is never salacious–only information and (often) very funny.

From a completely different angle, Max Barry’s Lexicon takes the concept of the power of words to its fantastical extreme.  Here, certain words have magical powers of persuasion and a group of “poets” is out to find out what these words are.  Lexicon has been getting a ton of well-deserved buzz over the past month or so, and it is our starred review of the week.

MOHR, Melissa. Holy Shit: A Brief History of Swearing. 368p. index. photos. reprods. Oxford. May 2013. Tr $24.95. ISBN 978-0-19-974267-7. LC 2012034513.

holy shit 200x300 Weekly Reviews: The Power of WordsAdult/High School–Mohr explains that her title represents the two primary strains of “bad language” for most of the history of the English language: religious profanities and bodily obscenities. After two chapters outlining the origins of these strains of swearing in, respectively, the Bible and ancient Roman culture, she takes readers on a chronological tour of English swearing. In its broad outlines, Mohr sees this history as a gradual descent of the power of religious oaths and ascent of sexual and excretory obscenities. In Old and Middle English, the worst words in the English language were true profanities–vain oath’s on God’s name. Many of the words we consider to be the language’s worst were used entirely without shock-value, simply as the correct word for a body part or function. But with the beginnings of a real sense of privacy (and a concomitant growth of a sense of shame in one’s body) in the late Renaissance, words for bodily functions began to be seen as even more shameful. Finally, in the latter half of the 20th century, an entirely new category of swear words arose: racial and ethnic slurs. Mohr handles this long and in some cases poorly documented history with considerable aplomb–though as with any history spanning more than 1000 years there are some unfortunate generalizations–and a wonderful sense of humor. From its title on, this book is not for the faint of heart, but teens interested in the history of one of their favorite activities should find much to ponder here.–Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy Library, Vallejo, CA

* BARRY, Max. Lexicon. 377p. Penguin. June 2013. Tr $26.95. ISBN 9781594205385; ebook available.

lexicon 198x300 Weekly Reviews: The Power of WordsAdult/High School - Sixteen year-old Emily Ruff has a cunning way with words. She needs it to survive on the streets, luring patsies to play cards with her while tricking them out of their money. Her life is completely transformed, however, when she is selected to attend an elite school for “poets,” masters of word strings that powerfully affect the human mind. Emily proves to be so proficient at this that the poets exile her to the remote Australian town of Broken Hill in an attempt to contain her power. Wil, a young Australian man, is being tortured by poets to revive memories of a forgotten past. They suspect that his memory has been wiped clean by the utterance of a “bare word.” This word is extremely difficult to find, but can bestow unimaginable powers of persuasion. Indeed, a bare word is believed to have incited 3000 residents of Broken Hill to tear each other apart. The plot thickens and twists and surges forward in this ingenious story about a misguided group of wordsmiths who kill easily and frequently in their quest to retrieve the elusive bare word. Smart, funny, madcap, and tragic, Lexicon will appeal to readers who love the nonstop suspense of Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother (Tor Teen, 2010) or Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (Crown, 2011), but Lexicon comes sweetened with a charming love story as well.-Diane Colson, formerly of Palm Harbor Library, FL

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About Mark Flowers

Mark Flowers is the Young Adult Librarian at the John F. Kennedy Library in Vallejo, CA. He reviews for a variety of library journals and blogs and recently contributed a chapter to The Complete Summer Reading Program Manual: From Planning to Evaluation (YALSA, 2012). Contact him via Twitter @droogmark

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