Ruth Wajnryb may be the Australian version of William Safire, but she’s a lot less stuffy. In Expletive Deleted, she positively flaunts her foul language as a badge of courage while charging that her academic counterparts in linguistics “have allowed themselves to be affected by the taboo to the point that its exploration has been underresearched.” Wajnryb notes that even as
fuck and bitch lose their power to shock and offend, the puritanical American press still recoils from printing them and the debate about banning swears from the airwaves rages on. Reading this history of catharsis and repression, I suddenly wondered why I get so angry at my son for using “bad words.”
The casual reader looking to get a cheap thrill may be discouraged by the more rigorous aspects of this book, like the glossary that distinguishes profanity from obscenity and garden-variety cussing. Expletive Deleted is mostly reader friendly and entertaining, though. Tracing the journey of these expressions over the centuries turns up some great forgotten twists on old favorites, like shitten (found in a 1386 text) or frigmarole, a mutation of fucking via frigging, defined as “a rigmarole, only more so.” There’s a certain obviousness to some of the material, but in general Wajnryb does a smart job of decoding the cultural role of cursing. Her book is a testament to the sheer inventiveness of our forefathers, who wrung so much power out of such little words.