The publication of Steven Pinker’s book The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature means he’s been showing up all over the place as the author of popular articles on language. The latest one to come across my inbox (and I see them all, every one, as long as they’re online) is What the F***? from the New Republic. It’s a light overview of cursing, swearing, and obscenity. Most of its major points are familiar, many of is quotes are well-used, and the end result is a big “Huh. How about that?” Still, I recommend it as an introduction to the subjecct.
Then, if you really want to sink your teeth into something substantial, you’ll take a gander at Geoffrey Hughes’s Encyclopedia of Swearing: The Social History of Oaths, Profanity, Foul Language, And Ethnic Slurs in the English-speaking World. I know it’s expensive, but I’ve been reading it in pieces over the last couple of weeks and find its synthesis of what we know about all facets of the darker side of language to be exceedingly thorough. I believe it would be very palatable to the layperson.
As an alternative, you could try Hughes’s Swearing, a paperback published in 1998. I have not read it but if the scholarship there is anything like that in his encyclopedia, then it’s sure to be a winner. I see it going for as little as $7.50 at Amazon.
Full disclosure: I am thanked in the front of Hughes’s encyclopedia and he gave me a copy for free.