When I'm not writing for the Visual Thesaurus or for my own language blog, you can occasionally find me at Strong Language, "the sweary blog about swearing," where I contribute posts about profanity in branding and popular culture. This made me well primed for John McWhorter's lively new book, Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever. But McWhorter isn't targeting only avowed swear-ologists like me: His audience includes everyone who's ever wondered where "gosh" and "darn" come from or where profanity is headed in our no-holds-barred language landscape.
McWhorter, who teaches linguistics, music history, and American studies at Columbia University, is an enthusiastic popularizer of linguistics. He hosts the Lexicon Valley podcast, which recently moved from Slate (where old episodes are archived) to Booksmart; he has taught several language classes through The Great Courses; and he's a contributing editor at The Atlantic. The subjects of his more than 20 published books range from Creole languages to the history of English to racism in America.
McWhorter draws on all these interests and more — including baseball, early movies, and blues lyrics — in Nine Nasty Words. The book is his update to comedian George Carlin's famous 1972 routine, "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television." Carlin's list, McWhorter writes, "still resonates in pointing out the wholly arbitrary power of curse words." A historical perspective makes this abundantly clear: Some of the words we consider taboo today were unremarkable 100 or 500 years ago, while the most shocking epithets in Chaucer's or Shakespeare's era are now considered tame.
Take damn and hell, the words with which McWhorter opens his investigation. These were the original swears in the original sense of swear: an oath before God. "In societies where language was mainly oral and few were literate," McWhorter writes, "the swear was equivalent to the signature, and thus to do it without sincerity threatened the foundation of society." And in a world dominated by religious observance, he adds, "no circumstances justified swearing to or about the Lord as a kind of punctuation day in and day out." Oaths such as "gadzooks!" and "zounds!", which sound quaintly amusing today, were once transgressive: They're compressed forms of "God's hooks" (the nails which which Jesus was crucified) and "by his [Jesus's] wounds." Why were they taboo? Because "dividing God and Jesus into parts" was blasphemous. (Religious oaths still retain their force in French-speaking Québec, where the strongest profanities, known as sacres, or "holies," are objects or concepts from the Catholic Mass: câlice [chalice], Calvaire [Calvary], tabarnak [tabernacle], to name a few.)
Until well into the 20th century, damn, hell, and other religious references were frequently euphemized in print — "d___" and "h___" show up frequently — and in spoken English. "Jesus!" became "gee whiz"; "hell" became "heck" and "H-E-double-hockey-sticks"; "God" became "gosh." We got darn, now a very mild oath indeed, through a more convoluted process that McWhorter carefully traces. The term was originally "By the eternal God," which became "By the eternal" (euphemization), and then "ternal" (erosion of an initial syllable), "tarnal" (sound change), "tarnation"(blending of tarnal with the suffix of damnation), and finally "darn," which shares its first and last letters with the word it replaces. Another euphemism for damn, "drat," comes from an entirely different source: It was compressed from "God rot."
McWhorter has no patience for people who complain that swearing is a sign of low intelligence. On the contrary, he marvels at swearers' flexibility and creativity.
Take ass. It's been in the lexicon since at least early Middle English, when it was spelled ers — compare modern-day British English arse — but only became unacceptable in the 1700s, when, McWhorter writes, "the bourgeois sensibility that tabooed body parts was in full swing." By then, though, English had traveled far beyond the British Isles. In Papua Guinea, where a lingua franca called Tok Pisin is spoken, islanders who had mingled with English settlers picked up ass as a completely innocent word meaning "buttocks" and then extended its meaning to "base" or "foundation." That's why, McWhorter tells us, "the seat of government is rendered, quite officially, as the government's ass place" — or asples, as it's rendered in Tok Pisin.
Closer to home, ass has morphed into a combining form with subtle shades of meaning. A "big-ass house" isn't merely "a big house"; it';s a house that's "large beyond what one would expect." This has fascinating linguistic significance, and it gives McWhorter a chance to explain to lay readers the difference between semantics — what a word or expression means — and pragmatics, which "marks why we are saying something: attitude, what's new versus what's old, what's pushing the envelope."
I'm keeping this review PG-13, but be assured that McWhorter also does justice to our more pungent four-letter friends as well. (One note: No, the S-word and the F-word are not acronyms, no matter what you may have heard about transported material or the king's consent. They're centuries older than any documented acronym.) His chapter on why we call it "the N-word" is especially thought provoking: McWhorter, who is Black, posits that slurs about groups of people are to us what blasphemy was to medieval speakers of English: the "twenty-first century's Voldemort term." As evidence, he points to the modern-day proscription against spelling out the most offending words, even in strictly academic contexts. McWhorter acknowledges the controversies and uses the words anyway after a disclaimer.
As much as I enjoyed and recommend Nine Nasty Words, I'm obliged to point out a couple of shortcomings. The book has no index, which, granted, may be more annoying to a reviewer than to a casual reader. And while I appreciate the endnotes, they're frustratingly sparse, and cite only a partial list of sources. In a book as wide ranging as this one, I'd have loved for McWhorter to share more of his prodigious research.
These are relatively minor objections, though. If you love language in all its guises and registers, you'll relish Nine Nasty Words. It's a damn good read.