Do you remember George Carlin’s comic routine about the “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television”? It invaded our consciousness, by way of vinyl record albums, about the same time as Richard Nixon’s reelection to the presidency. Linguist John McWhorter does, and takes us through the history of those nasty words and several more in Nine Nasty Words. But he doesn’t stop there. As a professional word-nerd, he explores the origin of swear words, their history, their connection to human physiology, politics, sociology and why we like them.
So, what makes John McWhorter an expert on nasty words? Did he just hang out a lot at dive bars? Not sure about that, but he does have plenty of academic cred. As a professor at Columbia University, he not only teaches linguistics, but also American studies and music history. He contends that linguists do more than scold people for bad grammar or devise ways to teach kids how to read. He suggests that linguistics is more like physics or statistics, in that it brings order out of the chaos of language.
He gets all scientific on us right away. In the introduction he explains how Positron Emission Tomography (PET scans, for we non-scientists) reveal that non-swear words light up the left side of the brain, but swear words light up the right. And I thought the right side was just there for painting and poetry.
In the Beginning
McWhorter starts with a history of swearing. “Swearing” was not bad if done as an act of fealty or faith. “I swear loyalty” or, even today in court, “I swear to tell the truth”. He goes into the origin of soft swear words such as zounds, gadzooks, or odds bodkins, as euphemisms for more serious violations of politeness.
He also dismembers some myths about how swear words came about. What Rhett Butler said to Scarlett O’Hara had nothing to do with “a tinker’s dam”. Many of these myths came about because until recording of human voices began in the early twentieth century, we had no idea of how common people really spoke. We only have descriptions that reached the printed or scribed page.
After examining variations and evolutions of “hell” and “damn” in Chapter One, McWhorter moves relates his first encounter with the f-word. It was in his Montessori school of all places, late in the Nixon administration. There seems to be a connection with Nixon and swearing.
He then goes to the first literary use in 1528 by a monk. The monk scribbled this as a pronoun describing a certain abbot. Who knew the word which a 1920s editor described as “the word that has the deepest stigma of any in the language” would have had such a religious beginning?
Subsequent chapters explore words for excrement, dig into body parts, and, the new profanity, racial slurs. I had no idea, for instance, that “belly” was once considered too naughty for Ginger Rogers to sing in the 1932 film 42nd Street.
Nasty with Style
Nine Nasty Words, although containing more dirty words than any other book in my library, falls into the category “delightfully charming read” for two reasons.
First, the depth of his linguistic scholarship will impress even the casual reader. McWhorter goes into the history of each word. He dispels myths, and breaks new ground where existing scholarship has hit dead ends. For instance, I was of the mistaken belief that a certain word was an acronym for materials shipped on British ships which needed to be “shipped high in transit”. If you love language, you will often think, “I didn’t know that” or “Wow, I was totally wrong.”
Second, his prose makes use of entertaining references to popular culture. He comments that a certain term used in 1475 “is pure Beavis and Butthead”. Another word, he explains, “appears in no dictionary from 1795 to 1965 – that is, from the dawn of the American nation to Bob Dylan playing electric guitar”. Mic-drop is there more than once, and hashtag fans will find #SoWhite.
As I read the book, I was reminded of the work of noted linguist S.I. Hayakawa, whose works on the English language I discovered and read in the 1990s. Like Hayakawa, McWhorter’s writing educates while it entertains. He demonstrates how and why words and phrase evolve over time. For instance, he points out, “A word Iron Age Europeans used to refer to female dogs is now used on the other side of the other side of the world in California to refer to making illegal U-turns.” That was a new one for me.
So, even if you are not given to the frequent use of intemperate phrases, but you enjoy writing, or reading, or public speaking, you will find Nine Nasty Words a treat for the mind and a gift of laughter.