San Francisco Chronicle - (Sunday)
An exploration of swear words
If reading the news these days sends you into apoplectic fits of involuntary cursing, you might be interested in linguist John McWhorter’s new book “Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever.” The book asks: Where did our most popular swear words come from? How did they evolve? And how are we using them now? Billed as a “boisterous examination of profanity,” “Nine Nasty Words” is high on amusement, if short on salient findings.
The book starts with English’s first bad words (damn and hell), before progressing to nastier ones, such as society’s most infamous slurs directed toward Blacks and gays. McWhorter traces each profanity’s etymology, diving deep into Latin, Old English, Old Norse and Germanic variations of the word. He then recounts how the profanity has changed over time, pulling from references that range from the medieval to the contemporary.
The effect, while impressive, can be dizzying. In just over a page, a Puritan pamphleteer in 1583 is quoted, followed by Cartman on the longrunning animated TV show “South Park,” Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and the TV show “Bewitched” from the 1960s and ‘70s. The noisy panoply of cultural and historical references obscures the book’s theses, one of which is that many swear words start as religious taboos, before morphing into bodily ones and proliferating into more unpredictable usages.
McWhorter’s tongueincheek style rarely ceases to engage. About why the word motherf—er seems to be more widely used by Black people, he jokes that it “likely just happened to catch on … in the
same way that hacky sack caught on among white (people).” When discussing the popular Betches Love This website from the 2010s, McWhorter wisecracks that “the betch admires the Elle Woods character from ‘Legally Blonde,’ smugly and cluelessly obsessed with appearance to the point of it constituting a kind of expertise ...”
The book gets more solemn when dealing with slurs. McWhorter, a Black man, admits that the widespread, racially neutral use of the nword modification that ends with an “a” makes him uncomfortable. He smartly observes that “language change affects all words, knowing no distinctions of respectability or taboo, and too ineluctably for either racism or moral discomfort to hold back.”
Surprisingly, given society’s heightened awareness of the impact that words can have, it’s one of the few moments in the book that hints at the nasty consequences that can result from nasty words. Despite this, “Nine Nasty Words” is a witty, occasionally fascinating read about how and why we swear.
Leland Cheuk is the author of three books, most recently the novel “No Good Very Bad Asian.” His writing has appeared in the Washington Post, NPR and Salon.