9 Nasty Words orange book cover and John McWhorter headshot

9 Nasty Words by John McWhorter

Vulgarity has gone through three big waves in English: about religion, about the body and now about groups of people.

The etymology and usage of profanity can tell you the most important lesson there is about language: It is always in motion, whether or not you know it, can perceive it or like. That’s the point of linguistics professor John McWhorter’s 2021 book Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever. As he cheekily summarizes: “Profanity, first involved the holy, and only later the holes.”

I’ve read a bunch of McWhorter’s books, including his other recent publication, which veered into the political. This book is far more like his other pure, approachable books on linguistics. I’m a fan of his, and I’d recommend this as much as his others. As he writes: “To understand that language changes without allowing a certain space for serendipity is to understand it not at all.”

For future reference, I have my notes below.

My notes:

  • Babe Ruth’s father filed an affidavit regarding marital infidelity in which the “f” word was used liberally (and in a modern sense)” Babe Ruth’s mother cheated on his father, who had the man sign an affidavit that survives today. It reads: “the under sign fucked Mrs., Geo H Ruth, March 12, 1906 on her dinging room floor whitch she asked me to do.”
  • The urge to use profanity comes from the same (right side) part of our brain as a flee from danger; This is different than the rest of language (left side)
  • The Carlin bit on 7 words you can’t say
  • “Curses are clad in the guise of words” but really just sounds, which is why they are so disconnected from meaning
  • “Cocksucker” has been replaced by asshole
  • On Linguistics : “we like to think of ourselves scientists. Without taking a linguistics class, you can’t know that the subject is taught with problem sets of the kind, more familiar to physics or statistics. The idea is to find the sense in the chaos.“
  • “Profanity has three main eras: When the worst you could say was about religion, when the worst you could say was about the body, and when the worst you could say was about groups of people .” (Hell; shit or fuck; N-word or bitch)
  • Gosh, jeepers creepers, gadzooks are all class of minced oath to avoid profanity
  • “Oh my god” became more acceptable staring 1930s and fully crossed into mainstream. in the 1960s
  • “It was women who started saying, ‘talks’ and ‘has rather’ than ‘talketh’ and ‘hath’ until after a while, with no one having had much to say about it, the old -TH ending was antique”
  • Pope Gregory in 500 CE introduced “god bless you” after a sneeze
  • Joan of Arc called the English “The Goddamns” because the term was used so much
  • The origins of “Goodbye’ origins” comes from “god be with you”
  • “Hell” is not only a curse word but also a scalar particle (“Hell, I’d play the maid” means the same thing as “I’d even play the maid”)
  • Word change: “what in the world is that” to “What in the hell” to “What the hell..”
  • Norman noblemen brought us formal French food words (pork and beef), while English was earthier (pig and cow)
  • The oldest clear use the f-word in our modern concept comes on the margin of a 1528 manuscript: a monk’s written note refers to that “fuckin abbot” but uses short-hand for “goddamn” — sex and excrement were less charged than religion, especially before secularism rises with enlightenment
  • “Profanity, first involved the holy, and only later the holes.” (49)
  • Many uses of hell and shit, which is morphing into a pronoun too
  • Shit: unwelcome (shits on me), authentic (the shit) lowly (shitty life; that shit which is pronoun) and humility (my shit) — and poop
  • “I’m gonna head out” has two softeners
  • (TikTok literally , inflammable , irregsrdless
  • Production codes impacted what went on TV but faded in 1960s; In 1956, Lady Chattery’s Lover caused an influential obscenity court case
  • The similarity between arse and donkey ass is coincidental
  • Semantics: what a word means; pragmatics: why we choose it, what attitude (like my video on like)
  • “Big ass” is an adjectival form in motion, currently means a surprising form but could slide into being a standard suffix in the future if it was allowed to
  • Chart screenshot on pronoun use of ass
  • Bitch for women lasts; son of a bitch for men has been largely replaced by asshole, both of which represent a counter factual: we are calling someone out for behavior that we think they know better for.
  • In 1971 the movie Deer Hunter has a scene where “asshole” really means “fool,” it was only later it took on the “intentional jerk” vibe it had today
  • Penis and vagina are newer terms from Latin in 1600s
  • Old English: pintel was (a vanilla term for) penis; sheath was vagina and later cunt was very normal
  • Author notes that many bodily terms only got their power later as we replaced religious terms (cunt fuck and shit were more common than damn at a time of religiosity)
  • “After the Renaissance, notions of privacy rendered terms for genitals profane.”
  • Pillecock is an older word that got shaved down to “cock” (though pille meant penis in Danish, like how hamburger was meant to be from Hamburg, but we shaved it down to meaningless ‘burger’). Only later merged with a term for rooster but then took over because it became naughty. Roost cock became rooster in 1700s; cock was later replaced by French spigot and faucet for similar reasons. Black Americans used cock to refer to both penis and vagina into 1970s. Now cock has narrowed to the “pornographic”
  • “To understand that language changes without allowing a certain space for serendipity is to understand it not at all.” 160
  • At a time when the word had none of the vulgar connotation it has today, an aphorism from 1400 advises young women to “ give your cunt wisely, and make demands after the wedding.”
  • In 1934 Alan Walker Read wrote that fuck was “the word that has the deepest stigma of any in the language”
  • Jabari Asim wrote the 2008 book “The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t, and Why”
  • Niggardly is an unrelated word that had become taboo because of its similarity
  • Christopher Darden using “n-word” phrases in OJ Simpson trial marked a transition into an era in which the word became so profane it ought not even be said; author says Randall Kennedy’s 2002 book “Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word” might’ve been the last year that was ever going to happen
  • N word like other steps toward appropriation have an intermediate step in which the term has self hate
  • 1930s WPA recordings of slaves use N word in various ways like we associate with urban black culture today
  • N word and it’s informal alternative are now different words, “an umbilical cord” might connect them like other languages where a different pronunciation made a distinction; a casual usage in AAVE. Where the r is lost. Therefore there are two “N- words”
  • Cuss words become pronouns (his ass; my shit are self effacing) n-word too: nigga can’t even stand up straight, but when used as an object it becomes “just tell the nigga” with “the” appended
  • Profanity vs slur
  • “Faggot” is another example of terms for male weakness coming from terms for women since this bundle of sticks was used to call women in American English
  • Faggot didn’t come from burning stakes because it was an Americanism, homosexuals were hanged not burned in England
  • Cocksucker cocktease and cock ring are frozen in time from 19th century when cock was the slang term rather than “dick” today
  • The first known usage of the word “dyke” to refer to lesbians in print appeared in a 1906 book on “human sexuality” that reads: “in American homosexual argot, female inverts, or lesbian lovers, are known euphemistically as ‘bulldykers,” whatever that may mean: at least that is their sobriquet in the ‘Red Light’ district of Philadelphia” 227
  • Lucille Bogan has song BD Woman’s Blues and used nearly all this book’s 9-nasty words in her blues music
  • Bitch not religious or bodily and an early example of slur but got there early because it is also about body (female dogs in heat, whorish and then general women)
  • Slang: bad as good was “publicized to a degree awkwardly dwarfing the brevity, typical of slang, of its reign” 249
  • Young American women: betch, just a BET and let’s go to BAD with vocal fry
  • Betches Love This
  • Cardi B: I ain’t gonna front. A bitch is scared.” In which a bitch is pronoun “I” not talking about another woman, this follows other usages in other languages too
  • First written version of bitch to woman is from 1400 in a play that would translate to “who are you calling queen, miserable bitch?” (whom calleste thou queine, skabde biche “) 236
  • First recorded English usage of motherfucker in a Texas court case in 1890

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