One of the preeminent linguists of our time examines the realms of language that are considered shocking and taboo in order to understand what imbues curse words with such power--and why we love them so much.
Profanity has always been a deliciously vibrant part of our lexicon, an integral part of being human. In fact, our ability to curse comes from a different part of the brain than other parts of speech--the urgency with which we say "f&*k!" is instead related to the instinct that tells us to flee from danger.
Language evolves with time, and so does what we consider profane or unspeakable. Nine Nasty Words is a rollicking examination of profanity, explored from every angle: historical, sociological, political, linguistic. In a particularly coarse moment, when the public discourse is shaped in part by once-shocking words, nothing could be timelier.
McWhorter (Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue), a professor of linguistics and American studies at Columbia University, excavates the origins of "the bedrock swears of modern English" in this playful account. "Vested with the power of transgression," curse words originate on the opposite side of the brain from ordinary words, McWhorter explains, in the areas associated with emotion. He touches on differences between men's and women's speech before surveying classic profanities including "fuck" ("the sheer frequency with which one can say it is dazzling"), "shit" ("quite the journey for a word that means poop"), and "motherfucker" (it "likely just happened to catch on among black people in the same way that hackysack caught on among white ones"). In a class by themselves are "the N-word" and the inflammatory "faggot," which referred to women before its association with gay men. McWhorter acknowledges the discomfort these words might evoke, but maintains a light touch throughout ("the linguist does not judge"). He tracks the evolution of each word's usage through a hodgepodge of cultural examples, including Gilbert and Sullivan librettos, Stephen Sondheim scores, the film The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and quotes by architect Frank Lloyd Wright. This colorful, trivia-filled etymology will appeal to word snobs with a wild streak.