cover image Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever

Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever

John McWhorter. Avery, $24 (288p) ISBN 978-0-593-18879-8

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. Agent: Dan Conaway, Writers House. (May)