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Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever Kindle Edition
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"Rollicking, salty, learned, and intensely informative, John McWhorter's Nine Nasty Words is a grand tour through the history of the profanities we (sometimes) abhor and (sometimes) revel in (and sometimes both), peppered with cameos by everyone from Geoffrey Chaucer and Cole Porter to Tallulah Bankhead and the too-little-known singer-songwriter Lucille Bogan, still making people blush seventy-odd years after her death, God bless her. I laughed frequently and learned plenty."—Benjamin Dreyer, New York Times bestselling author of Dreyer's English
"Shakespeare’s Caliban spoke for the human race when he said 'You taught me language, and my profit on’t is, I know how to curse.' Taboo language combines our touchiest social emotions with the poetic and metaphorical powers of language, and no one can explain these more clearly and compellingly than John McWhorter."—Steven Pinker, Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University; author of The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature
"Erudite and entertaining, McWhorter shows us foul language in its wonderful, fertile variety. We see how speech taboos that once applied to religion and the body now apply to groups of people—and why there should be such power (and pleasure) in transgressing them."—Aaron James, New York Times bestselling author of Assholes: A Theory
"A treat for the mind and a gift of laughter."—Leo Sopicki, Seattle PI
"A bawdy, bodacious, and brilliant excursion through the wonderful world of profanity, filled with delicious tidbits (who knew that Edna St. Vincent Millay practiced slinging the sh*t while darning?) and linguistic amuse bouches. In other words, it’s a f***ing great read."—Ross and Kathryn Petras, New York Times bestselling authors of You’re Saying It Wrong
"A lively and informative study, not to mention wonderful cocktail party material."—Kirkus Reviews
"Effing delightful. A treat for every adult who used to look up swears in the dictionary (or still does)."—June Casagrande, bestselling author of It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences and Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies
"Dispensing his vast linguistic expertise with the lightest and deftest of touches, John McWhorter shows brilliantly how the ‘nastiest’ words can teach us about the dynamic and unruly nature of all language. Anyone interested in words (and not just the nasty ones) should read this book."—Joe Moran, author of First You Write a Sentence.
“Nine Nasty Words takes the reader round the back of the English language, only to show—with irrepressible humor and a dash of forbearance—how what we find there is central to who we are.”—Rebecca Gowers, author of Horrible Words: A Guide to the Misuse of English
"If you want to get down and dirty in the gutter of English (and, be honest, who doesn’t?) you’d better go with a guide who knows his sh*t. McWhorter gives a jovial, expert tour of the 'bedrock swears' from the offensive and profane to the merely 'salty,' not just where they came from, but how they have shifted and morphed in force, meaning, grammar and in the effect they produce."—Arika Okrent, author of In the Land of Invented Languages
"Call me old-fashioned, but goshdarnit this book has an in-freaking-credible shipload of fizzy information. McWhorter's delicate linguistic ear is put to indelicate and delectable use in this deep dive into the linguistic muck."—M.Lynne Murphy, Professor of Linguistics, University of Sussex, and author of The Prodigal Tongue
"Only a kick-ass writer could wrest such erudite historical fun from language’s sh*thouse. Damn, this is one hell of a book, and this p***y will never curse the same again."—Ann Patty, author of Living with a Dead Language
About the Author
- ASIN : B08H1965LG
- Publisher : Avery (May 4, 2021)
- Publication date : May 4, 2021
- Language : English
- File size : 3359 KB
- Text-to-Speech : Enabled
- Enhanced typesetting : Enabled
- X-Ray : Enabled
- Word Wise : Enabled
- Print length : 286 pages
- Page numbers source ISBN : 0593188799
- Lending : Not Enabled
- Best Sellers Rank: #17,746 in Kindle Store (See Top 100 in Kindle Store)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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An interesting fact that McWhorter points out in the Introduction, is that most language seems to originate from the left side of the brain, while curse words are generated by the right side. McWhorter explains that in PET scans you can see the activity in these different sides of the brain, and only profanity seems to light up the right side of the brain. This really highlights how these words are different from normal language, not just socially, but subconsciously and biologically.
I enjoyed reading this book, and learning about the history of parts of our language from a linguist that approaches these topics with a refreshing combination of humor and scientific rigor. Any time I can read something that allows me to laugh and learn at the same time, I feel like it was time well spent.
You can tell when authors are having a grand old time. John McWhorter is having as much fun writing about the linguistics and etymology of profane words in American English as Stephen Fry is having writing about mythology, and it shows. “Nine Nasty Words” is positively playful. Not sexy, not shocking (most of the time), just playful.
In tracing how people speak certain words, you get a lot of insights into shifts in culture and into timeless human nature. No one delights in this like McWhorter, as devotees of his “Lexicon Valley” podcast already know.
Where do profane words come from? How and why do they become profane? Why do they morph into acceptable use over time and go from salty to bland to ridiculous? Why does every language have them? McWhorter will cross into philosophy, sociology, psychology, history (of course), and many other social sciences to answer this question, peppering the text with generous citations from the history of written English, along with a dizzying number of references to more than a century of popular entertainment.
In middle English, McWhorter points out, references to body parts and bodily functions were no more profane than references to housewares. When you could take a s____ in a corner of the stairwell, or had no option but to f____ in a room full of family members, these things were not shocking, nor were the terms for them. Post-Renaissance, and with the rise of religion and modesty, these words evolved into profanity with the advent of privacy and hygiene. This ended the long era when inviting God to damn someone to hell was breathtakingly horrible and not fit for innocent ears. F____ and s_____ rose to power.
Broadly, McWhorter shows us, the worst kind of profanity in English evolved from being about religion, to being about the body, to being aimed at groups of people. Using the “N-word” (and McWhorter even traces the beginnings of how it became referred to as the “n-word”) will now excuse you from polite society in a tsunami of tweets. Black English is different in the way that it reclaims the “N-word” and has shaped it possibly into a different term altogether, and McWhorter lays it all out brilliantly in concise arguments that make perfect sense.
The book ventures pretty far into the linguistic and grammatical weeds, so if “you’re not into that s__” you may want to give it a miss. Despite its subject matter, this is a scholarly book, with excellent footnotes and endnotes. For example, McWhorter draws a distinction between “I saw her a ___” and “I saw that s____” in the neutral dismissive reflexive in actual use, which delighted this reader to no end. Buy "Nine Nasty Words" for the language lover or grammar snob in your life, especially if they cuss like a sailor.
I appreciated that he did not duck from the literal words themselves, and that he has what to me seems like an open mind of when things are ok (e.g., variations on the n-word in certain circumstances), and when current standards say no. A key thread through the book is how standards have changed, sometimes quickly, and how the words themselves have changed. On his podcast, he often traces the evolution of a word from its roots and through way stations over the centuries. He does that quite a bit here, too.
A simple example that appears multiple times is how some terms that were at one point tagged to women or non-entities (think of that bundle of sticks) became associated with weakness in men and then gay men. Modest scholarship such as that adds greatly to understanding.
If you liked the book and don't follow Lexicon Valley, try it!
I'd love to be able to give some examples, e.g., the names of some lords of the English countryside in the Middle Ages, but I'd be censored and possibly excoriated for doing so. Just read it yourself--you'll learn far more than you might expect, and laugh your (fill-in-the-blank) off.