English in the Gutter

Profanity is an integral part of the human lexicon, processed in the part of the brain related to fleeing danger rather than processing speech. However, which words a culture considers profane and to what degree uttering them warrants a bar of soap in the mouth varies over time.

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

Though I don’t curse (often) myself, profanity fascinates the wannabe linguist in me. I’m also a fan of John McWhorter’s podcast, Lexicon Valley, so when I heard he was releasing this book, I was number one on the library’s waitlist.

Description:

For as long as mothers have existed, they have scolded their children for saying naughty words. Profanity is an integral part of the human lexicon, processed in the part of the brain related to fleeing danger rather than processing speech. However, which words a culture considers profane and to what degree uttering them warrants a bar of soap in the mouth varies over time.

In this pithy yet thorough account, John McWhorter delves into the historical, sociological, political, and linguistic development of today’s most prevalent curse words. With his genteel style and not a small amount of humor, he examines what gives curse words their power, and why we like them so much.

My Review

This book was everything I wanted and more. It details the cultural changes that caused profanity to shift from religious terms to bodily functions to identity slurs with many cogent examples. That my ancestors may have contributed the f-word to the English language makes me inexplicably giddy. That whole chapter had me laughing out loud, which was rather difficult to explain to my husband.

More than how we anglophones use these nine words today, McWhorter explains how the previously innocent words became nasty. Moreover, he describes how their meanings expanded, and how most of them now serve as pronouns. For grammar nerds feeling rebellious, I highly recommend this book. That said, I will caution that McWhorter types out all the words, and reading the stronger ones (e.g. the racial slur) repeatedly was a little uncomfortable, even for me. Readers with delicate sensibilities beware.

Writing Style

McWhorter’s writing style is as smooth and precise as one would expect from a professional linguist. His prose is as elegant as a fine wine. I am a huge fan of his writing, but if you have the chance, I recommend the audiobook as John McWhorter has a lovely voice. That is, assuming you don’t have small children at home.

Conclusion

Nine Nasty Words is not for the faint of heart, but for those with an interest in English’s saltier side, I highly recommend it. With humor and detail, McWhorter tells the story of sailor talk with the elegance and detail of a professor.


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Nine Nasty Words

You may also like:

Word by Word

One of my favorite books

Eats, Shoots & Leaves

For those who love carry a red pen everywhere

Dryer’s English

For the wannabe line editor


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Author: C.C. Hansen

C.C. Hansen is a writer and speech-language pathologist. When she is not working, she may be found with her nose in a book, her hands in a ball of bread dough, or her feet on a trail in the mountains.

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