Nine Nasty Words

John McWhorter is a well-known (at least in certain circles) public intellectual, mostly because of his first-rate podcast, Lexicon Valley. His latest book, Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever, is a lively but scholarly account of the history of English words that have been considered (at various times) obscene, profane, dirty, foul, taboo, swears, curses, slurs, or otherwise inappropriate.

Actually, it’s more than nine, depending on how you count compound words, variants, and words mentioned in passing. But don’t be a pedant! McWhorter is anything but; he’s a scholar, a linguist, and a thorough researcher, but never a pedant. I highly recommend his podcast, which is almost always livened up even further by brief musical interludes, which are sometimes even relevant. (McWhorter is a professor of American musical theater as well as linguistics.)

You have, of course, your own opinions about all the words he discusses in this book, and you won’t always agree with McWhorter. In order to write Nine Nasty Words he can’t be shy about using the words in question, and he certainly isn’t. He openly confronts the issues involved when a Black male writes about the n-word and the c-word, even though a professor these days could easily be canceled for doing so, no matter that it’s in a scientific context. Clearly you shouldn’t read the book if you are squeamish about such matters.

So who is the audience for Nine Nasty Words? The humor and the liveliness suggest a general audience, at least educated but not necessarily in linguistics. One of McWhorter’s skills is writing for a diverse audience, sneaking in the linguistics without using much jargon. Even those of us with a pretty extensive background in the discipline learn something from the book, but that shouldn’t prevent the reader with a more general background from enjoying the content and the presentation. You will definitely learn something, and you’ll have a good time along the way.

Categories: Books, Linguistics