A review of  “Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever,” by John McWhorter (Penguin, 288 pages, $21.49).

What the Hell, and Worse

In my freshman year of college, way back in 1971, I took a course on Elizabethan and Jacobean drama from a British-accented and British-named Professor Alfred Wanner Satterthwaite. The course introduced me to an abundance of 16th and 17th century playwrights who were not named William Shakespeare, upon whom Professor Satterthwaite cast so intense a light that we would be blinded to other sources of illumination. So we plunged into Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Johnson, Thomas Middleton, Beaumont and Fletcher, John Webster, and many others. Their plays remain vivid to me even now—not that Professor Satterthwaite was an especially good teacher. He was a digressive fellow who would meet his students at home in his private study while he sucked on his pipe and told stories, many of them with a blue tinge.

He drew a key distinction between what he called the “comedy of f___ and the comedy of s___.” Or to be a little more delicate, sex comedies and potty humor. He meant all comedy is one or the other. I have never been clear whether that’s a good distinction. (Can’t a comedy indulge both? Isn’t there anything else?) But I vividly remember how Professor Satterthwaite relished saying those two words. Of course, at age 17 I had heard them plenty of times before. I attended public school in Pittsburgh neighborhoods where everyday student vocabulary had more of the blast furnace than those two words. But I never heard them rolled trippingly from the tongue of a cultivated Englishman extolling fine literature. That was new. 

The genial and even more cultivated John McWhorter recently delivered a short and somewhat alarming book, Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever. McWhorter teaches linguistics (and lots of other subjects, including music history) at Columbia University, but I think it safe to say he is best known as a linguist, and one who has charmed his way through 20 books and hundreds of essays. Nine Nasty Words continues his charm offensive—with emphasis on both those words. The charm he possesses is that of a relaxed and convivial conversationalist, a reincarnation or an avatar of the late Professor Alfred Wanner Satterthwaite, but without the British affectation and with a great deal more to teach. He brings his credentials as a black American to the table but not in the fraught tone of claiming special insight. Of special insights he has plenty, but they reflect scholarship not racial privilege. But his charm offense does have an offensive part, and it too is also a bit Satterthwaitian: McWhorter delights in naughty words. Or at least most of them.

What words might those be? I’ve already indicated two of them, f*** and s***, and others I can write with no compunction: damn, hell, and ass. But when he gets to the penis and vulva words, I balk at repeating them; and I balk even more at n**** and f*****. Those are the “nine nasties” of the alliterative title, though he brings in perhaps a dozen others along the way. 

How does one review or comment on such a book? One option, of course, is to go clinical, as though these “nasty words” are just puffs of sounds like any other words after all and need not perturb our scholarly sangfroid. 

But actually they do perturb—perhaps not so much that I couldn’t keep up my anthropological demeanor, but enough that I’d feel pretty shitty about it. That’s the alternative: just jump in and start using those words like it’s no big deal. Dive into the colloquial waters and swim around buck naked—an expression that McWhorter explains has shifted to “butt naked,” partly because “buck” has a racial overtone and is also obsolete. This is pretty much McWhorter’s own approach and he plainly has fun with it. So will all but the most staid reader. And even the most staid reader (am I he?) will be prompted to think back to when he first heard this or that ear-grinding vulgarity or ethnic vituperation. 

Slang and profanity are closely tied to one’s age, and in my age cohort (I’m 68), a lot of these terms are still buck naked. One reason to read McWhorter is that he astonishingly attuned to the micro-shifts in dialect from decade to decade, and draws examples from sources ranging from medieval English court records where we meet such fellows a Roger Fuckbythenevel, Simon Fuckbutter, and the courtier, Mr. Fuckbeggar, to the “party records” of blues singer Lucille Bogan who in the 1920s and 30s recorded bawdy lyrics that would have made the Earl of Rochester blush. 

McWhorter’s research takes him places that Captain James T. Kirk would have avoided too if Starfleet had mapped them. In truth, we don’t know very much about where the f*** word came from but it is plain that in the 13th and 14th centuries, it was in relaxed use. That courtier had a more transparent name than most of today’s civil servants of similar demeanor. Think of the official vote counters in the 2020 election papering over the Plexiglas walls so the public couldn’t watch their manipulations. Lucille Bogan can be heard, for those who’d like to sample her prurience first hand, on the internet. Among her primmer declarations: “I’ve got nipples on my titties/big as the end of my thumbs.” What was going on in that era? McWhorter even exhumes a version of Popeye the Sailor Man who declares, “Lady—I am the fuckinest slob that ever sailed the seven seas.” I’m not clear whether this boast is addressed to Olive Oyl or some more lubricious dockside dolly.

But somehow McWhorter manages this tour without salaciousness. The spirit of his book is rambunctious. He enjoys his erudition at least as much as his excuse for reciting every dirty, offensive, and taboo word English has had to offer for the last 800 years or so. Nine Nasty Words captures the larger arc from a time in which the strongest taboos surrounded words of religious profanation, through the long centuries of body taboos and sex taboos, to our current inhibition on insulting ethnic and group-identity labels. 

Taboos seldom are absolute, and one of McWhorter’s finely honed skills is his ability to tease out hidden references to words that could not at a particular time be printed. This could be done by a double entendre, or by seeing a silent movie star such as Clara Bow mouthing the invisible word on screen. McWhorter is also the master of watching words skip and jump from one part of speech to another, and from one metaphor to entirely new one. It would be nice to give examples of these but I’ll stick with the time—still in the memory of people who read widely—in which a “faggot” was a bundle of sticks, which became shorthand for a fake soldier temporarily added to fill up a regiment. Beaumont and Fletcher, those Jacobean playwrights that Professor Satterthwaite introduced me to, are cited as authorities on the matter. From fake soldiers, the word jumps to a jibe against a woman, and finally a slur against a homosexual. He also takes us into a world of pronouns that never make it into grade school grammars—if indeed grade school grammars still exist outside the homeschool market. And McWhorter’s reflexive black English pronouns such as “my s***” for “myself” are not going to turn up anytime soon in whatever passes today as McGuffey’s Eclectic Reader

Nine Nasty Words compounds several arguments about taboo words, the most interesting of which I found to be his ear for how scabrous words lose their edges in some contexts but not in others. The most familiar example, of course, is what has happened in the black community with n*****, which McWhorter explains is best thought of as two separate words, one a profoundly offensive slur and the other a term of familiarity and affection. Something similar happens with other words that convey contempt in one context and solidarity in another, but he argues that occasionally the venomous meaning all but disappears. “Dyke,” for instance, according to McWhorter, has been so embraced by American lesbians as to have altogether lost its power as a slur. 

Reviewing a short entertaining and informative book should not be so hazardous, but clearly we are in a time where even innocent slips can get well-established writers banished from the New York Times and tenured professors from the classroom. I am not in an especially vulnerable category, but I’m saving myself in case I’m ever called before a Bad Word Tribunal. 

The truth is that I never had the habit of cursing or spitting out epithets. I once came home to my apartment in Boston—this was some 40 years ago—to find a burglar exiting my window onto the fire escape, with a bundle of my valuables under his arm. He was a young black man and in my fury I screamed at him, “You f****!” It remains a vivid moment for me, mostly because I don’t recall having said anything like that before or since. Interesting perhaps that a racial epithet didn’t come to mind. The story has a semi-happy ending. A few days later, the police caught this cat-burglar on the roof of a nearby building, though I didn’t get my stuff back. 

Professor Satterthwaite’s lusty enunciation of taboo words is not for me, nor exactly is McWhorter’s playful rendition, though I’m very happy to know what today’s badasses are really saying. This is America, after all. We contain multitudes. And even if we don’t have a truly common language, it pays to know how truly common our language can be. 

 

 

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