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POTTY MOUTH

Nine Nasty Words, English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever
by John McWhorter
Random House, 2021
ISBN: 978-0-593-18879-8
$24.00, 276 pp.

In Nine Nasty Words, English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever, John McWhorter, author of Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English (Random House, $17.00), attempts to deconstruct the most satisfying - and reviled - words of modern language. Based on George Carlin's famous "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television," McWhorter's list is updated for the twenty-first century. Some words from Carlin's list remain taboo, while others have risen to such a level of acceptance in our daily lexicon that it's not uncommon to hear them spoken in such hallowed spaces as Congress, with nary a blush. Why, you may wonder, is that? McWhorter explains with a masterful grip on etymology to reveal a history of evolving social norms and societal pressures, mindfully imbuing his subject with the same wit and humor as Carlin's routine.

Losing My Religion
While the title of McWhorter's book suggests his investigation is limited to just nine words, it's evident early on it isn't. When tracing the origin of a word, it's simply not possible to avoid overlapping into others. As the investigation grows, more and more words call for examination. It's not dissimilar to what a historian encounters when writing about a specific region of the world; inevitably outside influences come to bear. Etymology is, in a sense, the study of history, just through words instead of events (with their inevitable overlap).

In many ways, Nine Nasty Words reads like a mystery. In search of origin, suspects are lined up, cross-examined, and (eventually) eliminated one by one. Obvious culprits are - most often - revealed for the imposters they are (no, shit did not begin as an acronym for "ship high in transit", a maritime warning to keep the goods - particularly manure - labeled as such dry), while an unlikely suspect turns out to be the direct ancestor. (Shit likely descended from skei, a word in the Eastern European language that devolved into English, meaning "cut off" or "slice"; and suddenly "pinched a loaf" makes sense.) Then there are the words that result in dead ends (cunt, although it traces way back), which to McWhorter's credit he admits to, and the words whose applications are just plain puzzling no matter how much research the author throws at it. (In the American South, cock referred to the private parts of the female anatomy as recently as the 1970s. WTF?)

While damn and hell are freely used in conversation today, one needn't go back even a hundred years to find restrictions on their use. Considered the ultimate in profanity by the Holy Roman Church, these two little monosyllabic expressions were banned even while saltier words passed for common language. Hell and damn held a special place for the censors of the middle-ages. They described topics (Hades and damnation) that were of the realm of God, and therefore not to be spoken of carelessly by mortal men. Exclaiming "Damn!" was the equivalent of damning someone to hell, and only God could do that. Likewise, the use of hell.

The F-bomb
Without the words damn and hell stricken from conversational English, we might not refer to profanity as "four-letter words." Even as the Church policed their pews for potty mouths, words we consider much more profane today were used openly and with regularity. Words that described bodily functions (shit) or parts (cunt) or process (fuck) were perfectly acceptable. Then came a sea-change. With the Reformation, Protestantism took a much starker view of Christianity. The human body was considered sinful, so too were its functions, and soon words that had been wholly acceptable became in all practicality, taboo. Seemingly, overnight profanity expanded to include anything to do with being physically human. Western civilization had become, in a word, prudish. By the nineteenth century, championed by Queen Victoria herself, these attitudes were hard wired into society. So much so that in 1940's America, a generation and two world wars later, writers still were looking over their shoulders in fear of being censored.


      The result is an entertaining - often fascinating - linguistic romp across the landscape of our modern lexicon . . .

The history of words slipping in and out of fashion is a fascinating one. Profanity - once considered the realm of sailors and degenerates - are forever on the hunt for cracks in our genteel facade in which to take root. Often these fissures spring from the underground performance scene, where the seen but not seen escape the scrutiny of censors. Of particular influence: Black music. In 1935, Lucille Bogan made an underground record that, according to McWhorter, is likely the first audio recording of shit. Of note, it follows - or rather interrupts - a verse filled with other taboos:
    Now your nuts hang down like a damned bell clapper
    And your dick stands up like a steeple.
    Your goddamned asshole stands open like a church stove
    And the crabs walks in like people . . .

Anyone listening to this recording during the Roosevelt administration knew it was only a matter of time before all the kids would be saying shit. Not only did Bogan's position as an underground artist offer in-roads for the profane s-word, but so did her gender. Throughout history, women have propelled our language forward. Words once taboo gain general acceptance only after their use is accepted and practiced by women. Once crossing their lips - a symptom of ingrained sexism, no doubt - profanity can come out of hiding.

The New Taboo
McWhorter's list of words differs from Carlin's in the type of words considered taboo today. Where once profanity was determined by its irreverence, modern profanity is determined by how its used against others. The common - and not so common - slur is the new taboo. Today, cunt isn't off-limits due to its reference to a certain part of the female anatomy; it's off-limits due to its use in degrading others. Faggot too, while queer is not as it's been embraced by the LGBTQ community. While this adoption has nullified much of its sting, it is still hard to imagine a conversation in which its use as a slur would be acceptable.

Much of McWhorter's research takes a meandering path to its conclusions. The beauty of his analysis lies in his eagerness to lay it out before us, warts and all. The tracing of a word's ancestry is a messy, painstaking business; a path on which it's near impossible to avoid the weeds. Thankfully, McWhorter is talented in guiding his readers through them, returning us to the path unscathed. The result is an entertaining - often fascinating - linguistic romp across the landscape of our modern lexicon, leaving us all the smarter for it.

posted 08/01/22


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