One of the preeminent linguists of our time examines the realms of language that are considered shocking and taboo in order to understand what imbues curse words with such power--and why we love them so much. Profanity has always been a deliciously vibrant part of our lexicon, an integral part of being human. In fact, our ability to curse comes from a different part of the brain than other parts of speech--the urgency with which we say "f&*k!" is instead related to the instinct that tells us to flee from danger. Language evolves with time, and so does what we consider profane or unspeakable. Nine Nasty Words is a rollicking examination of profanity, explored from every angle...
Publisher: Avery (May 4, 2021) Hardcover: 288 pages ISBN-10: 0593188799 ISBN-13: 978-0593188798 ASIN: B08H1965LG
For Vanessa Hamilton McWhorter, who I get the feeling is going to have a witty feel for at least some of these words as we travel on
Babe Ruth’s parents had a rocky marriage. Mr. Ruth ran a bar. Apparently the bartender and Mrs. Ruth had eyes for each other and did something about it. Mr. Ruth knew it and got a lawyer to have the bartender sign an affidavit. The document survives, and reads:
I the under sign fucked Mrs Geo. H, Ruth March 12 1906 on her dinging room floor whitch She ask me to do
That piece of paper is what many of us would find the most interesting thing concerning Babe Ruth until he broke baseball’s home run record in 1920, despite that he was neither the miscreant nor the cuckold involved. Why?
A friend of mine’s mother had a certain fondness for “blue” language and, as her children became teenagers, began cursing rather freely in their presence. One Christmas Day, when everything seemed to be going wrong and she was complaining about it, her daughter said, “Mom, I thought on Christmas everybody was supposed to be jolly!” The mother shot back, “Oh, jolly shit!” My friend was still laughing at that years later, when it cracked me up, too, and I cherish the memory of that episode forty years after it happened—despite that I wasn’t even there. Why?
And you’re probably waiting for me to get to George Carlin’s famous routine about the “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” It would be downright antisocial not to list them now: shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits. The question is, though, why that routine is so well remembered almost fifty years later, while some of us would be hard-pressed to remember anything else Carlin said, or anything that comedian David Brenner, also a phenom at the time, ever said at all—and and if you draw a blank on Brenner completely, case in point.
The Babe Ruth tale entices because we are intrigued to see people in a post-Victorian era, when public mores were so much starchier, using a word we even today think of as distinctly dirty. Perhaps nothing could make long-gone people seem realer to us than evidence that they used words like fuck. Profanity channels our essence.
“Oh, jolly shit!” is funny first in that a woman—a mother, no less—was saying something with such a smutty feel in front of her kids but also in that it shows how our urge to curse often bypasses our fundamental instinct to make sense. What did “Oh, jolly shit!” mean, and if the answer is nothing, then why do we say such things? “What the fuck is that?” is subject to similar questions—what part of speech, exactly, is fuck in that sentence? Profanity channels our essence without always making sense.
And Carlin’s routine still resonates in pointing out the wholly arbitrary power of curse words. Carlin coolly rattled them off in a way that no comedian could have on a commercially released album ten years before, and the sky did not fall in. But even in recent years, then–Vice President Joe Biden made national news by not saying but whispering, “This is a big fucking deal!” to President Barack Obama after the passage of the Affordable Care Act, and as quaint as tits may now seem on Carlin’s list, characters on television still use it much less than their real-life equivalents. Boobs is one thing—we’re not surprised to hear it on Modern Family despite the fact that no one would have said it on All in the Family. But tits, the word used for purposes of lusty appraisal? We still tread lightly. Profanity channels our essence even when eluding logic, even more mysterious in leaving us quaking at the utterance of what are, in the end, just words.
But clearly these aren’t “just words” like names of fruits or animals at the zoo. In terms of how we produce them in our brains, curses are indeed different from boy, run, already, and nevertheless. In most people, language is generated on the left side of the brain, which is associated with logic, motor functions, the Apollonian realm of things. That’s the side that lights up in a PET scan when we speak ordinary words and sentences. However, when we haul off with a curse word, it’s parts of the right side that light up—specifically, the areas associated with emotion and calibrating its cathartic expression.
The limbic system, as these parts are called, looks like a graceful coil (often for some reason colored lavender in illustrations), which has always led me to associate it with Princess Leia. The left hemisphere can be entirely removed, which yields two interesting results. The first is being alive—such people can survive. The second is that they can no longer speak in terms of ordinary words and sentences but can still cuss like sailors. Likewise, a person without a right brain can talk up a storm but finds themselves stymied when they try to swear.
This means that when you yell shit or fuck, you are not simply uttering a “word.” Curses erupt from the more emotional, impulsive parts of our brains, more squawks than labels. A word is presented; a curse pops out. Where we have the space to carefully assemble and burnish our sentences, something like already or grocery store comes out; meanwhile, we spit out fuck when it’s time to run away from a lion. This is part of why curses can be so utterly disconnected from their technical meanings. In yelling “Shit!” when we realize we forgot our phone, we are not likening anything to poop; “Fuck!” we say when stubbing our toe, certainly not meaning “Sexual congress!” Curses are clad in the guise of words, like those little chocolate liquor bottles; to approach these with thoughts of Godiva and Russell Stover is missing their point, which is what’s sloshing around inside of them.
The point, then—the essence—is the piqued sense of offense, and how we cope with that blow via the visceral and immediate gesture of swatting back. You level your revenge by saying something you have been told that you should not. Herein lies profanity’s punch. As Carlin deftly got it across, “These words have no power. We give them this power by refusing to be free and easy with them. We give them great power over us. They really, in themselves, have no power.” Curses are words that have long ago ceased being themselves, having been vested with the power of transgression. They may have emerged as ordinary words but, over time, they made their way from our left brains to our right.
In the Middle Ages, in England, Bristol’s maps showed a glade called Fuckinggrove, while up in Chester one could proudly sport a name like Roger Fuckbythenavel. Only once fuck crossed that cognitive boundary a few centuries later did it become a word so dirty that generations of lexicographers pretended that it didn’t exist. And just as a word can attain profane status, it can lose it. Going back to Carlin’s list, I am pretty sure I have never in my lifetime (which began in 1965) heard anyone called a cocksucker and have certainly never leveled the term. In the 1960s and 1970s trailblazing representative Bella Abzug was reportedly fond of it in honest moments as a general term for persons of whom she disapproved, but it seems to have migrated into archaism since then. These days, you’re much more likely to hear asshole, which settled in as an equivalent term in the late 1960s.
What’s key is that the stock of curses is ever self-refreshing. The fashions change, as always and everywhere, but what persists is taboo itself, a universal of human societies. What is considered taboo itself differs from one epoch to another, but the sheer fact of taboo does not. Language cannot help but reflect something so fundamental to our social consciousness, and thus there will always be words and expressions that are shot out of the right brain rather than gift-wrapped by the left one.
This is why they have the peculiar status that George Carlin commented upon—and why, while the potency of much of his list has weakened considerably, new ones have arisen that occupy the same place in the culture. Maybe your aunt Frances walked out of the room rather than listen to Carlin’s disquisition when her nephew Craig was playing it on his record player around when Nixon was reelected. But then how many of us would be up for watching a comedian today on Netflix gabbing about how we need to get over our delicate treatment of nigger and faggot? In fact, Carlin’s case that these words “really in themselves have no power” is academic; words like these wield modern America’s strongest taboo, the slander of groups. Both words stopped being “themselves” long ago.
Profanity will always intrigue us with its distinctive status and flavor amid the “real” words that make up our language. They are both not real words and realer than most others. What chose them to give vent to our ids? How have our curse words transformed along with our taboos? And what can these words teach us about language and linguistics in general? Just think: ass is a pronoun, fuck is becoming a question word, and darn is no more a “real word” than ginormous or hangry. There’s more to profanity than discomfort, catharsis, and seduction.
As often as not, we will be finding structure in what seems like chaos, mess, or the trivial. That is the heart of what linguistics is, and this will be a linguist’s journey through profanity, rather than an anthropologist’s, psychologist’s, or historian’s. So many think that we are translators, or grammar scolds, or experts on how to teach kids to read, or dialect coaches. We are none of those things. Rather, we take in what looks like a mess and try to make out the sense in it. We like to think of ourselves as scientists. Without taking a linguistics class, you can’t know that the subject is taught with problem sets of the kind more familiar to physics or statistics. The idea is to find the sense in the chaos.
And the chaos includes matters profane. If you watch shows like Succession— excellent in exhibiting how words like fuck, shit, and ass are used “in the wild” as opposed to on the page—you might figure that we are dirty, profane, and, most to the point here, random. But no—a linguist’s view reveals that the casual modern English speaker is as systematic in our language usage as Winston Churchill, Gwendolyn Brooks, or Christopher Hitchens.
In this book I will zero in on not seven but nine of the bedrock swears of modern English, including what we more conventionally term slurs but which qualify as our newest profanity. Or, really, eleven if you count damn and hell. For all that these two are conventionally listed as profane, in modern times, they are better described as salty. They are used too commonly in public and even formal settings to count meaningfully as obscene, especially since they were used rather openly even in early talkie films with their otherwise post-Victorian approach to language. Yet these words were treated as more profane in the deeper past, and in this, illustrate an entire stage in the evolution of what Anglophones consider obscene that would be lost if we just started with the likes of shit. Add that sheer habit leads us to spontaneously include damn and hell on the “bad word” list and even lead that list off with them in our minds, and I would be not only pedagogically irresponsible but a wet blanket to disinclude them from this book. Thus we will start off with them as a kind of prologue chapter, separate from what truly constitute our nasty words.
On that matter of evolution, profanity has known three main eras—when the worst you could say was about religion, when the worst you could say was about the body, and when the worst you could say was about groups of people. The accumulation of those taboos is why “just words” like hell, shit, and nigger respectively harbor such sting. Onlookers have sucked in their breath to hear the medieval person damning someone to hell, the twenties flapper telling someone to go fuck themselves, and our neighbor calling someone a bitch. This book will explain why.
But more to the point, this book is all about the words themselves. Not every single cuss we can name, though—do you really need a list of all the words for penis? We’re going to work with a lean list of the staple, principal-cast dirty words you giggled at when you learned them as a kid, the words you want to know when learning a second language, and the ones you hope your kids won’t use, and yet you would never feel your full self without deploying a few of now and then. To wit—and hopefully with some of it—let’s look in for a spell on nine nasty ways of being human.
DAMN AND HELL : ENGLISH’S FIRST BAD WORDS
In a book about profanity, it’s almost awkward that our tour begins with damn and hell, in that most of us don’t sense these words as truly, well, dirty.
We may still include both in a standard list of “four-letter words” formally classified as unsuitable for the drawing room. For many, damn is the first we might list, just as we are likely to start with apples when asked to name fruits. We sense damn, as well as hell, as in some sense “bad.”
Yet in our times, they really aren’t.
The Cusses That Aren’t
When I was about eight, I asked my father what dam-un meant, assuming that was how one pronounced the damn I had seen in writing. Dad said, “It’s a word you use when you’re really, really angry.”
The result was that I went away supposing for years afterward that there was a word dam that you used as a kind of everyday, salty exclamation, and a less commonly used word pronounced dam-un that you used when truly irritated.
That is, I was well aware of the word that sounds like dam, as the one bandied about quite often by my parents and others, even when kids were within earshot, for reasons much less extreme than being “really, really angry.” In no sense did I classify it as an especially naughty word, even if I knew that I wasn’t allowed to say it yet.
Gradually, of course, I realized that there was no separate word dam-un. But the gap between my dad’s formal parsing of the word, as a genuine obscenity, and the libertine reality of how he—and even President Nixon, as we’d learn—used it was instructive. For an obscenity, damn, like hell, was used with curious comfort and frequency.
Nor was this freedom a product of the countercultural 1960s, after which we all let our hair down in so many ways. My father was born in 1927, and Richard Nixon was not exactly a flower child. Damn and hell have been profanity-lite for a very long time.
As far back as the 1880s, publishing magnate Joseph Pulitzer (whose name appears during my typical workday not once but twice in being doughtily imprinted upon both Columbia University’s journalism school building as well as a public school I live near) was known to favor damn. He was especially fond of jamming it into words that hadn’t expected it, in a fashion more familiar today with locutions such as “abso-fucking-lutely,” resulting in the likes of “indegoddampendent.” A young woman recounting her spell as an itinerant in the teens of the twentieth century noted that damn and hell were ordinary talk among her fellow hobos but that they carefully shielded her from other, “real” bad words.
But what about the hubbub surrounding Gone with the Wind? The truth is, producer David O. Selznick was not fined for instructing Clark Gable as Rhett Butler to say, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” The post–Victorian Motion Picture Production Code of the era had indeed forbidden profanity on film for several years by 1939, but Selznick got it altered, without any major trouble, on damn and hell. The update nicely reflected the twentieth-century reality, allowing those two words:
when their use shall be essential and required for portrayal, in proper historical context, of any scene or dialogue based upon historical fact or folklore . . . or a quotation from a literary work, provided that no such use shall be permitted which is intrinsically objectionable or offends good taste.
Moreover, the line was nowhere near the first time damn had been uttered on film. Given how linguistically puritan American film producers generally kept their output until the late 1960s, it is almost bizarre how free with damn and hell some early talkies were. As soon as sound came in, profanity hit the ground running, spoken by pomaded post-Victorians in their fussy clothing. In 1929, the creaky slog of a musical Glorifying the American Girl has a crabby stage mother casually grunting “Dammit!” twice, as she has trouble opening her glasses. In 1932, a sweet, matronly figure casually says, “I’ll be damned!” in Blessed Event. Even cartoon characters got in on the action. Flip the Frog was one of many Mickey Mouse knockoffs of the era, as evanescent as they were inevitable, and in one 1930 entry, an anthropomorphic telephone tries unsuccessfully to wake up Flip and looks at the audience and whispers “Damn!” in frustration.
To wit, since the late nineteenth century, damn and hell have been understood as inappropriate in a formulaic sense, while in everyday life many “proper” people have treated them like cinnamon sticks in tea. By the time we got to 1977, when Florida Evans, the staid matriarch of Good Times, cried, “Damn, damn, damn!” after her husband died in a car accident, we neither batted an eye nor wished she had said, “Darn, darn, darn!”