Question Corner: What the fu*k is this about?

What counts as bad words, and why they’re so irresistible

Nine Nasty Words, by the linguist John McWhorter, is a slim, entertaining examination of profanity in the English language, words considered unspeakable but also spoken a whole lot We have invested them with transgressive power, they come with a payload of offense.

So when we are hurt, we reflexively and immediately swat back by doing something we should not, something taboo, “to cause a compensatory offence“, McWhorter. That is the satisfying essence of a cuss word.

This book covers the whole range of unutterables which, in the West, says were once chiefly about religion and god (hell, damn), then moved to bodily matters, and now, slurs against social groups. The ancients took swearing very seriously indeed. In a largely oral culture, oaths had weight, they were to be sincerely used.

To take the Lord’s name in vain or just lightly toss off such words was appalling. The fact that we still get ‘sworn in’ to office by promising to be truthful, shows how crucial swearing was, to situate oneself in a community.

  • Why do people swear and cuss?

    A curse is more like a yelp than a word or label for a meaning, a helpless verbal ejaculation. As McWhorter points out, when someone stubs their toe and squawks f***I, they certainly don’t mean ‘sexual congress!’ Curse words have long ceased to be themselves.

  • Where do these words come from, how did they change, and what are their effects?

    The real profanity, we think, is the word that begins with f**k. Now there’s a word that packs a punch and remains unprintable. But the first recorded use of the word was by a monk in 1528

So the first taboo words were all about god, and they still live on as faded signals from that time- though ‘oh my god’ is now mainly a white woman’s expression. There were also improvisations that conveyed the sting without actually invoking them: golly and gosh, rather than god, or jeepers creepers and gee-whiz to avoid Jesus Christ. But while these words add a bit of music or colour, they are barely bad words now.

The real profanity, we think, is the word that begins with f**k. Now there’s a word that packs a punch and remains unprintable. But the first recorded use of the word was by a monk in 1528.

On the margins of a Cicero text about morals. It wasn’t a huge deal either-the squeamishness about sex and excrement set in after the Reformation and its focus on personal uprightness.

The f-word remains fresh and fertile as ever, convey destruction, dismissal, and much more; it can be inserted for extra intensity, in the way Eliza Doolittle said abso-blooming lutely Then there’s s**t ying and its many-splen- its uses and doured extensions There’s also a*s, which click- ed into use just when the shrinking away from body parts was at its height, in the nuances.

In the 1700s. All this is to be expected in a book about gutter-English, but the book really stands out in the later chapters, when it takes on the true taboos, the nasty words that carry consequences.

Is a slur merely profanity? McWhorter, a Black man himself, takes in the contemptuous blow of the n-word, what it means when Black people say it to each other with warm intimacy, or White people appropriate it the same way, tracing the subtleties of usage.

It explores other slurs wielded against queer people and women. Now, if only someone would look at the glints, “tones and shifts of our own Indian gaalis”

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