Nine Nasty Words | John McWhorter

Summary of: Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter — Then, Now, and Forever
By: John McWhorter


In ‘Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter — Then, Now, and Forever’, John McWhorter takes readers on a fascinating dive through the history of profanity and how certain words have evolved in usage and meaning. This book summary takes you on a journey, exploring the shifting taboos around words like damn, hell, and the various notorious f-words. Along the way, you will encounter the surprising connections between science and excrement, understand the nuances of the N-word, and discover the evolving meanings of the term ‘bitch’. The book summary will enrich your understanding of language, illustrating how societal changes and cultural influences impact the way we perceive and use words throughout history.

The Evolution of Profanity

Profanity has transformed from sinful to secular, with words like damn and hell now considered acceptable forms of profanity. In the past, their usage carried significant religious connotations and was discouraged. However, over time, their religious meaning has faded, and they have become everyday language.

The Evolution of the F-Word

The origins of the f-word as a profanity remain a mystery, but it was not always considered vulgar. In the Middle Ages, it was even used in people’s names. Today, it is used for a variety of explicit and emphatic declarations, and many theories about its linguistic origins exist, but none are definitive. One hypothesis suggests it comes from the Norwegian word “fukka,” which could have been imported to the British Isles during the Viking invasions. The word’s sound may have played a role in its prevalence as the choice verb for intercourse.

The Origin and Evolution of Science and Shit

The word science and shit may seem completely unrelated, but they share a common origin. Science, emanating from sci, which came to be the root of “to know” and shit from scit, which was used to describe the physical act of separating excrement from the body. The book highlights the taboo around shit, which closely mirrors our society’s relationship with shame. In the past, shit was not a taboo, and it was not squeamish to name it. However, with technological progress and increased material wealth, physical processes like shitting became more stigmatized. Despite this censure, shit survived because excrement itself is a powerful concept. In some way, it is true and authentic, making it an essential and unavoidable fact of life.

Taboo Words in English

The article explores the history of anatomical terms in English and how they have evolved over time. While the appreciation of certain body parts has become more relaxed, there is still a lack of neutral terms for reproductive organs. Words like dick and pussy, once used innocently, have taken on more negative connotations. The c-word remains one of the most offensive words in the English language due to its chronic use in reducing women to their sexual organs.

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