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Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever

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A New York Times bestseller

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: historical, sociological, political, linguistic. In a particularly coarse moment, when the public discourse is shaped in part by once-shocking words, nothing could be timelier.

ISBN-13: 9780593188798

Media Type: Hardcover

Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group

Publication Date: 05-04-2021

Pages: 288

Product Dimensions: 7.10(w) x 5.40(h) x 1.20(d)

John H. McWhorter teaches linguistics, American studies, and music history at Columbia University. He is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and host of Slate's Lexicon Valley podcast. McWhorter is the author of twenty books, including The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language, Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America, and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.

Read an Excerpt




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!"

The Way We Were

Damn and hell were once more potent. As with profanity in all societies, the words were never anywhere near absent from ordinary speech, as their taboo status inevitably lent satisfaction to their utterance and lent them a space within the full range of human expression. The difference between then and now was the genuflection to that forbidden status one was expected to maintain, the studious display of disgust. They truly qualified as "bad" words, however commonly they were heard.

As in: it isn't hard to glean that premarital sex was common before the pill. Any number of clues tip us off-the date of first children's birthdays, deathbed confessions, widespread venereal disease, the sheer existence of prophylactic devices. It is equally easy to see that public attitudes about it were quite different from private ones, about those who ventured the deed without "benefit of clergy."

An analogous split between public ideals and private reality is the source of our hangover sense even today that there is something unclean about damn and hell. But people maintained the pretense much more vigorously a century or so ago. Whatever Pulitzer was shouting in his shirtsleeves in the smoky just-the-boys atmosphere of his office, in the Gilded Age there was a sense that damn and hell had no place in one's public persona.

Gilbert and Sullivan's H.M.S. Pinafore number "I am the Captain of the Pinafore" summed it up when the captain informs us:

Bad language or abuse

I never, never use

Whatever the emergency.

Though "bother it" I may

Occasionally say,

I never use a big, big D___.

"What, never?" the chorus asks.

"No, never!" he answers.

"What, never?" the chorus pushes, upon which he admits, "Hardly ever!" So one was to at least tamp it down. Even as late as 1935, Thomas Edison's erstwhile assistant Miller Hutchison was eliding the hells in letters in a similar fashion, quoting his old boss as having said in 1915: "I want to be able to tell an Admiral to go to ____ if he is in the wrong."

This gingerly approach was more about etiquette-book stipulation than reality, but the stipulation itself contrasted with our times.

Frank Lloyd Wright urged that in architecture, form follows function, but was hardly consistent about it. Sometimes he pursued a form because he felt like it. Regarding his gorgeous but weirdly laid-out Unity Church in Oak Park, Illinois, around 1905, he groused to a colleague, "I don't give a damn what the use of it is; I wanted to build a building like that." Wright's contemporary equivalent would use in the same place shit or fuck-i.e., what we think of as "real" profanity.

Another revealing facet: damn and hell were considered vulgar enough-"on paper" at least-that bourgeois propriety enforced a distinct gender segregation. In 1861, poet Algernon Swinburne wrote a letter to a woman where he wrote that certain scenery was "of the sort which must be called, not in the way of profane swearing, but of grave, earnest and sorrowing indignation, the d____ sort." He appended, "I wd. rather die than write it at length." Here, then, is the kind of context where, as late as the 1910s, cartoonist Art Young would describe Greenwich Village as where "a woman could say damn right out loud and still be respected!"-i.e., notably bohemian.

This had been the general Anglophone sentiment on the two words since their emergence in Old English more than a thousand years before, and nothing testifies to this more vividly than that English has long had euphemisms for both, such as darn, doggone, dang, heck, and H-E-double-hockey-sticks. The prolificity of these prim little terms only makes sense amid a widespread sense that damn and hell are not just ordinary words but taboo terms-like Voldemort. We have no substitutes for snow, yesterday, or kitchen sink.

When Swearing Was Swearing

This diligent euphemizing goes back to the ancients, for whom the rub was what they considered most taboo in contrast to us. Namely, it came down to the issue of swearing.

Hold up: Swearing is what this whole book is about, right? But our use of swear as a synonym for profanity is actually a holdover from an earlier usage that made more sense. After all, one might ask just what swearing in its literal meaning-affirming your belief in something-has to do with what you yell when you stub your toe. To the medievals, swearing was about swearing-in the actual sense-to God and Jesus, and was taken seriously to an extent difficult for most of us to wrap our heads around today.

I got my first sense of this from Peter Shaffer's play Lettice and Lovage, lesser known than his Amadeus and Equus but just as substantial (and funnier). Lettice is a woman of a certain age with a theatrical temperament and an antiquarian bent, who resists being dismissed from a job as a tour guide in a medieval castle.

I swear-I swear to you-if I can do this job, I shall not deviate by so much as a syllable from the recorded truth! . . . I shall read and read! I shall commit to memory every recorded fact about the river! I shall not depart from them by so much as one cedilla-not a jot or tittle! Not one iota! . . . [Lettice tears the property sword off the wall and kneels, holding it up ardently.]

I swear this! . . . Not one complaint will you hear! Not a single-not a single-a sing- [breaks down in tears]

Doing this bit in the original production, Maggie Smith struck a knightlike pose delightfully out of step with her dowdy puff of a coiffure and loopy attire. In a later repertory production I caught, the magnificent Tina Packer knelt down, opened her mouth in a froglike gape, and shouted the line bug-eyed to an imaginary audience, as if she were an actual medieval person swearing before gathered witnesses in the open air, yelling to be heard in an era before amplification.

To the ancients, swearing actually was this weighted and performative. In societies where language was mainly oral and few were literate, the swear was equivalent to the signature, and thus to do it without sincerity threatened the foundations of society. Swearing insincerely to God was especially egregious. To swear to God for trivial reasons, or worse, disingenuously, was regarded as morally repellent at best, sinful at worst. Here emerged the condemnation of taking the Lord's name "in vain." Other transgressions were calling upon God to damn someone, or taking a personal role in the direction of someone to reside in hell, when that assignment is God's decision to make.

Hence the idea that certain words and expressions constitute "swearing"-this is why an alternate term is oaths. The original literalness and sincerity becomes clear in now frozen expressions such as oh God, thank God, my God, swear to God, honest to God, for God's sake, God forbid, good God, by God, and so help me, God. One might imagine how someone who uses these expressions in earnest might feel about someone tossing them off to release steam. Not for nothing is the instruction to avoid taking the Lord's name in vain the second of the Commandments, before murder and adultery.

Perhaps the closest we can get to this kind of sentiment is being sworn in in court, where we give oral promise to be truthful and it is considered illegal not to. While today that practice stands out as singular, even odd, the old sense of damn and hell as evil was rooted in a world in which swearing of this kind was part of the warp and woof of life, crucial to situating oneself in a community or society.

Thus our use of "swearing" to refer to something considered transgressive is a faded signal from a distant era when swearing itself was fine and even advisable: the issue was how you did it. Hence Swinburne's careful assurance to his interlocutor, before he describes something as damned, that he does not intend the profane kind of swearing-i.e., he thought the scenery was genuinely revolting. Swearing was a problem only when people did it too lightly. Or too often-no circumstances justified swearing to or about the Lord as a kind of punctuation day in and day out. This is what rankles Chaucer's Pardoner in the Canterbury Tales, who teaches that while sincere swearing is proper, "ydel swerying"-ydel is idle-"is a cursednesse."

Damning people to hell was but one manifestation of this devaluation. Another one, more often remarked upon in the Middle Ages, was swearing to parts of God's and Jesus's bodies. Here were now archaic-sounding eruptions such as by God's nails, by God's arms, and by his (i.e., Jesus's) wounds, considered reprehensible in dividing God and Jesus into parts. "O wickedness! O abomination! What parts of Christ's most blessed body do these wicked and abominable swearers leave unrent and untorn?" asked proselytizing preacher Thomas Becon in the sixteenth century, while around the same time diplomat Sir Thomas Elyot wrote in despair that children "do play with the armes and bones of Christe, as they were chery stones." These expressions were especially on the mind of Chaucer's Pardoner:

vengeance shal nat parten [leave] from his hous

That [he who] of his othes [oaths] is to [too] outrageous.

As in, those who cuss too freely better watch out for the

torture of vengeance. The Pardoner continues by aping such persons:

"By Goddes precious herte," and "By his nayles,"

And "By the blood of Crist that is in Hayles [Hales Abbey],

Sevene is my chaunce, and thyn is cynk and treye [five and three]!"

"By Goddes armes, if thou falsly pleye,

This daggere shal thurghout thyn herte go!"

Lexical Fig Leaves

Today, the body-part swears are more familiar from their euphemizations than their original renditions, which speaks to the revulsion that once surrounded them. Zounds is from by his wounds, from when wound in reference to injury was still pronounced as the past tense of the verb wind as in what you do to a watch. I'm not sure anyone still says gadzooks, but it was from God's hooks-the nails used in Jesus's crucifixion. We can see Odds bodkins emerging from "God's body" in Shakespeare: Henry IV, Part II has a line "God's body! The turkeys in my pannier are quite starved." (It's not one of Shakespeare's more iconic lines.) The Bard added the "cutesifying" suffix -kin later when Hamlet says, "God's bodykins, man, much better. Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?" Leaving off the g and y, then, yields the queer little locution Odds bodkins! we now vaguely associate with men in stockings fencing on staircases (or at least I do).