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.
McWhorter deftly models a way for us to think deeply and systematically about language while celebrating its wildness, its slipperiness and its silliness ... McWhorter’s literary style does justice to the reality that language is a living thing ... His anecdotes about his own run-ins with profanities encouraged me to reflect, with amusement and new interest, on how often those words have starred in my own life’s dramas and comedies. And throughout the book, McWhorter gives a master class in the comedic value of taking swearing seriously. Sometimes these moments are winningly puerile ... On other occasions, the wordplay is less nakedly obvious ... The book’s winking style doesn’t stop McWhorter from taking his subject seriously ... McWhorter gives a beautiful account of what it means to engage seriously with language as an individual with multiple personal and professional identities ... Personal perspective, however, is not without pitfalls, and at several moments in the book I wondered if McWhorter’s opinion was masquerading as fact ... In lieu of a complete list of works consulted, McWhorter gives only a bare-bones selected bibliography in his notes ... Moments...in which evidence is AWOL are not the only reason I’m petitioning for a bibliography ... I’m hammering hard on the lack of citations because I thought so highly of the book over all: It deserves to be taught in classrooms, and deserves to be quoted ... a deeply intelligent celebration of language that teaches us how to see English in high definition and love it as it really is, right now and in its myriad incarnations to come.
Two paradoxes within Nine Nasty Words make it a most enlivening read. The first is of profanity embraced by the masses while also being held in puritanical quarantine in certain quarters. The second is McWhorter’s personal anecdotes and guy-on-the-next-barstool’s witty and often cheeky asides juxtaposed with his brilliant, erudite, dizzying command of the English language ... This is not a book for those who are easily offended ... But those who love words and the magic and mischief they make in life will be spellbound ... Hopefully, this delightful and scholarly exploration of profanity will move us to think more generously about so-called nasty words and give us a deeper intellectual understanding of their place in modern life and in our own lives.
In the sections I found most intriguing, McWhorter takes deep dives into derogatory terms for minorities (women, people of color, non-straight people). McWhorter does a magnificent job of uprooting English’s ugly past when people in places of privilege uttered these taboo terms to dehumanize others ... I recommend Nine Nasty Words to anyone who gets fascinated by the weird, wild and wooly English language. Whether you’re a self-proclaimed word nerd or simply an armchair cursing aficionado, readers will be ready to drop knowledge on their friends during the next lull in conversation at your outdoor summer get-together.