We all have our popcorn. That thing we reach for, not because we need it, but because we want it, it is easy, and frequently, it is right there. That is the relationship most of us have with junk food, but it is also the relationship I have with pop linguistics books. I seem to be (slowly) making my way through that canon, only to find each successive book to have diminishing returns. John McWhorter’s books, are the exception. It is mostly to do with his humor and delivery, both of which resonate with me pretty deeply. His latest book is really no exception.
Nine Nasty Words does a more than merely present the history and etymology of some swear words – though that is in it to. McWhorter also presents a hypothesis about how what we consider to be blue language – or specifically the ones we consider to be significantly inappropriate – reflect the values of our times, and how we can best come to understand our society by understanding what our society considers profane. He nominates three major periods of profanity, where words dealing with religion were profane, then the body, and most recently words referring to groups of people.
I hope I made it as clear as possible from the opening paragraph that I have a positive bias towards McWhorter. I not only read his books, but I listen to his podcast as well. That may have influenced me pretty negatively this time around, though it may have just been my imagination. There was something about this book that struck me as being written in an overly performative matter. It felt more dictated than actually written. I don’t have examples at hand, but it did have moments that felt like I was reading the transcript from the longest episode of Lexicon Valley ever performed. I can’t say I care for that, as I have always felt that writing is distinct from speech, and the rules of one are not the rules of the other. Something about the writing here felt a little to folksy and spoken for my taste. I ultimately began to have doubts as to whether McWhorter always wrote like this and it is just starting to bother me now (something that has happened with other authors in the past).
McWhorter actually has a hell of a tonal range in writing. I keep a copy of his The Creole Debate handy just in case I need to be talked out of doing a PhD. That has the same clinical and (let’s face it) boring tone that every other academic text has, <s> because academia seems to fear that the hoi polloi may catch on to its grift <s/>. But style changes as you continue to write, and reading this I did briefly fear that maybe McWhorter is being pushed towards increasing levels of ‘talkative’ prose.