Nine Nasty Words Book Summary - Nine Nasty Words Book explained in key points
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Nine Nasty Words summary

John McWhorter

English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever

4 (125 ratings)
23 mins
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    Nine Nasty Words
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    Damn and hell began as sinful and became secular.

    There’s a long-standing Hollywood legend about the film Gone with the Wind. The story goes that the film’s producer, David Selznick, received a heavy fine when the movie was released. 

    You see, at the film’s climax, the leading star, Clark Gable, utters the now-classic line “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” The rumor is that back in 1939 damn was such a shocking word that allowing it on screen was tantamount to a crime. So Selznick had to pay up.

    But this just isn’t true. In reality, while damn and its compatriot word hell were both considered bawdy, neither was actually banned. In fact, they were treated as acceptable forms of profanity – a distinction they still hold today. 

    The key message here is: Damn and hell began as sinful and became secular.

    In today’s pantheon of taboo words, damn and hell hold a curious place. While these two expletives are absolutely considered among the four-letter terms we label profane, they nonetheless feel a bit tame. This isn’t a recent development, either. Even by the 1900s, both expletives were used regularly and rarely met with more than mild and perfunctory disapproval.

    Yet this wasn’t always the case. Travel back a few hundred years and these words would feel more provocative. In Europe during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Christian doctrine reigned supreme. Pious followers of the faith were careful to abide by the Second Commandment, which forbids taking the Lord’s name “in vain.” Pledging a trivial oath in the name of God or Jesus was strictly discouraged, which is why there’s a taboo around so-called swear words like Oh God or For God’s sake!

    Moreover, this prohibition extended to cursing people or things in the name of God. Asking the Lord to condemn, or damn, a given frustration was a serious breach of decorum. This injunction also extended to the word hell, as this was the expected destination for any soul God would damn. So, while an especially pissed peasant might be tempted to shout, “God damn you to hell!” such a phrase carried a seriously sinful weight.

    Of course, over time the religious connotations of these words began to fade, and their usage crept into everyday language. Damn and its cousin goddamn became so common that Joan of Arc even referred to the English people as “Goddams” for their frequent use of the phrase. For its part, hell became just another interjection, such as in the phrases What the hell? and Hell, why not? 

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    What is Nine Nasty Words about?

    Nine Nasty Words (2021) is a foul-mouthed exploration of our linguistic taboos. This title picks apart exactly why some words come to be profane.

    Who should read Nine Nasty Words?

    • Language-lovers aiming to deepen their appreciation of words
    • Salty talkers looking to pick up new profanity
    • Anyone curious about the origin of taboos

    About the Author

    John McWhorter, a linguistics professor at Columbia University, holds a PhD from Stanford University. His extensive writing on language and culture includes the best-selling titles Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English, and The Language Hoax.

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