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Nine Nasty Words summary

John McWhorter

English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever

4 (136 ratings)
23 mins

Brief summary

Nine Nasty Words by John McWhorter is a fascinating and thought-provoking examination of the power and history of taboo language. McWhorter explores the complex social dynamics behind these words and asks provocative questions about how we use them.

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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.

    Nine Nasty Words Review

    Nine Nasty Words (2021) by John McWhorter delves into the history and significance of taboo language, offering insights that make it a worthwhile read. Here's why this book stands out:

    • It explores the power of language through an exploration of nine taboo words, revealing the cultural and historical significance behind each one.
    • Through careful analysis and research, McWhorter presents a nuanced perspective on taboo language, challenging societal norms and shedding light on its complex nature.
    • The book's rich storytelling and thought-provoking examples keep readers engaged, ensuring that this exploration of language is far from mundane.

    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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    Nine Nasty Words FAQs 

    What is the main message of Nine Nasty Words?

    The main message of Nine Nasty Words is the fascinating history and social impact of profanity in the English language.

    How long does it take to read Nine Nasty Words?

    The reading time for Nine Nasty Words varies depending on the reader's speed. However, the Blinkist summary can be read in just 15 minutes.

    Is Nine Nasty Words a good book? Is it worth reading?

    Nine Nasty Words is a thought-provoking book that explores the power and evolution of taboo language. It's definitely worth reading!

    Who is the author of Nine Nasty Words?

    The author of Nine Nasty Words is John McWhorter.

    What to read after Nine Nasty Words?

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