Nine Nasty Words

English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever

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I really enjoyed reading John McWhorter's Woke Racism last month. So I decided to give this book a try. It's on a totally different topic, but equally in McWhorter's wheelhouse as a linguistics professor at Columbia.

What are the nine nasty words? Well, some of them I'm OK with typing, others not. (Caveat lector, McWhorter spells them all out.)

1. damn;

2. hell;

3. the F-word;

4. shit;

5. ass;

6. dick (and the female equivalent);

7. the N-word;

8. the other F-word (and the female equivalent);

9. bitch.

I think that's (more or less) right; the book mentions many more profanities. Like a good linguistic scholar, McWhorter describes their possible/probable origins, their use in literature, pop culture, even legal filings. (Babe Ruth's dad makes an appearance right at the beginning.) There's fascinating detective work on how the words moved in and out of "respectable" discourse. There are all sorts of citations, many drawn from McWhorter's own "lived experience". (He hung out with some pretty salty folks.) The oeuvre of "dirty blues" singer Lucille Bogan turns out to be a rich source of smut. The rationale of ending the N-word with "-er" vs. "-a" turns out to be surprisingly nuanced. When was bitch first spoken in a movie? The answer may shock you!

Something of which I was unaware: out on the Left Coast, the phrase "flip a bitch" is used to describe making an illegal U-turn. McWhorter notes how odd and wonderful this is:

A word Iron Age Europeans used to refer to female dogs is now used on the other side of the other side of the world in California to refer to making illegal U-turns.

And, reader, there is page after page of this stuff. Above all, the book communicates McWhorter's enthusiasm and joy in accumulating facts, establishing lexicographic histories and relationships, and telling great stories. It's a word guy's version of what Feynman called "the pleasure of finding things out."

Last Modified 2024-01-17 3:37 PM EDT

URLs du Jour


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  • Call it a public health menace, and you can ban it, Joe. Jacob Sullum takes on the DGB: The Biden Administration Sees Free Speech As a Public Menace.

    In a February 7 National Terrorism Advisory System bulletin, DHS identified "the proliferation of false or misleading narratives" that "sow discord or undermine public trust in U.S. government institutions" as one of three "key factors contributing to the current heightened threat environment." Those narratives, it said, included claims about election fraud and COVID-19, which fed "grievances" that "inspired violent extremist attacks during 2021."

    That view of controversial speech is consistent with the Biden administration's attitude toward COVID-19 "misinformation," which it has urged social media platforms to suppress. Given the power that the executive branch wields over those companies, such pressure can easily lead to censorship by proxy.

    The problem is compounded by the difficulty of defining "misinformation." Surgeon General Vivek Murthy says it includes statements that are "misleading" even if they are arguably or indisputably true. Murthy's definition hinges on the government's assessment of "the best available evidence," which "can change over time."

    According to the "best available evidence", Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia.

  • Good question. Andrew C. McCarthy has one for Wheezy Joe: Mr. President, Do You Favor Third-Trimester Abortions?

    Predictably, President Biden has had nothing meaningful to say about the outrageous, criminal leak of a draft Supreme Court opinion, but he has been quick to demagogue the justices in the putative Court majority for overturning Roe and Casey, as well as Republicans and abortion opponents. What’s at stake, the president says, is “about a lot more than abortion,” and he warned that “this MAGA crowd is really the most extreme political organization in recent American history.”

    Putting aside that widespread, vibrant opposition to the taking of unborn life long predates the political emergence of Donald Trump and his “make America great again” movement (on that score, see Xan’s excellent analysis of “What Americans Really Think about Abortion”), the actual extremists when it comes to abortion are Democrats, very much including Joe Biden — ostensibly, a practicing Catholic — and one who once supported a constitutional amendment to empower states to overturn Roe.

    As Matt Welch pointed out back in 2019, Biden is a rusty weathervane. He meant it as sort of a compliment, but we're seeing the downside. When his party is marching off to the left, he meekly follows along, creaking.

  • People who can't do science do science journalism. James Freeman offers something to consider Before You Cancel Your Subscription to Science Magazine.

    It's about (Pun Salad fave) Steven Pinker's response to a donation request from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), publishers of that mag. Negatory, Pinker said. He argues (convincingly) that AAAS's strident leftism harms the effort to inform the public of accurate scientific fact. He offers examples, and here's one:

    Science magazine appears to have adopted wokeism as its official editorial policy and the only kind of opinion that may be expressed in the magazine. An example is the recent special section on the underrepresentation of African Americans among physics majors, graduate students, and faculty members. This situation is lamentable and worthy of understanding. But the six articles in the issue assume as dogma that the underrepresentation is caused by “white privilege”: that “the dominant culture has discouraged diversity,” and “white people use their membership in a dominant group to assert political, cultural, and economic power over those outside that group.” Though Science is ordinarily committed to open debate on scientific controversies, no disagreements with this conspiracy theory were expressed. And though the journal is supposedly committed to empirical tests, no data were presented that might speak to alternative explanations, such as that the cause of the under-representation lies in the pipeline of prepared and interested students. If we want to increase the number of African Americans in physics, it matters a great deal whether we should try to fix the nation’s high schools or accuse physics professors of white supremacy. Yet Science magazine has decided, without debate or data, to advocate the latter.

    In addition to Pinker's complete response, The link (to Jerry Coyne's website, Why Evolution is True) also contains the text of the AAAS solicitation letter, and a curt response from Holden Thorp, an AAAS journal editor.

    So (back to the Freeman article) why wait to cancel your Science subscription? Because they recently published an article "acknowledging something that passionate global warmists on the left would prefer that it didn’t": Use of ‘too hot’ climate models exaggerates impacts of global warming.

  • Yeah, I'm one of those freeze peach people too. Astral Codex Ten moves in rarefied circles, and reports back to us normies back east: Every Bay Area House Party.

    “So what do you do?”

    “Nothing. I got fired a few weeks ago.”

    “Oh, I’m sorry.”

    “No, it’s fine. You know what they say. People are like clay pots - getting fired just makes them stronger.”

    “I never heard anyone say that.”

    “No, really, it’s fine. I’m not even bitter. Just - five years working on the Trust And Safety team at Twitter, and Musk comes in and fires me just like that.”

    “Oh, you were involved in that!”

    “Yeah - are you smirking? You’re not one of those freeze peach people, are you?”

    “I guess sort of . . . “

    “Whatever, I know everyone hates us. But let me tell you, it’s not all just banning any conservative who gets too popular, or burying stories that embarrass the establishment candidate a week before an election. We did good, important work.”

    “Like what?”

    “Like - have you heard of the Temple of Artemis? One of the Seven Wonders of the World. Burned down not by a Christian or a Muslim, but by a random Greek guy who wanted his name to be remembered by history, and figured that burning the most beautiful building in the world would ensure it. The Greeks responded by banning anyone from mentioning or recording his name, but the historian Theopompus wrote it down anyway, and it’s survived to the current day. No, I won’t tell it to you. Anyway, I was going to lead a consortium with the censors at Google, Wikipedia, Facebook, all the big name sites. We were finally going to complete the ancient Greeks’ work. We were going to memory-hole this guy’s name from the Internet. Even the people at Amazon were going to be on board - they would stop selling editions of the Theopompus book that gives his name. And then, finally, the burning of the Artemision would be properly avenged. We were this close! And then some dumb billionaire waltzes in and says ‘muh free speech’ and ruins everything!”

    It's really funny satire, and it's free. Check it out.

Last Modified 2024-01-22 9:21 AM EDT