Nine Nasty Words by John McWhorter

Title and author printed stylistically on an orange background

I read this one just for fun. Think of it as a modern version of George Carlin’s seven words you can’t say on TV. I used to listen to the author’s podcast Lexicon Valley, so I knew what to expect. While he is a linguistics professor at Columbia, he is also down-to-earth, funny, and entertaining.

Profanity in English has gone through a series of great shifts. Initially, bad words were those related to religion such as “damn” and “hell”. Then as religion became less important in every day life during the Enlightenment, cursing moved to those words related to our bodies like “fuck”, “shit”, “ass”, “dick”, and “pussy”. Today, the most profane and forbidden words are those that slur others. I almost hate to write them here, but the two he covers in the book are “nigger” and “faggot”. While I have used many of the others (and often still do), I never use the last two.

There is a chapter on each of these words. In each, the author goes over not only the word itself but how it became profane. He also covers any other versions of it and some fascinating insights. Here is one example.

As we take our leave from fuck, I can’t help mentioning that on ye olde Fucker John and the descent of his surname from an antique French name Fulcher, I refrained from mentioning one of the chance renditions of the original word. One outcome of Fulcher, as humans rolled it around in their mouths over the generations, was Folger. Those of us who remember television’s Mrs. Olson, as well as those of us who are in on the fact that instant coffee is actually somewhat better than one might think despite the cultural penetration of Starbucks, can enjoy that on a certain abstract level, there are people across America starting their day with a good hot cup of Fucker’s Coffee.

This book was a fun romp through the crazy evolution of bad language. I recommend it to anyone who ever wondered about some of the profanity that is used in English, “Why do we say that?”

My rating: 4/5

Highly Irregular by Akira Okrent

A highly stylized presentation of the the book title and author

Language fascinates me, and not just English. I have studied in school French, Russian, and German. And I have learned some of at least a half dozen other languages using Duolingo. I am particularly interested in the history and oddities of language, English in particular, in books like Eats, Shoots & Leaves. The latest book I’ve read along these lines is Highly Irregular: Why Tough, Through, and Dough Don’t Rhyme–And Other Oddities of the English Language by Akira Okrent.

In short little essays, this book answers questions like “How can an exception prove a rule?” and “Why do noses run and feet smell?” or even “Why is there an ‘r’ in Mrs.?” Some answers are more clear cut than others. Most have their roots in the Norman conquest, the roots of English as a Germanic language, or the evolution of natural language use. But all are presented in an entertaining style that had me laughing out loud at times.

This book isn’t for the linguist in anyone. It’s for those of us who get frustrated by the weirdness that is the English language and are curious about how it got the way it is. It isn’t a dry and dusty history but a fun jaunt through the crazy walkabout that is the history of the English language.

My rating: 4/5