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Saturday, November 26, 2022

John McWhorter Takes a Serious Look at Profanity

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In his chapter on this ugliest of words, McWhorter gives a beautiful account of what it means to engage seriously with language as an individual with multiple personal and professional identities: academic linguist, public intellectual, commentator on race, Black man, parent, New Yorker and a dozen other McWhorters. The chapter is a replayable motion picture of a deeply thoughtful person wrestling with a live problem, resisting oversimplification and acknowledging that even provisional answers will always need revising as language and culture shift over time. The N-word is a particularly potent profanity, he acknowledges, but it is also “marvelous,” because its past and present invest it with “menace, filth, scorn, teasing, warmth, love and interracial outreach.” McWhorter’s take on this may not match the reader’s, he admits; but he sets an example for those who want to wrestle their way to a conclusion of their own.

Personal perspective, however, is not without pitfalls, and at several moments in the book I wondered if McWhorter’s opinion was masquerading as fact. “Butt cold,” he tells us, stems from the human backside’s maintaining a lower temperature than the rest of the person, a truth we must all have verified if we’ve laid hands on someone else’s “naked posterior.” “This is why no one says, ‘I’m butt hot,’” he concludes. Skeptical of this reasoning and in search of a supporting citation, I flipped to the book’s back end, where I found a hole: In lieu of a complete list of works consulted, McWhorter gives only a bare-bones selected bibliography in his notes. Determined to get to the bottom of the matter, I probed the relevant scientific literature: The gist is that butt temperature varies inversely with the quantity of fat covering the gluteal muscles; fat insulates the body and keeps its heat in. Because human females typically distribute a greater proportion of their fat to their buttocks than males do, it stands to reason that female buttocks would feel colder relative to the rest of their bodies.

If you’ve more often put your hands on a male’s naked posterior, your experience may be entirely different. And if we accept that not all butts are relatively cold, McWhorter’s etymology could be (1) false, because it’s based on an assumption drawn from personal experience, which he’s extrapolated to the universal; or (2) true, but worthy of a linguist’s careful analysis, because isn’t it interesting how and why unilateral perspectives accrete in the unlikeliest of places, not just in austere grammar tomes, but in slang like “butt cold” too?

Moments like these in which evidence is AWOL are not the only reason I’m petitioning for a bibliography. A fully sourced book would make it easier to identify (and praise) the places where McWhorter’s analysis of language is as original as his writing style. And it would showcase the omnivore’s feast of reference material he serves up in the book, where Thomas Hobbes, N.W.A. and the Elle Woods character in “Legally Blonde” comfortably share space in a chapter on “bitch.” Whether an author has leaned too heavily on one type of source or ably run the gamut like McWhorter, a bibliography renders that choice visible. Perhaps it’s time for readers who want to buy books that incorporate a diversity of perspectives to insist that nonfiction authors always ante up their sources in full.

I’m hammering hard on the lack of citations because I thought so highly of the book over all: It deserves to be taught in classrooms, and deserves to be quoted — not merely because its butt hot bons mots will be a hit at cocktail parties. “Nine Nasty Words” is a deeply intelligent celebration of language that teaches us how to see English in high definition and love it as it really is, right now and in its myriad incarnations to come.

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