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Author Explains Why Those 4-Letter Words Are So Satisfying To Say Out Loud

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It may be hard to tell on the air, but I am a huge fan of profanity. Sometimes, you know, there is just no other word that can quite replicate the f-bomb. You know what I'm saying? Of course you do. Well, a new book explores why, out of all the words out there, four-letter ones are so satisfying to say out loud, and it looks at how illicit language has evolved over the centuries. This new book is called "Nine Nasty Words: English In The Gutter," and it was written by linguist John McWhorter. It's such a pleasure to have you with us.

JOHN MCWHORTER: Thank you for having me.

CHANG: So I don't think I need to explain to you that we obviously cannot say on the air most of the words that you write about in this book. But...

MCWHORTER: We can't have that. No.

CHANG: (Laughter) Can't have that. But the story of what we can and cannot say in spaces like the radio is a part of your book. And I just want to start with, what is so delicious about profanity? Like, what makes an ideal swear word?

MCWHORTER: Well, you know, profanity is delicious because it's the way that we use language to transgress. So it's not that these are words that somehow exist but aren't allowed to be used. The informal agreement is that we will use them sometimes, and it is to erupt, to try to create intimacy. You're going somewhat beyond the boundaries. And in English, the ideal curse word is monosyllabic and has consonants on both ends, and that's part of why a certain curse word beginning with F is often the most satisfactory one.

CHANG: Oh, yeah.

MCWHORTER: What you need is a nice, crisp eruption to allow you to blow off a certain amount of steam with something that used to be a word but now is more a gesture.

CHANG: Right. I love that - crisp eruption. I absolutely love crisp eruptions.

MCWHORTER: (Laughter).

CHANG: And you write that swear words - they actually show up in a different part of our brain than does regular language, right?

MCWHORTER: Isn't that interesting...

CHANG: Yeah.

MCWHORTER: ...That they're generated from the right side of the brain, which is, you know, the Dionysian, creative, id-y (ph) side, as opposed to the left side, which is where most people process language in the vanilla sense of, Billy bounced the ball down the hill.

CHANG: (Laughter) Uh-huh.

MCWHORTER: And so you have real words on the left side, but if you erupt with something, that's a right-brain kind of thing. And that's why profanity, in a way, is not words. It's something that's done with words. It used to be that the way that you profaned was to be blasphemous. It was about God, and therefore you have damn and hell. Then it becomes about the body, and it becomes the things that we today most readily consider to be profanity, such as the things that I can't say. And now we've moved to a new phase where what the anthropologists would recognize as our profanity is what we think of as slurs against groups.

CHANG: Right. Can we talk a little bit more about the F-word? Because this is - as I said, this is my all-time favorite swear word. What is it about this word, John? Why is it so pleasing to say out loud?

MCWHORTER: It is.

CHANG: Let's talk about that.

MCWHORTER: There is something about it. That word ends up being so pleasing. And part of why it has wound up being so prolific grammatically in the language...

CHANG: Oh, yeah.

MCWHORTER: ...Although some of these things are about chance, is that, you know, you've got a consonant up in the front. You've got a consonant at the end, and the one at the end is a nice snap, that nice kuh (ph). And it's a monosyllable. It feels eruptive. It almost feels transgressive. You feel like you're - you know, you're emitting this chunk of nasty.

CHANG: Absolutely.

MCWHORTER: And so that word really does feel good. It's my favorite, too. You could do a whole book about the F-word, and that's been done. But I decided to cover the other words as well.

CHANG: Right. Well, let's talk about some of the other words because I want to move on to what is perhaps the most forbidden word these days in the English language, and that is the N-word. I mean, what do you think makes the N-word so totally different from any of these other forbidden words that you talk about in the book?

MCWHORTER: Well, it's always been a very potent slur. And it's a slur that's indexed to possibly the foundational injustice of the history of this country. But I think that if you've been around in terms of media for about the past 30 years, you can't help but have noticed a certain change in how it's processed. And so it's gotten from it being a slur, but one that you can use citationally with a certain amount of taste. You can refer to it. You know, usually you're criticizing it. But it's gone from that agreement to it getting to the point now where you're not supposed to even refer to it, and you're supposed to avoid even saying words that sound like it.

CHANG: Yeah.

MCWHORTER: What that is is taboo. That's what - if we were an anthropologist examining a group on the other side of the planet, we'd think, this is their taboo. And we think we are beyond taboo, but no, no. We have taboo, too. And so what we're seeing is that we are concerned with other delicate things now.

CHANG: You write that you have these pretty conflicted feelings about it. As a Black man, as a linguist, as a parent, how do you feel when you see Black people appropriating this word?

MCWHORTER: It doesn't matter. And I'm not saying that to be flippant. But you can't have a funeral for the N-word where you're trying to get Black men to stop using it that way. It's - you know, the horse is out of the barn. People appropriate words, slurs, and make them into terms of affection. That happens in languages around the world. In a way, it would be almost odd if that hadn't happened to the N-word. It was almost inevitable. And then you get the issue of, it's in Black English rather than standard English, and so it has slightly different sounds. It's a very rich thing.

To me, I must admit that I personally do not need people to never utter the word at all, even in reference. As a Black person, I have never felt that I needed that particular courtesy. I'm a little perplexed as to how it's gotten that way from the way it was in the '90s. But in terms of it having two meanings, to me, as a linguist, I look...

CHANG: Yeah.

MCWHORTER: ...At language descriptively, and I think that's neat. It's interesting that they're two words. But that's me looking at it with my weird linguist ears. To many people, it's just one word. And they ask, well, how come they can...

CHANG: Yeah.

MCWHORTER: ...Use it and we can't? That's going to be an endless confusion.

CHANG: Well, as a linguist, as someone who can see and appreciate the different uses of swear words, I'm just curious - as a parent, what does it feel like when you hear your little kids swear? Like, is there a part of you that thinks to yourself, you know, I'm a linguist. I'm just going to let this moment sit because it's kind of neat how they're using this word right now?

MCWHORTER: You got it. That really is it. I curse like a sailor around them.

CHANG: (Laughter).

MCWHORTER: And they know not to overdo it themselves. But actually, my younger one, in particular - the 6-year-old now and then will toss off that something is - well, there's a word for crummy that begins with shuh (ph).

CHANG: (Laughter).

MCWHORTER: And she'll use that word. Why do I have to have the shh one? And she has a little glint in her eye, and I think she knows she's not supposed to say that. She's heard me say it. She's learning how to wangle these most complex of words. And I actually devote the book to that one of my children. And I figure, you know, they're going to be using these words with their friends in a few years all the time...

CHANG: Yeah.

MCWHORTER: ...And then carefully not using them around me while I'm going to be using them with all of my friends. Why in the world can't we be more honest about this? Because the real profanity, I don't want them to ever use and I don't use, and that's the slurs. And so that...

CHANG: Yes.

MCWHORTER: ...For me, is how people felt about the F-word and the S-word 50 years ago. So, yeah, I do like watching them learn how to use some of the most complex and nuanced words in the language. That's fun for me as a parent and as a linguist.

CHANG: I love it. John McWhorter's new book is called "Nine Nasty Words: English In The Gutter: Then, Now, And Forever." This was such a delight, John. Thank you so much for joining us.

MCWHORTER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF PETER BJORN AND JOHN'S "LET'S CALL IT OFF (GIRL TALK REMIX)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.