The lavatory facilities at Trisha’s bar, that glorious survivor of old Soho, adorned with photos of Al Capone and the pope, bear a legend written at eye level: ‘USE AS URINAL ONLY. NO SITTING.’ Except someone – I believe they are known usually as a ‘wag’ – has inserted an H into the final word, rendering it an equally familiar (and, arguably, more appropriate) piece of Anglo-Saxon. Or ought that to be Proto-Indo-European? As John McWhorter informs us in Nine Nasty Words, the history of that graffitied verb (though, as he points out, it can also be a noun, an adjective, a pronoun and even ‘with a bit of adjustment’ an adverb) goes back to the word skei – used by steppe dwellers of yore and meaning ‘to cut off’. It really is fascinating, the things one can learn in a lavatory.
Skei’s modern-day descendant is one of nine words profiled by McWhorter in this spirited and scholarly history of profanities. As you’d expect in a work by a professor of linguistics, etymologies and tales of bastardisation form a sizeable proportion of each chapter. As is often the case, the myths are more fascinating than the actual cases of corruption of Latin, Norman or Middle English. There are people who believe that the little word found in the lavatorial corner of Trisha’s is in fact an acronym for ‘Ship High in Transit’ – relating to the seaborne transport of manure, though, as McWhorter points out, it was a word bandied merrily about by Chaucer and others long before the explosion in the guano trade.
There are also those who hold that the slur derived from the name of a female dog (of which we have written records in English from at least 1397) stands for ‘Being in Total Control Honey’. It’s rather pleasing to imagine Lady Margaret Beaufort or Elizabeth Woodville speaking in the manner of Joan Collins. While I was aware of the erroneous etymology of the word said to be an acronym for ‘Fornicating Under Consent of King’, it was particularly wonderful to learn that this word’s first written usage came from the hand of a cleric – a monk who in 1528 used it in some marginalia to refer to his clearly disliked abbot. I can’t help but think the letters page of the Church Times would be improved by such plain speaking, as opposed to the usual roundabout passive aggression.
The range of sources for anecdotes such as the one above is impressive. For instance, in the chapter on the now ubiquitous ‘damn’ and ‘hell’, McWhorter quotes sources as diverse as the Pardoner in The Canterbury Tales, Captain Corcoran in HMS Pinafore and the opening number of Legally Blonde: The Musical, which, I learned to my edification, is entitled ‘Omigod You Guys’. While on the whole this is a book about the joys of well-deployed swearing, the final example did make me wonder whether blasphemy laws were such a bad thing after all.
Perhaps because this is a book about language’s colloquial use, the Americanisms within seem more noticeable than in other tomes originating on the opposite side of the Atlantic. For example, when discussing the past tense of the verb so elegantly deployed in the lavatories at Trisha’s, McWhorter asserts that the form of the verb that rhymes with ‘bat’ seems affected or ‘arch’. In this country we might associate ‘arch’ with a waspish anecdote by Noël Coward, but not, I think, with tales of self-foulage that feature a particular past participle.
While the chapters on the old familiar profanities are ripe with interest, the most effective sections of the book are those about words that are considered, even in a society as permissive as ours, to be truly taboo. The chapter on the word whose usage is considered so offensive that it has caused the decline of its unfortunate near-homophone ‘niggardly’ (an unrelated term from the Norse for ‘miser’) is particularly enlightening, moving even. McWhorter is equally as sensitive in his chapter on an old term for a bundle of sticks, which is now more commonly used to mean ‘cigarette’, ‘meatballish concoction’ and ‘slur for a gay man’.
This book reminds us that profanities are both, as McWhorter puts it, ‘fertile’ in their ability to spawn and evolve and also, more importantly, essential. Even in a society which tells itself the half-truth that it treasures ‘free speech’, there are, indeed must be, words that are beyond the pale – words that can still shock, thrill or shame. It is to be hoped that neither permissiveness nor her twin sister, puritanism, will ever truly emasculate the English language of its nastier, danglier bits.