Hi Reddit! I’m John McWhorter, professor of linguistics, American studies, and music history at Columbia University and host of the Lexicon Valley podcast on Slate. I’ve written multiple books that examine the way we speak, write, and read.

In my new book, NINE NASTY WORDS, I investigate nine of our favorite curse words from every angle – historical, sociological, political, and linguistic – to show how, as language evolves, so, too, does what we consider profane or unspeakable. I share where our urge to curse comes from(hint: it’s not the same part of the brain that processes speech), why “hell” is the most confoundingly illogical swear word, and why you do, in fact, need all of those different slang words for “phallus,” among other topics, with the goal of helping readers understand what makes these (mostly) 4-letter words so much more than words.

If you have questions about the origin of the word “f*ck,” today’s most taboo swear words, George Carlin’s infamous comedy routine, or just want to share your favorite piece of profanity, I am here for it. AMA!

Proof: https://twitter.com/JohnHMcWhorter/status/1389282983278960643

Comments: 211 • Responses: 31  • Date: 

KeyboardLime74 karma

Hi John McWhorter, I just listened to your interview with Reason and it was very interesting. Thanks for doing an AMA.

I was raised Mormon, and we were taught to never say swear words. I didn't even say "crap" until my teens. But we had "clean" swear words like darn, heck, frick, etc. I always thought that was dumb because it just fulfills the same purpose as swearing. What do you think about "clean" swear word substitutes, and where do they come from?

jhmcw593 karma

The "clean" ones are deliberate distortions of the real ones, and show that all people need ways to express extreme emotion through eruptive words, even if the words are phonetically transformed.

jhmcw542 karma

Folks -- I have to catch a plane! Thanks for all of your questions!

Redhead186227 karma

I saw you on Morning Joe this week mention that curses used to be about religion, then body parts, and now slurs. Do you have any thoughts on where curse words are evolving to next?

jhmcw532 karma

Hard to say -- that would take major imagination. More groups, definitely -- maybe class, maybe issues of disability. But beyond the groups, wow, who knows. Maybe the impending end of the planet as we know it?


Why is there such cultural differences around the word "cunt" within the anglosphere? Here in Australia we use it for everything, daily, but elsewhere people get quite upset.

jhmcw528 karma

I suspect this is chance. There's a temptation to say it's that sexism is more rampant there (and in Britain) than here, but I doubt that. It's just that words have randomly different trajectories in different dialects. Take when a British person is asked "Why are you so wet" and get the answer "Well, I didn't have my raincoat on, did I?" In America we don't use the DID I? kind of tag in that way, and the reason is just how the cookie crumbled here as opposed to there.

chubwhump18 karma

Do you study cursing in English vs other languages? How does our lexicon of offensiveness differ from that of other countries?

jhmcw536 karma

Some languages focus on religion in cursing (Canadian French), some on body things (German), some just magnify certain abusive words as especially "potent" (Japanese). A good book on this is Benjamin Bergen's WHAT THE F.

LinoleumFulcrum17 karma

Hullo Prof. McWhorter!

I absolutely love listening to you speak and find your reason and demeanor to be very refreshing in our current world of "extremes" and forced dichotomies.

I haven't yet read your new book, but I wonder what your thoughts on the perpetual "euphemism treadmill" are within the context of cursing as you discuss in your book?

Thank you!

jhmcw519 karma

The treadmill and profanity are both about meaning change. But with profanity, it's meanings weakening over time -- AWFUL used to mean what AWESOME does now but can now refer to cold scrambled eggs. FUCK used to REALLY be a bad word -- while the treadmill is about old meanings settling upon new words used to refer to the same process.

andshewas1815 karma

Hi Professor McWhorter, thank you so much for taking the time to do this! My first question is: you've said slurs are currently the nastiest of the nasty words, but things evolve with culture. Predictions for what's next?

jhmcw520 karma

See above! Maybe climate change jokes will become taboo as the planet heats up ... it's all about what is most on people's minds and causes discomfort.

ya_boy_bos13 karma

Prof. McWhorter, former student of yours here (this spring)! Can you recall other periods in American (or global) history when language has been such a cultural flashpoint? Recent years have produced a kind of social prescriptivism that connects language use (and many specific words) to politics and social beliefs. Do you think this is a passing phenomenon? Or is has language been ‘discovered’ as an important tool for social change?

jhmcw520 karma

I suspect people felt like language was changing just as rapidly and disorientingly during the Second Wave Feminist revolution 50 years ago where many people felt like "suddenly you can't say anything." But before that, I can't think of a time -- the social revolutions in America of the 1960s were truly unprecedented and their impact is still reverberating in how we conceive of language.

Anonymous3710 karma

Dear Professor McWhorter,

I have a chunk of pork in my mouth and I'm not planning on chewing it or swallowing it. Do you have any idea if it's possible for my saliva to dissolve the chunk and, if it is possible, can you say how long it will take for my saliva to dissolve the piece of pork?

Yours truly,


jhmcw538 karma

Your mouth only has amylase, which breaks down sugars. To break down the meat you need pepsin, which it would only get in the stomach. So I suspect the pork will just rot in your mouth and hurt you. I'm sorry!

imk9 karma

In a situation where an American would say "Fuck!" a Spanish person would say "Me cago en la hostia". Instead of saying "Fuck you!" they might say "Me cago en tus muertos". To me, as an American, that seems like a lot of work when a four letter word would suffice. Has the art of cursing leaned towards smaller profanities over times? Are we lazy at cursing?

jhmcw523 karma

English curses tend to be one syllable with crisp initial and final consonants. But the essence of cursing is what people curse ABOUT, and that can be done through savory phrases as well as tart little yelps. That varies from language to language and culture to culture.

unikuenobody9 karma

Big fan. Read most of your work. My beloveds are The Language Hoax and All About The Beat.

What are your views on Shakespeare? Is it important to teach nowadays?

Oh, when I heard this song, I thought I hope Professor McWhorter heard it. Lupe Fiasco – Dinosaurs.

jhmcw521 karma

Thanks. All About the Beat?!?!??! That's my biggest flop - never even went into paperback. Thanks for liking it! Shakespeare is very important but I wish he would taught in altered versions where the words that no longer have the meanings we expect were changed -- generous should be changed to noble, wit often to knowledge, and so on. It's too hard to truly appreciate what he's saying without reading it beforehand otherwise. Many think I'm crazy about that. Hate to say I draw a blank on the song ... !

VeraciousIdiot9 karma

What are your thoughts on George Carlin's bit about "dirty words", and his criticisms of how people use language?

jhmcw521 karma

Well, his idea that we simply give the words power was deft, but technically missed that we do that because language needs forms that allow us to savor the joys of transgression. As such, they become something OTHER than what we think of "words" as being. FUCK as an exclamation is NOT a matter of saying "have sex with" and according it special power -- it is that original word transformed into a transgressive tool.

TaaTaasb7 karma

How do you think more and more communication taking place in written form, as a result of social media, has affected the dynamics of what is considered profane and how language is policed more generally?

jhmcw513 karma

It's less writing versus speech than the nature of social media in general, which allows more language policing in that we communicate so much on line, and the internet also allows endlessly replayable audio and video clips. So we can pay closer attention to how "the country" speaks. This has helped transform slurs into being treated as "taboo" -- i.e. profanity.

CypripediumCalceolus7 karma

Sometimes words are severly punished, while the same culture looks fondly upon certain forms of physical violence. What is going on?

jhmcw518 karma

Words can become tools, gestures, weapons of a sort, and can even hit "deeper" than physical injury in their precision. This would explain this in part. Also, words / profanity intersects with taboo, which is a different thing from physical abuse, and a culture may police the former more than the latter (and probably quite often does).

ilrasso7 karma

I have heard that in Russian a swear exists that is so bad that no-one uses it. Do you know if that is the case in English/other languages?

jhmcw530 karma

Yes -- that has become the N-word! The IDEA, at least, is that we are never to utter it in any way at all. Not sure what that Russian word is -- they make most use of their words that translate roughly as pussy, dick, and butt, laced with lots of things about copulating and mothers.

Cheer-wino6 karma

Hi Prof. McWhorter, big fan of yours! Movies seem to make great use of selective profanity (think, GWTW's "frankly my dear, I don't give a damn" or A Christmas Story's "FUUUDGGE"). Do you have any favorite movie lines with nasty words?

jhmcw518 karma

The best line for me is a euphemism in 1939 -- THE WOMEN when Joan Crawford's Crystal says near the end "There's a word for ladies like you but you don't use it outside of a kennel"! And the play it was based on didn't use this line or the word it refers to -- this was just for the film. Great writing.

mister_ghost6 karma

I'm curious about the trajectory of individual curses through history: what's the typical path from "ordinary word" to "inappropriate in polite company" to "quaint, old timey phrase that might startle your grandparents"? Does offensiveness usually ramp up quite quickly and then taper off over decades?

What's the normal lifespan for a curse, and are there any curses notable for breaking the mold (either very short-lived or very long lived)?

jhmcw512 karma

The longevity varies, but the inevitable trajectory is not into impotence. Rather, it can just settle into "salty," as SHIT and FUCK essentially have. Also, they tend to be spiced up as they weaken -- MOTHERfucker, BULLshit, GODdamn and so on.

sweeney68w6 karma

Can you sum up what those 9 nasty words are - in nine words or less ?

jhmcw58 karma

It's really 12. Damn, hell, fuck, shit, ass, dick, pussy, c--t, faggot, bitch, motherfucker, and the N-word.

EerieDoctrain5 karma

Do you really consider damn and hell in the same category as the rest? Also is mf in your opinion a separate word from f, and not just a compound word or variant?

jhmcw514 karma

Not really -- they have lost their sting, but they are so conventionally included on the "list of dirty words," and also illustrate how curses change in their subject matter over time. And MF is indeed a compound based on F, but to include it in the F chapter made it too long. Plus, MF has a very specific meaning, including a cultural specificity as time goes by, that justified to me giving it a separate treatment.

Calartian6 karma

Prof. McWhorter -- has there been any research on the parental curse filter that seems to turn on as soon as you have kids? I noticed that I never 'cursed' in front of my kids (at least until they grew up a little). I think it was unconscious, and I wonder what the psychology behind that is and what it signifies in terms of the function of cursing.

jhmcw52 karma

Well, the words are "bad" and thus are thought to be especially inappropriate around "virgin ears." I actually have never handled the words that way around my kids -- but am told that the danger is that they will curse at school or around other kids whose parents feel differently. But, the status of the words is why that "filter" comes on.

andshewas185 karma

Which nasty word do you use the most and why? Which is your favorite?

jhmcw514 karma

Xander Schultz
May 11, 2021 • 14:00

I think FUCK is my main one. I say it more than many might suppose I do, in situations where my parents preferred SHIT. That's partly the language changing -- SHIT lost a certain potency that FUCK has always retained. In my mental play mode I also enjoy MOTHERFUCKER in all of its shades.

EerieDoctrain3 karma

Question about the N-word: I understand that it's taboo, but why do you list it as "profanity"? They way I see it, the rest of the profane words are things said in frustration or for emphasis. N word is just hate speech, it's never used in the same context. By way of comparison, other racial slurs are also verboten in polite company, even if they don't have the same severity as the N word, but at least on the same level of taboo-ness as the f word, yet you don't list any of them.

jhmcw59 karma

True -- but the issue is what anthropological place the words have in a society, within which there can variation in usage / delivery mechanism. Also, the other racial slurs are mostly a little archaic and don't have the iconic status of the N-word.

missfarin3 karma

Are there any curse words that have fallen out of fashion that you think are ripe for a comeback?

jhmcw517 karma

I like "Tarnation!" which was said by "old gold prospector" types in the nineteenth century. It's not quite profane, but useful. It kind of evolved into DARN, but TARNATION had a more artisanal flavor.

jef_united3 karma

I listened to your Great Courses (Story of Human Language, Myths/Lies of Language Usage) and enjoyed them greatly. Will you be self-narrating an audiobook version of this?

jhmcw53 karma

I already did! I think it's already available, come to think of it ...

andshewas183 karma

Which part of the brain does our urge to curse come from?!?! This is interesting!!

jhmcw59 karma

The URGE is beyond my purview, but the eruption is from the right side!

Blinky-the-Doormat2 karma

Hey John! I love your books and lectures and this sounds like a really fun one. Are you also going to narrate it for the audio version?

Are there examples of words that were once profane, but now pedestrian?

jhmcw53 karma

I have done the audio version indeed -- interesting sessions! And DAMN and HELL are basically what you are describing -- I almost left them out of the book.

andshewas182 karma

Where should I go to buy NINE NASTY WORDS? I.e., what's your favorite bookstore in NYC?

Cheer-wino5 karma

Oooh, along those lines, will you be doing any book signings or offering signed book plates or anything?

jhmcw52 karma

I don't think so, this time, for the obvious reason ... sorry!

jhmcw54 karma

I probably don't need to direct to you where most people will inevitably buy it, but my favorite NYC bookstore is now the Barnes & Noble at Union Square. It used to be the Borders down near the Battery, but everything dies ...

Genius-Imbecile2 karma

Whats your favorite fucking taco?

jhmcw55 karma

Ones I make from those little box kits at home. I hate to admit I have never been much for real (as opposed to dried up and fake) tortillas.

alternative-guy2 karma

What can you tell us about nasty words in Mexico?

What are they based on?

Why is it like that?

jhmcw53 karma

I know nothing on that, alas!

missfarin2 karma

Was there anything you came across while writing the book that surprised you?

jhmcw513 karma

I never knew COCK could refer to a female part. The evolution of FAGGOT is also quite bizarre. I didn't know either that ANIGGA has become basically a pronoun meaning "I".