Mark Twain once said, “Under certain circumstances, urgent circumstances, desperate circumstances, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer.” Few among us can deny ever being driven to say naughty words in urgent situations, and some utilize euphemisms, like “son of a sea cook!” and “gosh darn it!” with a power that outstrips even the overused f-word. Still, English is so expressively bountiful that some find it amusing to come up with new euphemisms, but as profanities have become more common in everyday communication, slurs ( “disparaging remarks or aspersions”) persist in conveying great vehemence. John McWhorter’s new bestseller, “Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever,” explores “the realms of language that are considered shocking and taboo in order to understand what imbues curse words with such power--and why we love them so much.”
McWhorter’s credentials, as outlined by Wikipedia, include, “American linguist and associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, where he teaches linguistics, American studies, philosophy, and music history.” The NYTimes.com review of his book, described McWhorter as an “academic linguist, public intellectual, commentator on race, Black man, parent, New Yorker and a dozen other McWhorters.” He’s well-positioned to explore the “N-word,” which 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.
There are about as many takes on what’s profane as there are human beings, and have been, as McWhorter phrased it, “then, now, and forever.” For example, take a word often associated with Native Americans: “ugh.” The Online Etymology Dictionary reports that “ugh” was first noted in 1765 as an “imitative of the sound of a cough” (Edgar Allen Poe used it in the coughing sense in his 1846 “The Cask of Amontillado”). “Ugh” was first recorded as “an interjection of disgust” in 1822, but James Fenimore Cooper wrote “The Last of the Mohicans” in 1826 and had some of his Native American characters say “hugh!” (pronounced “hug”), which he and subsequent authors and movie and TV scriptwriters shortened to “ugh.” The online blogger who wrote “Why Indians Say ‘Ugh’” claimed that “Cooper makes no effort to associate ‘ugh’ with a word in a language. ‘Ugh’ is just a noise that Indians make, as if by instinct … It is the ‘usual and expressive exclamation of Cooper’s Mohican heroes, Uncas and Chingachgook … After the success of Cooper’s tales, the stage was set for other writers to assign their Indians a crude, monosyllabic ‘ugh ugh’ language.”
Today the richness and variety of Native American languages are fully established, but as E.B. White wrote, “books are people – people who have managed to stay alive by hiding between the covers of books,” and can remind us of the biased past. Cooper had denigrating things to say in his writings about other non-white races, all the while trying to cast them in a more positive light than was usual in those dark, racist days. He was a product of his times, just like Mark Twain who used the “n-word” liberally in “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” which has led some people to call for banning his classic from school use, despite the fact that the only admirable hero of “Huckleberry Finn” is the Black slave, Jim.
When the publisher NewSouth Books recently issued a bowdlerized version of “Huckleberry Finn” that replaced all the n-words with “slave,” McWhorter objected, pointing out that they “seem to be creating a baby-food version of Huckleberry Finn … because of feedback from teachers who claim the book has become ‘unteachable.’ I see. Eighth-graders are too unformed to understand the difference between someone calling someone else the n-word and an author using the word in an ancient book to reveal characters as ignorant. Interesting, given that the same eighth-graders hear the same word used by rappers daily and understand the difference between that usage — as a term of endearment — and the epithet one.” McWhorter didn’t object to the bowdlerized version being published, but did to it being used as a teaching tool.
NewSouth Books are on the slippery slope that historically lead to people like Hitler in modern times and Li Si, who was the Chancellor and principal advisor to Emperor Qin Shi Huang around 250 BCE. “Qin” (pronounced “chin,” as in “China”) is renowned as the unifier of the Chinese warring states into a single country in the 3rd century BCE, but Chancellor Li Si, not his Emperor Qin, was considered to be “one of the two or three most important figures in Chinese history” by the late John Knoblock, a University of Miami professor and a leading translator of ancient Chinese. Once Li Si, who rose to power by playing a very dirty and brutal brand of politics, met and impressed the future emperor Qin, he became Qin’s main advisor and persuaded him to enact measures that standardized weights and measurements, currencies, and writing scripts, but also some suppressing intellectual dissent, particularly writings he deemed dangerous. Books on medicine and agriculture and other “useful” technical subjects were OK, but poetry, history, politics and philosophy led to “free thinking,” and had to be quashed to unify the new country’s political views.
Qin signed edicts drawn up by Li Si that led to breath-taking cultural decimation in China that are known to history as “The Burning of Books and Burning of Scholars.” Only the ruling elite could have access to the “dangerous” reading materials, so, in 213 BCE untold thousands of rare and precious books were burned all across China, and anyone not burning their banned books within 30 days were sentenced to hard labor building the Great Wall. The next year, 460 “free-thinking” Confucian scholars were buried alive to suppress their teachings. Most everyone got the point.
Fortunately for posterity, many previously buried “dragon bones” survived. These are the ox scapula (flat shoulder bones) and turtle plastrons (flat underneath armor) on which diviners wrote questions to the gods before baking them until they cracked. Then the diviners (scapulamancers and plastronmancers) would interpret the cracks on the “oracle bones” to read the gods’ responses. The dragon bones reveal a wealth of information about how people lived 2,200 years ago. They were ground up and used in medicines for hundreds of years, but in 1899 Wang Yirong, Chancellor of the Imperial Academy in Beijing and a specialist in antique art, acquired some from an antiques dealer and recognized that the bones’ ancient markings were the ancestors of modern Chinese script.
Sadly, the next year Wang was caught up in the Boxer Rebellion and committed suicide. Not so sadly, Qin’s successor ordered Li Si tortured to confess his many misdeeds, then sentenced him to the Five Punishments: tattooing, cutting off the nose, amputation of feet, castration, and death, which was the waist chop (slowly sliced in two at the waist). As the German poet Heinrich Heine pointed out, “It is there, where they burn books, that eventually they burn people.”
Greg Hill is the former director of Fairbanks North Star Borough libraries. Contact him at 479-4344.