The pandemic left many unable to concentrate enough to read a book, let alone write one. But Columbia linguistics professor John McWhorter somehow managed to pen not one, but two new titles.
The New York Times bestseller Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever, out now, is a gleeful foray into top taboos, tracing the history and culture of profanity, while Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America, due out this fall and serialized on Substack, is a penetrating critique of the ascendant anti-racist ideology.
Here, the famed author and podcaster talks to The Globe about balancing these two sides of himself, the joys of cursing – and why he feels compelled to speak out.
You have two books out in 2021. What was it like for you toggling between your linguist self and your race commentator self?
There are two mes. There’s the jolly linguist me, and then there’s the quote-unquote contrarian me – and they don’t run on the same track. Nine Nasty Words is a book I wrote because I wanted to write about my favourite curse word.
Let’s start with that one, then. The f-word. Reading that chapter, I was thinking about how during the Trump era, you saw journalists begin to use it in their work. The trend tells you about the emotionality of the writing, but it also tells you that it’s no longer such a taboo.
That word no longer qualifies as profanity that any anthropologist would recognize. When we think of what our bad words are, there’s a certain collection of words that comes immediately to mind. But really the status of words like that changes over the years. We are experiencing fuck doing that right now. The truth is, I probably say it a good five or six times a day. And I am really a bookish, starchy, reserved person. I say it so much because people like me use it that way. Whereas my parents did not use it that much, and they were like me. They were reserved people. But like me, they liked their liquor, and they could let loose sometimes. But for them, it was shit. That’s gotten me thinking: Well, what is my profanity? And the profanity is what we call slurs.
You also write about another f-word, the one sometimes used to refer to gay men. Walk us through how that word has evolved.
That one had the most weird transmogrification. It begins meaning a bundle of sticks. We have to remember that for somebody a thousand years ago, a bundle of sticks was a key element of keeping warm and being able to cook food. You think, a bundle of sticks, what an odd thing – but to them, that’s like a basic energy source. It is also, because of its physicality, something they could use to fill out a group of, for example, soldiers. You could stand a bunch of faggots up on end to make it look like you had more soldiers than you did. So that lends a sense that this bundle of sticks has a kind of anthropomorphization.
Next thing you know, people are calling women that. If you are a woman, then unfortunately in many quarters, it’s thought that that means you’re weak. If so, you can understand how it would jump to being used for gay men – to imply that a gay man is somehow weaker than quote-unquote a real man. What starts as something that you throw on the fire becomes a reference for a man who sleeps with other men. Which is a bizarre series of transformations. Language does that. Some words change more than others.
You have a chapter on the n-word, which has become the ultimate taboo. A California business professor was recently suspended for saying a Chinese word that sounded like that word. What would be an appropriate policy for that word?
We need to go back to about 1990. I really do think that it was better 30 years ago. You don’t use the word, you do not refer to people as the word, but within reason you can utter the word in order to refer to it. That difference between usage and reference – I think it’s a little fake to pretend that there’s no difference.
I can recall any number of conversations in the ’90s and in the aughts, and even into the teens, where a white person said the word in order to set us upon the topic that we were going to discuss, and that wasn’t considered offensive. That was considered just human ability to distinguish between one thing and another. I would like to go back to that. Because to only be able to say “the n-word” implies a certain professional delicacy among Black people that I don’t think represents the way most of us think. Once you step away from Twitter, I don’t think that most Black people are that sensitive about it. I don’t think most Black people minded the way it was in 1990.
I wanted to ask you about a term you use, “the elect.” What does that mean?
The elect, of course, was the other book I have coming out this year and was written in a very different mood. The elect are people who believe, as an inheritance from critical race theory, that battling power differentials should be central to all intellectual, moral and artistic endeavours. They believe that anyone who disagrees with them deserves a public shaming and a general deprivation of their titles, possibly their job, any honours that they’ve had. The elect is not the left; the elect is not the hard left. The elect is the hard left who are mean.
If there were no such thing as Twitter, there could be no elect. It’s “if you disagree with us, we’re going to call you a racist on Twitter.” A lot of people, frankly, are scared to their socks to be called something like that. There have always been one or two people like the elect in any room, in journalism and in academia. But now they have a disproportionate power. And it’s not right. The vision of the world that they have starts with something sensible, but then takes it way too far.
As a culture, we are obsessed with language, which must be interesting for you as a linguist. But I’ve heard you talk about the dangers of making language the main focus of social change.
This constant policing of language – where you walk around worried that about 50 things that might spontaneously pop out of your mouth are wrong and get you chased out of the room – that’s new. That idea that policing language is an integral part of trying to forge change in the world. I’m a linguist. I like words. And I know that words can help change the way you think of things to an extent.
But beyond a certain point, the language policing is simply more fun. And easier, because all you have to say is, “Say differently abled, don’t say disabled.” As opposed to going out into the world and forging political change the way people used to do. Real politics can be kind of dull. And it involves getting out of your chair.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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