Book Corner 2021.53

by John McWhorter

Linguist John McWhorter gives us the derivation and analysis of the usage over the years of nine nasty words. Dirty words, profane words, taboo words.

I love the exploration of how the suffix “-ass” is evolving into a mere adjective identifier. McWhorter shows this in chart form (his charts are funny): In 1830, a “big-ass man” would be a man with a big ass. Starting around 1930, a “big-ass man” would be a man who was surprisingly big. In 2300, it’ll just mean a big man. Apparently the pidgin that is the official language of Papua New Guinea treats “-fella”, which for them morphed into “-pela”, in the same way. A big guy is a “bigpela” guy, etc.

McWhorter is my age and I also like his usage of shows like THE JEFFERSONS to illustrate points.

And for the first time I’ve seen in print, someone comments on that extremely annoying “young female” accent that drives me up a wall, where short -e is pronounced like a short -a. I.e. instead of “My Mom is dead,” it comes out “My Mom is Dad” (I’m taking that example from a filthy old Daniel Tosh clip). Uuuuuuuugh, I hate this so much! As a linguist, though, McWhorter isn’t judgy about these things.

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