Magazine November 1, 2021, Issue

The Uses of Profanity

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Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter — Then, Now, and Forever, by John McWhorter (Avery, 288 pp., $24)

Swearing, or cursing, is slang often with blasphemy, sometimes with physiology, more recently with personal insult added. Men traditionally swore more than women, but there is some evidence that the gap here is slowly closing. Some settings — prison, the athletic field and locker room, the military — are difficult to imagine free of swearing. When I was in the Army I once heard a fellow soldier say, “The motherf***ing mother f***er motherf***ed me,” a sentence I still admire for its economy.

Swearing can also be artful. In my late adolescence I worked with a man named Bob Larman, a man

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This article appears as “Expletives Repeated” in the November 1, 2021, print edition of National Review.

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Joseph Epstein — Mr. Epstein is the author, most recently, of Gallimaufry, a Collection of Essays, Reviews, Bits.

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