This book appealed to me on two levels. On the more adult level, I have always been interested in linguistics and etymology. I am endlessly fascinated by the science of how languages interact, how they evolve, the history of words, etc. On the slightly more juvenile level, I was entertained by the notion of learning as much as possible about four letter words.
I would argue there is still something noble about that juvenile side of ourselves, however. I remember getting into arguments with my parents at a fairly young age over why some words were considered “dirty” while others weren’t. Why was it okay to say I had to “poop” but not okay to say I had to “shit”? Why was it okay for couples to have “intercourse” but not “fuck?” I love my parents and both of them are pretty amazing people, but their answers never satisfied me. The concept of swearing or cussing just didn’t make sense. So my interest in cursing was more than just snickering with friends over the F-word in the dictionary or trying to test my parents’ patience. It was about words, what they mean, how they evolved, and understanding their power.
Ruth Wajnryb does an excellent job probing this issue. She highlights all of the most obvious offensive words (F-word, C-word, “blasphemy,” etc.). She examines the subtle differences between swearing, cursing, blasphemy, expletives, obscenity, and profanity (did you know they’re all technically different?). She focuses both on the individual words themselves and the cultures in which they arose. She discusses why we cuss and how different cultures cultivate their swearing.
The best part of the book is that–even as an accomplished linguist–Wajnryb pulls it off without making it read like a textbook. This is highly engaging, funny, and accessible to the lay reader. If ever you have longed to learn more about dirty words, now is your chance. Appease your inner child and learn something in the process.