Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter – Then, Now, and Forever

Fergus Butler-Gallie at Literary Review:

The lavatory facilities at Trisha’s bar, that glorious survivor of old Soho, adorned with photos of Al Capone and the pope, bear a legend written at eye level: ‘USE AS URINAL ONLY. NO SITTING.’ Except someone – I believe they are known usually as a ‘wag’ – has inserted an H into the final word, rendering it an equally familiar (and, arguably, more appropriate) piece of Anglo-Saxon. Or ought that to be Proto-Indo-European? As John McWhorter informs us in Nine Nasty Words, the history of that graffitied verb (though, as he points out, it can also be a noun, an adjective, a pronoun and even ‘with a bit of adjustment’ an adverb) goes back to the word skei  used by steppe dwellers of yore and meaning ‘to cut off’. It really is fascinating, the things one can learn in a lavatory.

Skei’s modern-day descendant is one of nine words profiled by McWhorter in this spirited and scholarly history of profanities. As you’d expect in a work by a professor of linguistics, etymologies and tales of bastardisation form a sizeable proportion of each chapter.

more here.