Nasty, Nasty, Nasty!

Brocken spectre over Glenridding

Oh, that nasty woman. Wait – isn’t Halloween about nasty women? A 1990 film released in English as The Nasty Girl was originally titled Das schreckliche Mädchen schrecklich here means something like awful or terrible, but it can also mean horrible in the Halloween-y sense.

Nasty  is rich with definitions. The Oxford English Dictionary dates nasty to the late 14th century and meaning filthy or dirty. Like a perfume with complex notes, nasty can also mean “offensive, annoying, contemptible” as well as “ill tempered, spiteful, and unkind.”

Nasty  also carries senses of moral corruption and, in British usage (says the OED), of persons “difficult to deal with or negotiate; dangerous.”

A thing that’s nasty, the dictionary tells us, is “unpleasant, disagreeable, objectionable, annoying” — modifiers that sound equally applicable to persons. Surprising, at least to me, is the OEDs note that the usage is now largely U.S. and specifically African-American. I recall British colleagues referring to more than one individual as “a nasty piece of work,” but maybe it was the company I was keeping.

To my ears, the word nasty has a period ring about it, something the Hays Code would have allowed in place of the word the screenwriter wanted.

To do the nasty is to have sex. Recent political developments have put the word pussy on the acceptable column of the journalist’s lexicon, though we haven’t yet made the same allowance for pussy’s four-letter sister, long defined as “a nasty name for a nasty thing.”

You may accuse me of being nasty-minded, a term that dates from 1871. The first citation is to nasty-minded women, a historical marker that just happens to suture nastiness to female identity.  A nasty-minded woman might be difficult to deal with, dangerous, unpleasant, annoying, or maybe sex-mad. Or maybe she’s none of these things at all.

Yes, there’s something ridiculous about nasty. In 1932, Stella Gibbons published her comic novel Cold Comfort Farm, offering some readers (including this one) a welcome antidote to D.H. Lawrence. Gibbons gave us the trope of a character who, without ever revealing the specifics, had seen “something nasty in the woodshed.”

Other forms of nasty?  Janet Jackson and other musicians have had use for the term, but I’ll leave them to you to Spotify.

Given our word’s affects and denotations, it never really made sense to nickname the tennis star Ilie Năstase  “Nasty,” though it gave the press something to run with.

There are no obvious connections between nasty and  Thomas Nast, the German-born political cartoonist who went after the Tammany Hall corruption of Boss Tweed. In a less political vein, Nast famously had a hand in creating the image we have of Santa Claus, so maybe St. Nick  just might be described as Nast-y.

When the Republican presidential candidate called out the Democratic candidate as “a nasty woman,” what was he thinking? Or rather, where did the intended emphasis fall? On nasty? (She is a woman, but unfortunately she is one of those offensive annoying ones?) Or a nasty woman?  (She is an offensive and annoying person, where woman functions as an intensifier, a sort of engendered exclamation point?)

Tonight is Halloween, the last night of the Celtic year. The fine points of nasty will be on the agenda somewhere on the crags of the Brocken, at least if witchery includes discussions of usage.

Christianity gave the day a makeover as the eve of All Saints, but it’s long been more fun to think about containable monsters than uncontainable sanctity.

This political moment, however, is not about monsters vs. hero-saints — that would be too easy, and too wrong — but once again it’s a moment about language, how we use it, how we make meanings with it.

As to nasty, the word’s most enduring use in political thought is surely Thomas Hobbes’s characterization of life in Leviathan : solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

At least he didn’t say short-fingered.


Follow me on Twitter @Wm Germano

[[Image copyright P Leedell and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence]]

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