Slate's Lexicon Valley podcast is always a font of linguistic information, but today's is particularly fun, more rebellious, you might say, than usual. Oh, who are we kidding, it's not like the topic is so offensive—it's not even an f-bomb, it's just the word asshole. But it's also not like we get to dissect a vulgarity or semi-vulgarity in a linguistic way every day! Some days, yes. But not every day. Geoffrey Nunberg, the linguist and UC Berkeley professor who wrote the book Ascent of the A-word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years (yes, an entire book about that word) talks with Bob Garfield and Mike Vuolo about our current era, in which we have been rather remarkably "transfixed by watching people act like assholes.” The three discuss a range of interesting word-related topics, including how we got to where we are now, expletive-wise; why women hardly ever get called the epithet; whether the word is an obscenity, a vulgarity, or a profanity; and "really the entire social construct of the character of the asshole" in general. Fascinating, right?
The word itself is a formal Merriam-Webster entry, with its earliest use (the anatomical one) going back to the 14th century, and its other use ("a stupid, incompetent, or detestable person") following from that, with related uses (example: "the worst place"). But our three podcast participants have a lot more to say than can be found in the pages of a dictionary. Vuolo kicks off the conversation remarking on how pervasive the word has become—it's only around 60 years old, a relative youngster in vulgarity terms, but it's all over the place, nearly commonplace, even, with hardly the sting of something more rare and therefore profane. "The word emerges from the rubble, so to speak, of World War II, hangs around during the 1950s and ‘60s and then explodes in the lexicon in the 1970s," he says. Nunberg clarifies that a profanity is a word from religion that's made its way into low contexts (the exclamation of hell, for instance), an obscenity is a bad word "derived from parts of the body," and a vulgarity is more generally a "bad word." As he explains in this great tidbit:
So, when George W. Bush called Adam Clymer of the New York Times "a major-league asshole"—he was caught on open mic doing that during the 2000 presidential campaign—the Times itself, which at that point would not use the word asshole, reported him as having used an obscenity. And their standards guy sent around a memo and said, “Well really in the future if this happens, we should refer to this as a vulgarity, not an obscenity.”
(Flash forward to today, when the New York Times still won't print STFU).
The three move on to talk about how a lot of obscenities began to have new usages in the first few decades of the 20th century—that's when shit, for example, came into use as a verb, i.e., "You've gotta be shitting me," and, as Nunberg adds, "bullshit ... fuck-up, up shit creek and so on" appeared. "Dozens and dozens of these words that, although they were vulgar in their origins and had obscene meanings, in these new uses referred to things that really didn't have any particularly obscene properties or consequences. When you say, 'That's bullshit,' you're merely saying it's nonsense or a kind of stronger form of nonsense," he explains, "but you're not imputing to it anything obscene. And when I call somebody an asshole, I may be talking about his arrogance or sense of entitlement or obtuseness, but I'm not saying anything about him that I couldn't say on the op-ed page of the New York Times if I couched it in more decorous language." Indeed!
From whence did the word come? It "was clearly a coining of GIs during the Second World War to refer to meddlesome or officious officers or noncoms," and one of its first literary appearances was in The Naked and the Dead, a war novel by Norman Mailer published in 1948, he says. It took until the '70s, though, for it to become ensconced in our typical speech, when Holden Caulfield's epithet "the phony" is "as a social type is replaced by the asshole." Those two words aren't quite the same but their close, and might overlap—the phony is a faker, the asshole shows a miserable inner condition, a flawed personality. The asshole, however, can be redeemed, while the phony (or the heel, as they mention) is just a phony or a heel forever.
The gender equality aspect of the discussion is fascinating as well. Nunberg points out, "You rarely, almost never, hear a woman being described as an asshole for doing to a man what a man would be called an asshole for doing to a woman. So, I think that there are lots of cases where we ought to call women assholes in the name of gender equity, where we don't. We call them bitch. But why should we use a word that's gender specific for this particular kind of behavior?" Garfield adds, "We will know when women have achieved some measure of gender equity when asshole women can be called assholes right alongside asshole men."
Nunberg argues in his book that we're in an age "as obsessed with assholism as I say the post-war years were obsessed with the phony or the age of Anthony Trollope was obsessed with the cad and the bounder," in which "assholism" is all over the TV, in the movies, on the Internet, a major part of our contemporary political discourse, and so on. But even despite all that, Nunberg expects some trouble in promoting his book given the subject and title. After all, he says, the Times didn't even run the word until this year. What jerks.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.