Ascent of the A-Word

Assholism, the First Sixty Years


By Geoffrey Nunberg

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It first surfaced in the gripes of GIs during World War II and was captured early on by the typewriter of a young Norman Mailer. Within a generation it had become a basic notion of our everyday moral life, replacing older reproaches like lout and heel with a single inclusive category — a staple of country outlaw songs, Neil Simon plays, and Woody Allen movies. Feminists made it their stock rebuke for male insensitivity, the est movement used it for those who didn’t “get it,” and Dirty Harry applied it evenhandedly to both his officious superiors and the punks he manhandled.

The asshole has become a focus of collective fascination for us, just as the phony was for Holden Caulfield and the cad was for Anthony Trollope. From Donald Trump to Ann Coulter, from Mel Gibson to Anthony Weiner, from the reality TV prima donnas to the internet trolls and flamers, assholism has become the characteristic form of modern incivility, which implicitly expresses our deepest values about class, relationships, authenticity, and fairness. We have conflicting attitudes about the A-word — when a presidential candidate unwittingly uttered it on a live mic in 2000, it confirmed to some that he was a man of the people and to others that he was a boor. But considering how much the word does for us, and to us, it hasn’t gotten nearly the attention it deserves — at least until now.


Also by Geoffrey Nunberg
The Years of Talking Dangerously
Talking Right
Going Nucular
The Way We Talk Now

The sun shineth upon the dunghill and is not corrupted.
—John Lyly, Euphues, 1578
When Barbara Walters announced the 2011 version of her annual list of the Ten Most Fascinating People, it was headed by Steve Jobs and included Donald Trump, Simon Cowell, Herman Cain, and the Kardashians, along with Derek Jeter, Katy Perry, Amanda Knox, Pippa Middleton, and the actors who play the two gay guys on Modern Family. I make that five out often who are assholes (I'm giving Jeter a pass because he's a gamer and passing over the reports about his sending his one-night stands home in a limo with a basket of autographed gear). However you reckon it, it was a banner year for high-profile assholes, and if Walters hadn't been particular about interviewing her choices (the living ones, anyway), she could have easily filled all ten places several times over with other members of the breed. She left out Charlie Sheen, whose drug-addled meltdown in early 2011 so captured the nation's attention—he was briefly adding more than a hundred thousand Twitter followers a day—that he took it on the road in a national tour. She could have added Hank Williams Jr., who made news when he compared Obama to Hitler, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Silvio Berlusconi, and John Galliano (Hitler again). There could have been slots for Repps. Anthony Weiner, D-NY (lascivious tweets) and Christopher Lee, R-NY (Craigslist trolling). And Walters left out Newt Gingrich, whose presidential campaign unexpectedly caught fire for a while when, having bailed on Trump and Cain, Republicans decided they could overlook his being an asshole to his previous wives because he promised to be just the asshole who could take it to Obama good.
Yet 2011 wasn't exceptional in that line. Over the years, Walters' lists have included a remarkable number of names that are regularly paired with the asshole label: Rush Limbaugh, Tiger Woods, Tom Cruise, LeBron James, Karl Rove, and Sarah Palin (all of whom, along with Trump, made the list twice or more), as well as Jerry Springer, Sumner Redstone, Mark Zuckerberg, Bret Favre, James Cameron, Kate Gosselin, Glenn Beck, Michael Moore, the Jersey Shore kids, "Dr. Phil" McGraw, Mel Gibson, Curt Schilling, Kanye West, Don Imus, Hugo Chavez, Dennis Rodman, Rupert Murdoch, Benjamin Netanyahu, Martha Stewart, and Andre Agassi. Some of those calls may be arguable, and there are other names on Walters' lists that some people would assign to the category, like Nancy Pelosi, Mark McGwire, Hillary Clinton, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. But whatever adjustments you make, it's clear that Walters hasn't had to tip the scales. Assholes may constitute only a small proportion of the figures in public life, but they get a big share of the ink and pixels.
What is it that draws us to these people? There's no one answer. Some of it is just the age-old fascination with Celebrities Behaving Badly, compounded by the ubiquity of technology for capturing and broadcasting their misbehavior and the media's eagerness to share the details with us. There are assholes who simultaneously intrigue and appall us, like Sheen, Galliano, and Gibson, whose outbursts reveal streaks of hatefulness or unchecked egomania. Some of it answers to the no less eternal satisfaction of watching combat and confrontation, as performed by the barking heads on what Deborah Tannen calls the "let's you and him fight" genre of talk shows, or more recently, on politically monochromatic programming dominated by a single resident bully like Bill O'Reilly. Some assholes titillate us with their effrontery, like Omarosa, Richard Hatch, and the other reality show manipulators who become celebrities in their own right. And still others suggest the undeniable allure of people who are in a position to indulge the undiluted whims of ego or vent their anger and contempt without concern for the proprieties—cultural rock stars like Kanye West and Steve Jobs, who act like assholes because they can.
The visibility of these icons of assholism isn't necessarily evidence for the collapse of civility and the coarsening of public life, much less for a general deterioration of national character. However dire things may seem, on the whole we're as nice as we ever were, particularly in the way we treat our friends, family, and colleagues. In some ways we're a good deal nicer. But indisputably there's an intense interest in the asshole phenomenon. Every age creates a particular social offender that it makes a collective preoccupation—the cad in Anthony Trollope's day, the phony that Holden Caulfield was fixated on in the postwar years—and the asshole is ours. In fact you could argue that some of those archetypes play a cathartic role for us: Donald Trump acts like an asshole so we don't have to. But the preoccupation also reflects the modern creation of new and unprecedented settings for acting like assholes, in both public and private life, opening the way to varieties of behavior that people a few generations ago would have found not so much shocking as weird: think of the varieties of digital miscreants denominated lurkers, cyberstalkers, sock puppets, and blog trolls. This isn't entirely a deplorable development, or at least you can see it as the collateral consequence of some healthy ones. The advent of the asshole is a reflex of very sweeping revisions in the personal and social values that we all share, even if we sometimes find ourselves railing about them. The point of this book, more than anything else, is that the ascent of the A-word and the attention it gets say a great deal about who we've become.
Asshole is always a disreputable word, whether it's referring to someone's anatomy or his character. But it's only the latter use of the word that can move people to laughter. That was invariably people's reaction when I answered their question about what I was working on by telling them it was a book about assholes. That response made me a little defensive, and my questioner was often obliged to listen to an unbidden disquisition about why the topic was actually worthy of attention. But it was also reassuring to know how many people find it amusing that someone would want to write a serious book about such a topic. The words that make us laugh aren't usually ones we give a great deal of thought to. To study asshole is to dip into a pool unrippled by deep contemplation, insulated from the airs and distension that can infect a word like incivility, which provides an accurate reflection of what we genuinely think about how we should behave toward one another.
As my subtitle suggests, I'm really interested not in assholes so much as assholism, along with its close relation assholery. The English language isn't as accommodating here as some other languages, which have standard words for the things that assholes do, like the Spanish pendejada, from pendejo (literally a pubic hair), and the Italian stronzata, from stronzo (turd). English is an adaptable language, of course, and it isn't hard to find instances of assholery going back forty years in the works of writers like Thomas Pynchon and John Irving. But dictionaries haven't yet acknowledged the term (a telling diffidence, in this day and age, when the Oxford English Dictionary is at pains to demonstrate its hipness by including items like wassup and BFF) . And while speakers of other languages seem more disposed to talk about pendejismo, stronzismo, or Arschlochismus—Europeans have a penchant for isms—English hasn't opened its arms to assholism, either, though the word made its first print appearance more than forty years ago in an essay by the Beat writer Seymour Krim. But "recognized word" or no, I need assholism here, because what I'm interested in isn't a distinct species of congenital jerks, but a social condition and a disposition that everyone is liable to on trying occasions. In fact I toyed with the idea of writing the book without citing any names at all, just to make the point, but as you've already seen, that idea didn't last long.
This is also a book about the word asshole, it's true, but chiefly because of what it conveys. There are some vulgar and obscene words that are compelling in their own right. Fuck is the quintessential taboo word of English in all its uses, literal and figurative, as verb, intensifier, interjection, the focus of a long history of controversy and litigation. As a word alone, it's worthy of the book-length treatment that the lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower gives it in The F-Word. But asshole is of linguistic interest only so far as it colors the concept it names. True, it isn't purely by historical accident that asshole came to denote assholes and prick came to denote pricks (though the connection is obvious only after the fact—prick was once a term of endearment, and when asshole first appeared in GI slang during World War II, some people thought it meant something like nerd). But there are a lot of other words that people use to more or less the same effect. It's in the nature of slang to churn out mutations and variants, and asshole has more than its share. The word was just a few years old when ass wipe appeared (it made its first print appearance in 1952 in Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March), and over the years it has been joined by asshat, assclown, and assbag, among others, while unrelated items like douchebag, dipshit, and dickhead circulate in the same semantic neighborhood.
In language as elsewhere, we don't like the idea of a difference without a distinction, and you can find people who will explain the subtle points that distinguish an asshole from an assclown or a douchebag, though usually without much precision or consistency (actually, dictionaries don't do any better with these). But despite the variation, everyone recognizes asshole as the primary name of a basic category of American moral life. People agree about prototypical cases like this one (which was actually witnessed by someone I know):
On Sept. 11, 2001, with all flights cancelled across the country, you're in the Hertz rental agency in Manhattan, trying desperately to rent a car to get home to your family in Texas, along with a large crowd of anxious people trying to do the same thing. A man walks in, pushes to the front of the crowd, and asks the clerk, "Where's the Hertz Gold Card line?" You turn to your friend standing next to you and say, "What a(n) __________!"
That was one of the questions I put on a brief questionnaire that I gave to a few dozen people, speakers of English and other languages, asking them to give me the vulgar word that best fit the situation. Among the Americans and Canadians who answered, ranging in age from twenty to sixty-eight, almost all said "asshole," apart from two who offered "douchebag." You wouldn't call it science, but it was close enough to confirm that most people classify that sort of person in the same way. The agreement was almost that general when the question was:
A policeman stops a motorist for speeding. The motorist, a well-dressed man, says, "I'm a lawyer and I'm late for an important court date. Wouldn't your time be better spent arresting real criminals?"What word(s) would you expect the police officer to use to describe the motorist to his fellow officers?
But they reacted differently to another example:
"Eddie tricked his partner Larry into putting the firm's accounts in his own name, then let Larry take the blame when the fraud was discovered by the authorities. What a(n) ___________!"
Here the answers ran to shit and bastard, with only one person offering asshole and nobody offering douche. So the respondents more or less agreed that the first two belong to the same category and third to a different one. True, you wouldn't expect to see the kind of uniformity here that you would if you asked people about the difference between chairs and sofas, say. That's partly because of linguistic variation (a lot of people don't have douchebag in their vocabularies at all, particularly women) and partly because we subdivide the moral landscape in somewhat different ways. Still, when we hear Clint Eastwood or Woody Allen describing somebody as an asshole, we all have a pretty clear idea of what he's saying.1
The level of agreement obviously falls off once we leave the North American continent. The British have the same word, or rather arsehole, but it shares its semantic space with a family of native-grown epithets like tosser, wanker, and git, not to mention the C-word, which is much less shocking to British ears than to American when it's used for an obnoxious man. (Some of the British speakers I asked about those examples favored wanker for the Hertz example, though some offered arsehole as well.) Even so, it's fair to say the British and Australians recognize the asshole as a type—they're quite clear about what Eastwood and Allen are saying, too. And asshole has equivalents, if not exact synonyms, in other Western lan-guages—French connard, Dutch klootsak, German Arschloch, Italian stronzo, and Spanish pendejo, boludo, or gillipollas, depending on the region. Each of them has its quirks, but if you know what an asshole is you're going to get stronzo and Arschloch right at least 90 percent of the time. It would be absurd to suggest that all those peoples organize their notions of appropriate social behavior along the exact same lines that Americans do. But when that asshole appears at the Hertz counter waving his gold card we can all roll our eyes at each other with a reasonable confidence that we're thinking pretty much the same thing. So while I'm looking only at American language and American attitudes in this book, I think a fair amount of it applies to other places that have undergone a lot of the same modern experience.
Considering how often the word asshole appears in the book, I can see where it may seem a little coy to have referred to it on the cover only as the A-word and in the derived form assholism—all the more since titles with vulgar words are so du jour right now Not long ago, the Times Literary Supplement (TLS) columnist "J.C." (James Campbell) took a passing shot at what he called "the blood-draining horror of mainstream Christmas fare (Do Ants Have Arseholes?, My Shit Life So Far, etc.)." He could have pointed as well to recent American titles like Sh*t My Dad Says, Go the F*ck to Sleep, and If You Give a Kid a Cookie, Will He Shut the F**k Up? Asshole has gotten a lot of work in this line, too. The Stanford Business School professor Robert Sutton had a business bestseller a couple of years ago with The No Asshole Rule, and the "advice, how-to, and miscellaneous" shelf features entries such as A Is for Asshole: The Grownups' ABC's of Conflict Resolution; Dear Asshole ("101 Tear-Out Letters to the Morons who Muck up Your Life"); A$$hole ("How I Got Rich and Happy by Not Giving a Damn about Anyone and How You Can, Too); and A**hole No More ("A self-help guide for recovering a**holes and their victims"). There are lad-lit books like The Complete A**hole's Guide to Handling Chicks, complemented by monitory lass-lit titles like Let's Face It, Men Are @$$#%\$ and Are All Guys Assholes? And in a class by itself—and my favorite of any genre—is a zombie parody called Night of the Assholes, by Kevin L. Donihe, the plot of which turns on the premise that people who treat assholes in an asshole way turn into assholes themselves, which in a way is the point of this book, too.
I don't find any of this quite as blood-draining as the TLS's Campbell does, but even so I had reservations about using the bare word asshole in the title. I suppose I could have appealed to the dispensation that allows disinterested scholars to address indelicate matters without impropriety, to touch pitch and not be defiled. But it doesn't quite work like that. Vulgar words like these tend to bleed through quotation marks; they jerk and quiver even on the dissection table. Most of us aren't troubled about seeing them in the printed pages of a book, which involves a quiet conversation between us and the author (anyone who does find it disturbing presumably hasn't gotten this far). But even in a linguistics class, I prefer not to say them aloud if I can avoid it, since that's sure to evoke either tittering, or more often, the sound of people audibly not tittering. And on the cover of a book, before the compact between author and reader is sealed—well, it isn't quite the same as wearing a T-shirt that says "Instant Asshole, Just Add Alcohol," but it's hard to argue that it isn't being partly done for effect. Often that's entirely defensible: What else would you call a parody about zombie assholes, Night of the Vulgarians? And in a very different way, I imagine that when the philosopher Harry Frankfurt wrote the engaging essay "On Bullshit" (which appeared in the Raritan Review before it was published as a book in 2005), the title was intended to make the point that the importance of bullshit to the theory of truth ought to make the vulgarity of its word irrelevant. But I don't think for a moment that the vulgarity of asshole is incidental to its meaning (actually, I don't think the vulgarity of bullshit is, either). I take it very seriously, as something central to the work the word does for us, for better and for worse. If asshole weren't crude, we'd have to find something else to call the guy who's yelling at the harassed airport gate agent about his upgrade. So if I dance around the word in the title of this book, you could think of it as an homage to its power. Considering all it does for us, and to us, asshole doesn't get nearly the respect it deserves.

chapter one
The Word
So long as I regard stupidity as a news item, a misfortune that happens only to others, or to me only under an outside influence—I wasn't myself, I can't think what happened to me—the subtlety of the phenomenon eludes me.
—André Glucksmann, La Bêtise, 1986

Assholes and Anti-assholes

The idea that asshole could be a proxy for the fraying fabric of public life first struck me in 2005, gust before things got really squirrelly. I was writing about the language of politics and listening to a lot of right-wing talk on radio and TV and I kept noticing how everything seemed to be aimed at depicting liberals as, well, assholes. Not that anyone ever actually says assholes on the air on the programs, bleeped or not.2 But that isn't the point; it's rather that asshole seems to encapsulate the animus the shows are both stoking and stroking. It's a word we reserve for members of our own tribe: the boss who takes credit for your work, the neighbors who get on your case for putting out your garbage the night before, or maybe a well-known politician or celebrity It isn't a word you'd use of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. It signals indignation, with an undercurrent of contempt, an emotion you can only feel towards those you feel both superior to and familiar with. And that feeling in turn legitimates a certain energizing response—combative, derisory, with more than a splash of asshole itself—that's compelling enough to keep listeners tuned in, which is after all the aim of the exercise. Or if the listeners are of an opposing political viewpoint, as many of them are, they can enjoy a rush of head-clearing rage at the hosts' assholistic harangues. Assholes are people who allow us to be assholes back at them. They turn us into anti-assholes, a word I think of as being less like antitoxin than antimatter—stuff just like matter but of an opposite charge, which reacts with matter violently
A huge amount of this programming is aimed at creating exchanges and narratives that generate these feelings by turning reports about remote evils into pretexts for stirring up more intimate antipathies. During the buildup to the Iraq war, more than half the Fox News segments on Iraq focused on the pusillanimity of the French, who were refusing to go along with the invasion, and through them, on the pretentious American Francophile liberals who spoke their language and consumed their wines and cheese. (The Germans, who were no less adamantly opposed to the invasion, got a pass.) Saddam Hussein may have been an oriental despot out of central casting, but he was too alien to be the object of the contempt that only familiarity can breed.
Not that conservatives always had to manufacture such pretexts.You can't live in San Francisco and teach at Berkeley, as I do, without being impressed by the myriad forms of assholism that bourgeois liberals nourish: the pretension and superiority, the preciosity, the way laudable commitments to social justice sit cheek by jowl with intrusive paternalism. (Berkeley has always been a place where people believe that consenting adults should be allowed to do whatever they please in the privacy of their bedroom so long as they don't try to smoke afterwards.) The truth is that the dynamic I'm interested in here—the play of asshole and anti-asshole—is fed by the abundant strains of assholism that run through every corner of American life. What struck me in 2005 was the way the play of asshole and anti-asshole was bubbling up into the public sphere, like a sadistic form of performance art or a snarky sitcom.
That was seven years ago, in what in retrospect seems almost an idyllic age of comity, before public discourse started to go completely off the rails. The most dramatic shift was among the partisans of the right, who discovered after Barack Obama's election just how gratifying it could be to act like an asshole when you could tell yourself you had a sufficient provocation and were unencumbered by the responsibilities of government. In an emblematic case, the first-term South Carolina congressman Joe Wilson interrupted a presidential speech on the health care bill to call out, "You lie!" The conduct was deemed unbecoming by his own party's leadership—" totally disrespectful," said John McCain—and Wilson initially apologized and said he had let his emotions get the better of him. But radio hosts celebrated his "guts" and "backbone" and said he had no need to apologize for simply articulating what millions of Americans were saying. Supporters flooded Wilson with campaign contributions, and a bit more alarmingly, a South Carolina gun dealer offered a limited edition component for the AR-15 with "You Lie" etched on the stock, as if acting like an asshole provided incontrovertible proof of patriotic zeal.
This didn't come out of nowhere. Fifty years ago, the historian and traditionalist conservative Peter Viereck, recalling the humanism of Burke and Adams, wrote that modern conservatism was diffusing a mood of emotional freeze, making people "ashamed of generous social impulses." And in modern times, the right has always been susceptible to making an exhibition of its hardheartedness, just as the left has had a regrettable penchant for self-congratulatory pietism. But lately the tone of those displays has become more intense and operatic, as witness the striking series of outbursts during the debates among Republican presidential hopefuls in 2011–2012. A debate audience applauded when Brian Williams began a question to Governor Rick Perry by noting that Texas has conducted a record 234. executions during his term as governor, then booed Perry himself when he defended a Texas program providing in-state college tuition to the children of undocumented immigrants. (In his defense, Perry said, "If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state. . . by no fault of their own, I don't think you have a heart"—a remark that so angered right-wing voters that Perry was placed in the situation, surely unprecedented in American politics, of having to apologize for using the "inappropriate" word heart.) In another debate, the audience booed a gay soldier would do about "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." A debate audience cheered Herman Cain's assertion that "if you don't have a job and you're not rich, blame yourself." And at a CNN—Tea Party debate, Wolf Blitzer asked Ron Paul what should happen to a person who lacks health insurance and falls into a coma. "Are you saying that society should just let him die?" Blitzer asked, at which point several people yelled, "Yeah!" and others cheered. By early 2012, a South Carolina debate audience was moved to boo Paul when he said that other countries didn't like being bombed any more than we would, adding, "I would say that maybe we ought to consider a Golden Rule in foreign policy." The audience's reservations about Paul's proposal may have been soundly rooted in Realpolitik, but even so it was a theologically awkward moment. If you took those effusions at face value, they seemed to confirm the continued relevance of Viereck's observation that among a slice of modern conservatives, it's cool to be cruel.
It's misleading to judge any group by its most demonstrative adherents. Wilson was plainly out of line even by the standards of his caucus, and the audiences at primary season debates—candidates' supporters provided with tickets by the campaigns and urged by the producers to be demonstrative—were clearly more vociferous than the typical adherent of the Tea Party right, the conservative movement, or the Republican Party in general. Still, the groundswell of support for the outbursts


On Sale
Aug 14, 2012
Page Count
272 pages

Geoffrey Nunberg

About the Author

Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist, is a professor at the UC Berkeley School of Information. Since 1987, he has done a language feature on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” and his commentaries have appeared in the New York Times and many other publications. He is the emeritus chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary and a winner of the Linguistic Society of America’s Language and the Public Interest Award. His previous books include Talking Right and Going Nucular. Nunberg lives in San Francisco.

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