BOOK REVIEW: 'Ascent of the A-Word': Which Came First: Asshole or the Word for It?

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: 'Ascent of the A-Word': Which Came First: Asshole or the Word for It?

As Geoffrey Nunberg demonstrates so eloquently in "Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, The First Sixty Years" (PublicAffairs, 272 pages, statistical charts, index, $25.99) folks we universally recognize as "assholes" have always been with us; we just called them by other names: cad, bounder, heel, etc.


Nunberg traces the word asshole (get used to it, I'm going to use it a lot!) to World War II where it was famously used to describe Gen. George S. Patton Jr. by both his superiors and those serving under him. A young Army veteran named Norman Mailer used the word to describe a Naval officer named Dove attached to an Army unit in "The Naked and the Dead" published in 1948, and like the person described, the word has been with us ever since. Dove was much like the iconic asshole character Greg Marmalard in "National Lampoon's Animal House," Nunberg says, as well as the whole culture of asshole fraternity boys at Yale and elsewhere.


By the 1970s, the word had become a staple of Woody Allen movies and Neil Simon plays. Ours is the age of assholism, Nunberg says -- maybe even a Golden Age -- and he includes specimens from both the right and left wings of American politics and political commentators. There probably are more right-wing asshole commentators than left-wingers, he says, but that's because right-wingers are better staying on message.


After all, liberals, progressives and others on the left can't even agree on a single word to describe their movement, he writes, while those on the right are usually happy being dubbed "conservative." Nunberg gives us a prime example of a left-wing asshole commentator: Keith Olbermann. On the right, you have Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly and just about everyone on Fox News Channel, he says, adding that "the genius of Rush Limbaugh and Steven Colbert lies in their remarkable ability to convey the pure joy of being assholes without suggesting they suffer even the slightest pangs of conscience."


Geoffrey Nunberg
Geoffrey Nunberg

Nunberg, who lives in San Francisco and works at the University of California Berkeley has this to say about lefty assholes: "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.)"


Dictionaries aren't much help in defining who is or is not an asshole, Nunberg says. He's emeritus chair of the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, but he says most definitions suck: "The Oxford English Dictionary defines asshole simply as 'someone foolish or contemptible; an uncompromising term of abuse.' That's roughly the same as the definitions the dictionary gives for shit ('a contemptuous epithet applied to a person'), prick ('a vulgar term of abuse for a man'), fuckwad ('A foolish or contemptible person. Also as a term of abuse'), and cocksucker ('used as a generalized term of abuse')."


Clearly Nunberg the linguist says the definition of asshole is deficient: "... asshole has a quite specific meaning that distinguishes it from shit, prick, and the others. When we call somebody an asshole, it's because we've decided that that's the shoe that fits him best. You wouldn't say that the meaning of the word is precise, but then the words that express social evaluations almost never are. When you come down to it, asshole is no vaguer than boor or scoundrel, or for that matter than the notoriously elusive word gentleman."


Nunberg: "There may be no more assholes in the world now than there ever were, but there are new ways for acting like one. And no less important, we've made the asshole the object of obsessive collective interest, in the way that the phony was in Holden Caulfield's day or the cad was in Trollope's. Over time, the word has become an expression of contemporary American values — about civility, about relationships, about pretension, about class. Yet the media are obliged to bleep it or disguise it with asterisks. And we use it unreflectingly and give it no attention. Considering how important it is to us, it doesn't get the respect it deserves. Until now."


Narcissism isn't a form of assholism separated at birth, Nunberg says, but at the "root of assholism is a kind of obtuseness, a culpable refusal to acknowledge the rights of others. People associate that with 'narcissism' or a 'sense of entitlement', both of them terms that became common around the same time 'asshole' entered everyday speech."


Chapter 5, "Men are all assholes" will probably get a nod of approval from many women, but it paints all men with a broad brush -- too broad a brush, in my opinion. Still, when pressed to name three iconic assholes, Nunberg is quick to single out three men: Steve Jobs, Donald Trump, and the portrayal by Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in the film "The Social Network."


By calling women such as Hillary Clinton, Ann Coulter, Sarah Palin and Nancy Pelosi "bitches" rather than "assholes," we get a whiff of the assholism culture itself, Nunberg suggests. Women who deserve the epithet shouldn't be demoted to second-class assholes, as the word "btich" suggests.


I found the book to be both entertaining and enlightening. It's a useful guide to the wide world of assholism by a master linguist who makes the subject understandable to a general audience.

About the author


Geoffrey Nunberg is an adjunct full professor at UC Berkeley's School of Information, a linguist, and former chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary. Since 1989, he has done a language feature on NPR's "Fresh Air," and his commentaries have appeared in the New York Times and other publications. A winner of the Linguistic Society of America's Language and the Public Interest Award, he is also the author of "Talking Right" and "Going Nucular."

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