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Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, the First Sixty Yearsby Geoffrey Nunberg
Synopses & Reviews
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.
"Tellingly, Nunberg's study of the word 'asshole' begins with the observation that half of the people profiled in Barbara Walter's 2011 'Ten Most Fascinating People' feature could be considered assholes. What follows is an engaging blend of linguistics, analysis, and social commentary that breaks down the important place the word 'asshole' occupies in our language and culture. Nunberg begins by charting the rise of 'asshole' from its origins as WWII barracks slang, to its popularization in post-war literature (as in Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead), to its eventual adoption as part of Standard English in the 1970s. Nunberg then describes the various roles that 'asshole' plays in society, detailing the formation of pop culture 'anti-assholes' like Dirty Harry, musing on it as a psychological reclassification of a 'heel,' and charting its relationship to similar concepts of narcissism, inauthenticity, and incivility. The last of these relationships proves most fruitful to Nunberg as he spends a good amount of the book outlining 'assholism' in the political realm, both as a quality popular in political commentators and as an insult when linked with incivility and lobbed across the aisle. In the end, Nunberg makes an entertaining and thought-provoking case for the importance and power of a 'dirty' word. (July)" Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
An attention-grabbing, thought-provoking exploration of the life of the word "asshole," by a renowned linguist and author
It went from the mouths of WWII servicemen to the typewriter of a young Norman Mailer. By the 1970s it had become a staple of Neil Simon plays and Woody Allen movies. In 2000, George W. Bush accidentally uttered it on a live mic and sparked a debate as to whether that made him a man of the people, or just an asshole. Ours is the age of assholism.
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.
The first "asshole" in print was Norman Mailer's in The Naked and the Dead, which appeared in 1948 and channeled the language of World War II servicemen, especially the enlisted men, who needed to express their frustration at the arrogance and ignorance of their military superiors. So "asshole" begins life as a subversive pull down of the high and mighty, but it didn't enter the mainstream until the 1970s.
Geoff Nunberg charts the life of the word to its ubiquitous present when it can be found in the mouths of presidents (George W. Bush called a New York Times journalist a "major-league asshole") and pretty much everyone in between. And yet it cannot be reproduced without asterisks in the New York Times, and even Fox News has broadcast it only once. Over time, the word has acquired a unique definition — an asshole is not a cad or a rogue or phony, though assholes may be all of these. And because it is a dirty word, a vulgarism that we pretend does not belong to us, it passes by without self-conscious explanation or affect. It's a very pure reflection of our times and collapsing culture precisely because we pay so little attention to it. Until now.
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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