Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years

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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 ...
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Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
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)
From the Publisher
"A witty and politically charged analysis of a potent obscenity in its modern and contemporary context." —-Kirkus
Kirkus Reviews
Linguistic analysis and cultural criticism meet sociopolitical rant in this investigation of the word asshole and the modern phenomena of "assholism." What exactly does it mean to call someone an asshole? When did the epithet come to prominence as a social and now political invective? Who are some of the biggest assholes in the public eye today? These are just a few of the questions that linguist Nunberg (The Years of Talking Dangerously, 2009) explores in this often raucously funny account of what seems to be America's most popular insult. The author avoids many potential hazards, including an overly academic and pretentious tone or, conversely, an exceedingly snarky or droll satire. In other words, he avoids, by his own surmising, being an asshole himself, thereby rendering a skillful narrative. He looks carefully at both the political right and left with a plethora of examples from different mediums: blogs, radio talk shows, twitter feeds, TV news, reality television, films, literature and more. At the top of the asshole list--the arch-assholes--he places Donald Trump, Steve Jobs, Newt Gingrich, Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh, among others. Like other obscenities, asshole is closely linked to class tensions, and Nunberg is deft at examining the word in this and other contexts. Though the word ass as a term of derision seems to have ancient origins, Nunberg traces asshole as a derogative filled with anger and contempt to the slang of World War II soldiers. He examines its potential for symbolic violence, as well as the unique characteristics that distinguish it from other kinds of disparagement. The nearly universally understood qualities of an asshole--self-delusion, arrogance, thoughtlessness, pretentiousness, egotism and an exaggerated sense of entitlement--become a kind of catalyst for the author to enact a broad critique of contemporary public discourse and behavior. A witty and politically charged analysis of a potent obscenity in its modern and contemporary context.
The Barnes & Noble Review

I'll risk the charge and begin with an objection. Charlie Sheen did not, as Dr. Geoffrey Nunberg rather unreflectively writes at the beginning of his book, suffer a "drug-addled meltdown" in early 2011. Quite the contrary. The millionaire actor was not addled, neither did he melt. The drugs he was on — whatever they were — had the effect of hardening and sharpening Sheen's on-camera presence, supercharging his intellect and driving his every utterance deep into the popular ear. As he put it himself at the time: "I am battle- tested bayonets, bro." The idea that this vatic, bionic, fiery- eyed rhetorician was in any way falling to pieces belonged exclusively, as far as I could tell, to lazy newspapermen.

But our author's attention is elsewhere, which perhaps accounts for the momentary lapse into journo-think. His concern is more with the question of whether Charlie Sheen is an asshole. (Hint: he is.) And in this matter I am quite content to sit at Dr. Nunberg's feet and be instructed — as will you be, dear reader, because with the hugely enjoyable Ascent of the A-Word we are right on the cutting edge of asshole studies. What is an asshole? What does it mean to be an asshole? What does it mean to call someone else an asshole? And why, in 2012, do we seem to be dealing with more assholes than ever? If these questions are of interest to you at all, read this book.

Hitler, Stalin, Osama bin Laden — these, Dr. Nunberg explains by way of easing us into the subject, were not assholes. Their offenses were too terrible, the scope of their wrongdoing too vast and alien. Your idiot boss is an asshole, as is your annoying brother-in-law, your ungrateful upstairs neighbor, and the cop who gave you a ticket this morning. Asshole is "a word we reserve for members of our own tribe... It signals indignation, with an undercurrent of contempt, an emotion you can only feel towards those you feel both superior to and familiar with." Contempt, superiority — such bitter things. Surely Dr. Nunberg cannot mean to suggest that by naming the asshole who stands before us, we risk being assholes ourselves? But that is precisely what he is suggesting. He calls it, in a resonant phrase, the moral logic of assholism. "Like stupidity, which it closely resembles, assholism is suffused with moral certainty — not just on the part of the assholes themselves but also from those who level the charge."

So now we're all assholes, willy-nilly? Not quite. There does exist an essential asshole, and the point about him is that while he acts like an asshole, he doesn't know he's an asshole. His asshole nature keeps him in the dark. "At the heart of assholism," writes Nunberg, "is a culpable obtuseness ? about one's own importance, about the needs of others and the way one is perceived by them." While stressing that this use of asshole was never "coined" ("It isn't one of those items like pizzazz or beatnik that a clever columnist or copywriter can drop into the language some Tuesday morning") he locates its origins in pre–WWII army slang — an environment where in due course it was picked up by the large and swiveling ear of the young serviceman Norman Mailer. From Mailer's The Naked and the Dead: "Lieutenant (sg) Dove, USNR. A Cornell man, a Deke, a perfect asshole... He had announced to everyone that his rank was equivalent to captain in the Army... He had told the officers this in officer's mess on Motome and had been loved accordingly."

The Naked and the Dead was published in 1948, but the A-word didn't really happen, societally, until the '60s. As the concept of "phoniness" — Holden Caulfield's great bugbear — weakened, and class-based words like lifestyle, upscale, trendy, and entitlement entered the parlance, so asshole, repurposed for the future, began its irresistible rise. Dr. Nunberg has the charts to prove all this, incidentally, of which the most fascinating is the one that shows the nearly identical upward progress, between the years 1950 and 2000, of asshole and empathetic — empathy, of course, being the Kryptonite of assholism. (Another word that neatly follows the asshole curve is narcissist.)

Dirty Harry, est, feminism, the conservative movement... The Web, that womb of assholism... I'm barely scratching the surface of this rich and educational book. Dr. Nunberg first conceived of it in 2005, pre-Obama, pre-backlash, during "what in retrospect seems almost an idyllic age of comity." Ann Coulter — now, is she an asshole? So much of her energy has been spent in the knowing production of assholic verbal events, for the purpose of enraging the assholes on the other side... She's a kind of asshole provocateur. We need a single word for that, don't we, a new word. Dr. Nunberg?

James Parker is the author of Turned On: A Biography of Henry Rollins (Cooper Square Press), and a correspondent for The Atlantic.

Reviewer: James Parker

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781610392587
  • Publisher: PublicAffairs
  • Publication date: 6/11/2013
  • Edition description: First Trade Paper Edition
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 599,844
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Renowned linguist Geoffrey Nunberg is the author of several nonfiction works, including The Years of Talking Dangerously, Going Nuclar, and Talking Right.

Kate Udall is an actor in New York City and an audiobook narrator. Her audiobooks include titles in Allison Brennan's Lucy Kincaid series.

Francis J. Spieler has been a journalist, essayist-critic, and literary agent, and is now an actor and narrator.

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Table of Contents

Introduction vii

1 The Word 1

2 The Uses of Vulgarity 21

3 The Rise of Talking Dirty 54

4 The Asshole Comes of Age 85

5 Men Are All Assholes 118

6 The Asshole in the Mirror 137

7 The Allure of Assholes 153

8 The Assholism of Public Life 174

Notes 215

Acknowledgments 233

A Note on the Figures 235

Index 239

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