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

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

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by Geoffrey Nunberg
     
 

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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,

Overview

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.

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)
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.
From the Publisher
"A witty and politically charged analysis of a potent obscenity in its modern and contemporary context." —Kirkus

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781610391757
Publisher:
PublicAffairs
Publication date:
08/14/2012
Pages:
272
Product dimensions:
5.60(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.10(d)

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From the Publisher
"A witty and politically charged analysis of a potent obscenity in its modern and contemporary context." —-Kirkus

Meet 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. Nunberg lives in San Francisco, California.

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Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
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