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

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

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, 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.

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)

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. Nunberg lives in San Francisco, California.

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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From the Publisher

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

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