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

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Release Date: 
August 14, 2012
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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It is delightful that a respected linguist would take up the challenge of writing about an inelegant word that has become a staple of our spoken language.

Although it is not surprising as his other books including Talking Right: How Conservatives Turned Liberalism into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show and Going Nucular: Language, Politics, and Culture in Confrontational Times, Ascent of the A-Word is just as interesting.

Who else but Geoffrey Nunberg would have taken the term “asshole” and dissected it into a multitude of forms that both describe and enhance our understanding—indeed appreciation—of this concept?

In the literal sense, asshole refers to someone's anatomy; however, used in the popular colloquial fashion, asshole refers to someone's personality or behavior.

It is the latter meaning Professor Nunberg spends time deftly dissecting, from its first literary appearance to the characteristics of those who represent the archetypes in our society.

Dr. Nunberg traces the use of coarse language from the Victorian era of the 1920s to the spread of the A-word by returning World War II servicemen (and novelist Norman Mailer in The Naked and the Dead).

In an effort to describe who is an asshole or behaves in the category of assholism, Dr. Nunberg aligned his definition with Barbara Walter's. Among those who are often paired with the asshole label are: Rush Limbaugh, Mel Gibson, Hank Williams Jr., Bill O'Reilly, Tiger Woods, Tom Cruise, Karl Rove, Donald Trump, Sarah Palin, and Mark Zuckerberg.

A personal deliberation over whether someone is an asshole, a prick, or a jerk is more about a personality than semantics. To paraphrase the famous phrase by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart regarding pornography: I can't define one, but I know one when I see one.

Just as there are those who are specifically identifiable as assholes, Dr. Nunberg also has a definition of the "anti-asshole."

The anti-asshole is a new cultural hero best depicted by Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry. Other anti-assholes include Bruce Willis and Steven Seagal.

These anti-heroes are tough, blunt, and disaffected, according to Professor Nunberg. They are courteous to ordinary folk, but abusive and contemptuous to criminals and those in the police hierarchy who keep them from doing their job.

Ascent of the A-Word would be incomplete if Professor Nunberg left out assholism in political discourse. His best example? Donald Trump. "Trump's reputation as an asshole was firmly established before his dalliance with politics began."

In his book, Professor Nunberg trounces the political broadcasters as those who truly qualify as personal and professional assholes. He gives an example of this behavior by Ann Coulter when she gave a talk at the University of Ottawa in 2010. A Muslim student asked her how Muslims are expected to travel if they shouldn't be allowed on airplanes as Coulter had suggested. She answered, "Take a camel."

"To judge from the energy they give preening, sneering and bullying their guests and callers, a lot of successful ones in talk radio, as in baseball, are the nice guys who finish at the bottom of the division."

"The problem with political assholism,” contends the author, "is that it has worked its way into everyday conversation, particularly as response to the politicization of manners associated with political correctness."

In the end, assholism is not helpful in engendering or maintaining a useful and constructive dialogue. By its very definition, it is "designed to deny that very possibility" by dividing one group from another.

How do we avoid assholism? As Professor Nunberg suggests, "When someone acts like an asshole "about an important matter," it is important not to answer in kind, but "with the seriousness the question requires."