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Geoffrey Nunberg’s new book gets to the bottom of “asshole”

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Chuck Twardy

The Details

Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years
Four stars
By Geoffrey Nunberg, $26.

My name is Chuck, and I am an asshole.

But look in the mirror, you … well, we can all be disagreeable, depending on circumstances. When I whip around you to make that left turn, I’m an asshole, sure, but then you were busy texting. Jerk.

That the word is the default for displeasure with others is central to linguist and Fresh Air contributor Geoffrey Nunberg’s Ascent of the A-word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years. Dictionaries label it “vulgar slang,” but slang words are second choices. “The asshole seems as basic and universal a type of miscreant as the coward or the traitor,” Nunberg writes. “That’s what it means for a concept to be naturalized: We call them assholes, because that’s what they are.”

But that’s only because society naturalized vulgarity. With the decay of Victorian values, it first seemed smart not to seem smug. Working-class swear words came into general use, so people of all classes could establish their regular-joe bona fides.

And what is an asshole but a person with a pretentious sense of entitlement? And how better to level that person than by anal equation? The word flourished during World War II and took its literary bow in 1948, in Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead. Nunberg tracks it through the social rumpus of the 1960s and the self-centering of the 1970s, charting usage in relation to words such as “incivility” and “narcissism.”

Movie heroes such as Dirty Harry arose as anti-assholes, to mow down officious meddlers, but reality TV hands the viewer the .44 Magnum. Think Trump here, but really any of the chefs, brides and housewives we love/hate. This is where “assholism” comes in, and things get tricky. Consider the beatification of Steve Jobs, clearly a first-class asshole. Even when we apply the label, we often admire its object.

Nunberg assigns it even-handedly, but says conservatives are more asshole-prone, because loyalty is crucial to them—hence, “a rhetorical style aimed at creating a sense of solidarity and partisan identity …” So talk-show blowhards deploy context-free quotes and unsupported suppositions. Or bullsh*t, another vulgarism Nunberg considers briefly, citing the 2005 book/essay by philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullsh*t.

Frankfurt identifies an “indifference to how things really are” as “the essence of bullsh*t,” and he ties it, as Nunberg links assholism, to the rise of true-to-yourself “sincerity.”

And this entitlement makes assholes of us all.

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