When Did Douche Become an Insult?

Answers to your questions about the news.
March 2 2012 3:51 PM

When Did Douche Become an Insult?

And what exactly does it mean?

Andrew Breitbart.
Matt Taibbi referred to the late Andrew Breitbart as a douche in his obituary

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images.

Conservative commentator Andrew Breitbart died on Thursday. The firebrand rarely pulled punches, and some obituarists are following his lead. Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone, for example, titled his Breitbart post “Death of a Douche.” When did douche become an insult?

In the 1960s. The Historical Dictionary of American Slang traces the epithet douche to a 1968 collection of college slang compiled at Brown University, which defined the word as “a person who always does the wrong thing.” The insult douchebag is somewhat older. The 1939 novel Ninety Times Guilty includes a pimp named Jimmy Douchebag, and the Historical Dictionary of American Slang traces the epithetical usage to a 1946 journal article about military slang, which offered the definition “a military misfit.”

These days, it’s not entirely clear what it means to call someone a douche or a douchebag. The Oxford English Dictionary defines douchebag, in its epithetical sense, as a “general term of disparagement,” or more specifically as “an unattractive or boring person.” The specific definitions seem clearly out of step with modern usage. Rolling Stone’s Taibbi, for example, didn’t intend to call Breitbart a bore, because he honored the late pundit’s knack for conjuring a spectacle. Likewise, Taibbi probably wasn’t referring to Breitbart’s looks (although he does comment on Breitbart’s “bloated Joey Buttafuoco cheeks and splendiforous silver half-mullet”).

There’s some support for douche as simply a nonspecific term of disparagement, much like its fellow d-words dick, dillweed, and dipshit. In a 2009 New York Times article about the surging popularity of douche in sitcoms, a writer for the show Community said, “You’re always reaching for a more potent way to call somebody a jerk.”

The insults douche and douchebag, however, seem to have something to do with gender. Obviously, the physical item to which the word refers is associated with female genitalia. And many of the early epithetical uses refer either to women or to men who behave as women. In Plexus (1953), the second book in Henry Miller’s Rosy Crucifixion trilogy, the characters discuss a male transvestite named Minnie Douchebag, a “crazy fairy who sings and plays the piano” at a restaurant in Sheridan square. In Hubert Selby’s 1964 cult hit Last Exit to Brooklyn, the prostitute Tralala tells a man she’d “fuckim blind not like that fuckin douchebag he was with.” The journal American Speech defined douchebag in 1967 as “an unattractive coed,” or, “by extension, any individual whom the speaker desires to denigrate.”

Eventually, the epithets douche and douchebag came to apply to men. Lexicographer and Slate contributor Ben Zimmer points to a 1987 taping of The Morton Downey Jr. Show, during which an audience member taunted Lyndon Larouche with the phrase “Larouche is a douche.” The 1991 Anthrax song “Startin’ Up a Posse” includes the lyrics “You’re a douche, you’re a douche, you’re a douche,” in apparent reference to record executives and/or government censors. Brooklyn hipsters adopted the epithet to describe men with “gelled hair, fitted baseball cap, multiple pastel polo shirts with popped collars layered one atop another” (PDF). Eventually, the insult turned back on them, as outsiders proposed calling a collection of skinny-jeans-wearing Brooklynites “a douchebag of hipsters.” On modern TV shows, the word is almost never applied to women.

Douche and douchebag are hardly the first epithets to cross the gender barrier. Both bitch and  faggot were first applied to women before becoming emasculating insults to men. Those examples suggest that douche once referred, in some way, to a failure to conform to gender stereotypes.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Jesse Sheidlower of the Oxford English Dictionary and author of The F Word, and Ben Zimmer of the Visual Thesaurus.

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore

And schools are getting worried.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

The XX Factor

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Politics

Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

Why a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Is Stirring Up Controversy

How Worried Should Poland, the Baltic States, and Georgia Be About a Russian Invasion?

Trending News Channel
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
  Life
Quora
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 20 2014 3:21 PM “The More You Know (About Black People)” Uses Very Funny PSAs to Condemn Black Stereotypes
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 20 2014 7:00 AM The Shaggy Sun
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.