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