Lexicon Valley’s Conversation with Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg about the Rise of the A**hole (Transcript Included)

A show about the mysteries of English.
Sept. 18 2012 2:40 PM

Who You Callin’ A**hole?

Slate’s show about Geoffrey Nunberg’s new book Ascent of the A-Word, now with transcripts.

Listen to Lexicon Valley Episode No. 17: Ascent of the A-Word:

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According to linguist Geoffrey Nunberg: “There have been eras that took a far more intense interest in spectacles of cruelty than ours, but none that was so transfixed by watching people act like assholes.” In his new book Ascent of the A-word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years, Nunberg, who teaches at UC Berkeley’s School of Information, charts the rise of both the word asshole in our lexicon and the sort of person it describes. Listen as Bob Garfield and I have an uncensored talk with Nunberg about what he calls the “moral logic of assholism,” the character of the anti-asshole, and why it is that women are rarely on the receiving end of the epithet.

You can also read the transcript of our conversation below.

You'll find every Lexicon Valley episode at slate.com/lexiconvalley, or in the player below:

Send your thoughts about the show to slatelexiconvalley@gmail.com.

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BOB: From Washington, D.C., this is Lexicon Valley, a podcast about language. I'm Bob Garfield with Mike Vuolo. And today, Episode 17, titled “Ascent of the A-word,” wherein we talk to linguist Geoffrey Nunberg about the entitled, obtuse, and omnipresent asshole. Hey Mikey.

MIKE: Hey Bob, we're back.

BOB: Here we are.

MIKE: You know, I posted an announcement back in July saying that Lexicon Valley would return with new episodes in late summer. And, not too long ago, bcmoonraker wrote a review on iTunes—a five-star review, by the way—with the title "Define 'late' summer." So ...

BOB: [laughing]

MIKE: ... by my watch, there are about five days or so left in summer.

BOB: Oh, so we got in under the wire, did we?

MIKE: Just under the wire. All right, before we get to today's episode, a quick update. On Episode 5 of Lexicon Valley, we spoke with David Skinner about a book that he was working on called The Story of Ain't: America, Its Language and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published. We, in fact, read it in manuscript form at the time, Bob, before even an uncorrected proof was available. Well, the book is coming out Oct. 9. You can already pre-order it on Amazon. If you're interested in dictionaries and lexicography, I really recommend it. It's fascinating, and of course listen to our interview, if you haven't already, with Skinner. It was a lot of fun and, if I remember correctly, Bob, Skinner got in a really good zinger at you. I'm not sure if you remember that.

BOB: I don't. Did it happen in the last five minutes?

MIKE: [laughing] No, this was back in, I think, March.

BOB: Yeah, I don't even remember the month of March. I'm sorry, I'm a senior American. What did he say? What was the zinger?

MIKE: Well, I think you accused him of failing to grasp the central premise of his book, the sort of war between prescriptivism and descriptivism. And then he said that he was very glad to hear that you had read the entire Wikipedia entry on the subject.

BOB: [laughing] Oh, snap.

MIKE: Yeah, I only wish that I had said that.

BOB: That's pretty good. In fact, I did read the entire manuscript that he sent along, I believe, if I recall correctly—come to ponder the subject. So that was a scurrilous charge but pretty funny.

MIKE: And, in fact, that was the only time that we've done an author interview on Lexicon Valley, until today. We're gonna talk in a few minutes to the linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, who teaches at UC Berkeley's School of Information and has a new book called Ascent of the A-word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years, which is a cultural, linguistic take on not just the word asshole but really the entire social construct of the character of the asshole. Is that a fair way to describe it, do you think?

BOB: Yeah, I think that's a fair way to describe it, and I read that, too, not just the Wikipedia entry. You wouldn't think that you could get an entire, whatever it is, 60,000 words out of one vulgarity, but he does, and he covers a lot of ground.

MIKE: Yeah, he does. And, you know, a number of years ago a blogger named Charles Lavoie made the observation that almost every cartoon in The New Yorker's caption contest would work with the phrase, "Christ, what an asshole!"

BOB: [laughing]

MIKE: And, you know, I remembered that recently, and I think that really highlights just how all-pervasive the character of the asshole has become. It's hard to believe that that word as an epithet for a person is only about 60 years old. As we'll talk about in a few minutes with Nunberg, the word emerges from the rubble, so to speak, of World War II, hangs around during the 1950s and ‘60s and then explodes in the lexicon in the 1970s.

BOB: Well I disagree entirely Mike. As we have previously discussed, the word emerged during World War II, then it exploded into the lexicon. It happened in the past.

MIKE: [laughing] I see.

BOB: So why don't we use that tense?

MIKE: Listeners of this podcast will recognize that what Bob's talking about is me using the "historical present." You know, I really didn't know that I do that, but I guess I do.

BOB: Yeah, yeah, you're one of them. So next time you see Doris Kearns Goodwin, you can have a nice time-disorienting conversation.

MIKE: Yeah, we'll talk exclusively about things that have already happened in the present. All right, I will try not to use the historical present in this interview that we're gonna do with Geoff Nunberg. Let's bring him in. He's on the line. Geoff, welcome to the show.

NUNBERG: Well, thanks so much for having me.

BOB: Do I also get to welcome him to the show?

MIKE: Sure, go ahead, Bob.

BOB: Welcome to the show, Geoff.

NUNBERG: Well thanks, Bob, to you too for having me.

BOB: Well, you're welcome from me as well.

MIKE: Sorry, Bob. Before we start I wanna define a few terms, terms that you use, Geoff, in the book, terms that I think we tend colloquially to use interchangeably. And that would be profanity, obscenity, and maybe throwing in vulgarity there, too.

NUNBERG: Sure. Profanity is traditionally words derived from religion that are used in low contexts, so when you say goddamn or hell or Jesus, those are traditional profanities. For most of the 19th century, that was it in terms of swearing. There was no use of words for body parts and sex acts and so on and so forth, so those just were the swear words.

Around the end of the 19th century, beginning of the 20th century, people began to move from those words—or what some people called the denatured profanities, things like tarnation and goldarn and so on—to these other words like fuck and shit that were derived from parts of the body. That's what one would call obscenities. Vulgarity was a very broad term for Victorians and referred to any kind of word or practice that was not strictly speaking what one ought to do in a social sense. But over the course of the 20th century, it became narrowed by and large to refer to words that were associated with the speech of the lower classes or working people.

So, when George W. Bush called Adam Clymer of the New York Times "a major-league asshole"—he was caught on open mic doing that during the 2000 presidential campaign—the Times itself, which at that point would not use the word asshole, reported him as having used an obscenity. And their standards guy sent around a memo and said, “Well really in the future if this happens, we should refer to this as a vulgarity, not an obscenity.”

BOB: Yeah, big time.

MIKE: [laughing] I wanna talk a little bit about what was happening in the first few decades of the 20th century with regard to a number of other obscenities. There were, as you point out, a whole bunch of words that were starting to take on new usages around this time. For example, the word fuck, which had been in the vocabulary for centuries, was used for the first time as a noun for a person, as in, "You're such a fuck." The word cocksucker was used for the first time as a general term of contempt, without any imputation of homosexuality. And the word shit was used for the first time as a verb meaning to deceive, as in, "You've gotta be shitting me."

NUNBERG: Bullshit was one, fuck-up, up shit creek and so on. Dozens and dozens of these words that, although they were vulgar in their origins and had obscene meanings, in these new uses referred to things that really didn't have any particularly obscene properties or consequences. When you say, "That's bullshit," you're merely saying it's nonsense or a kind of stronger form of nonsense, but you're not imputing to it anything obscene. And when I call somebody an asshole, I may be talking about his arrogance or sense of entitlement or obtuseness, but I'm not saying anything about him that I couldn't say on the op-ed page of the New York Times if I couched it in more decorous language.

BOB: Yeah, hey, but Geoffrey, one of the interesting things about asshole that I gleaned from reading 240 pages about assholes is that unlike fuck, which has both its literal meaning and then its vaguely derogatory meaning and then plus its nonmeaning as kind of an intensifier.

NUNBERG: Right.

BOB: "What the fuck?" I mean, I don't even know what role the word fuck plays in that sentence, how you would describe it, but it's completely divorced from any actual thing. Whereas asshole, unlike all these other vulgarities, is always specifically about something. It's always an allegation.

NUNBERG: That's right, I mean asshole describes a certain kind of person, and I think the literal meaning—unlike fuck when you say, "Who's that fucking guy?" or something where it does have nothing to do with intercourse—I think the literal meaning of the word is hovering around it. I mean, we use it to refer to somebody who's contemptible and the idea of something small and foul and dirty and contemptible—which is the conventional view of the anus, though there are some who will take exception to that—still pervades the word, even when we use it to describe a person.

MIKE: So asshole appears for the first time not in the very first decades of the 20th century, but later on in the 1940s, when there is what you refer to as kind of second wave of obscene words being used in new and newly creative ways.

NUNBERG: Right, it's GI slang by and large and this is when you begin to see these words like pissed off for angry and get on somebody's ass and ballbreaker and don't fuck with me and things like that. It's often hard to know when these words first appear because it's not as if we have extensive written records of this language. But asshole itself was clearly a coining of GIs during the Second World War to refer to meddlesome or officious officers or noncoms. It first appears in literature—it appeared once or twice before then—in Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead, the 1948 war novel which I think was written in '45, to describe a character named Lt. Dove, who's a minor character in the novel and we can call the fist literary asshole.

MIKE: And part of the premise of your book is that the word asshole is sui generis in our language. It's not simply a substitute for other words from an earlier time that preceded it, like scoundrel or jerk or phony.

BOB: Or cad or heel, both of which he mentions as proto-assholes.

NUNBERG: Right. The word's around in the language after the war, but it really isn't till around 1970 or so that it becomes part of everyday speech. That's obviously an arbitrary date for something as vague a process as that. But that's when you start to see it in Neil Simon plays and Woody Allen movies and stories by Tom Wolfe. It's at that point that it begins to drive out some of this earlier language that you're talking about.

So phony, which was the word that best expressed the social preoccupations and obsessions of the post-war years (everybody knows how important a word it was for Holden Caulfield), that word, we still have it as an adjective or "don't give me any phony excuses" or so on and so forth, but the phony as a social type is replaced by the asshole.

Now they're not exactly the same. Being a phony is just a question of what you do. It's representing yourself as something you're not. But we don't really know a lot about the phony's inner life or we don't care. It's a kind of behavior, it's not an inner state. Where being an asshole, which may overlap being a phony, is a condition of personality. It's an inner condition. It's the same with heel, which asshole replaces around the same time, this great tradition of movie heels—Zachary Scott and Dan Duryea and Pal Joey and Hud, these real rotters—we don't know anything about their inner life, and we don't really care about their inner life. When they're replaced by assholes, then all of a sudden the asshole is a pathetic creature. He's got a miserable inner life. He's insensitive. So I think of it sometimes as a shift from character to personality.

MIKE: And now, because we know more about the inner life of the asshole, the asshole can be redeemed. Whereas the heel and the phony couldn't really be redeemed because, who cares, right?

NUNBERG: Right, I think of Zachary Scott in Mildred Pierce, who's the classic heel of all time.

TAPE of Mildred Pierce:

MONTE BERAGON: Just where did you get the idea I'm going to marry you?
VEDA PIERCE: Monte, don't joke like that.
MONTE BERAGON: I'm not joking. If you think I'm going to marry you, you're very much mistaken.
VEDA PIERCE: Monte, listen to me! You told me over and over again that you loved me.
MONTE PIERCE: Did I? Then I must have been drinking.
VEDA PIERCE: Monte, listen to me!
MONTE PIERCE: Look, you don't really think I could be in love with a rotten little tramp like you, do you?

NUNBERG: We don't know anything about his inner life. We don't care. He's a rotter. He's a heel. That's what he is. That's his type. Where the asshole, yeah, can be redeemed. There's a model for this going back to Jane Austen's Mr. Darcy, who is arrogant and haughty to Elizabeth Bennet for the first two-thirds of the novel until he suddenly has a change of heart and turns into Colin Firth. And that's the model for all of these characters that Tom Cruise plays in, um ...

BOB: Just about anything. Magnolia. Cocktail.

NUNBERG: Yeah, in Top Gun. In Rain Man.

TAPE of Rain Man:

CHARLIE BABBITT: I mean that's gonna do me a lotta good, Ray.
RAYMOND BABBITT: Yeah.
CHARLIE BABBITT: You see Qantas doesn't fly to LA outta Cincinnati! You have gotta get to Melbourne!
RAYMOND BABBITT: Australia.
CHARLIE BABBITT: Melbourne, Australia, in order to get the plane that flies to Los Angeles! Do you hear me?!

TAPE of Magnolia:

FRANK T.J. MACKEY: Bottom line? Language. The magical key to unlocking the female analytical mindset. Tap directly into her hopes, her wants, her fears, her desires and her sweet little panties.

NUNBERG: He's the self-absorbed, self-interested character who has a change of heart or an insight toward the end of the movie—Jerry Maguire—and becomes a good guy.

BOB: If I can believe Geoffrey that the quintessential 21st century asshole is the guy you repeatedly conjure in the book, the guy who is berating the gate agent for an upgrade—while everybody else is bedraggled, standing in line, he's making a big scene. I think you can describe him. I mean, maybe I'm distilling your book too extremely, but it's that sense of arrogance or entitlement, plus an obtuseness, a lack of self-awareness about how he appears to others, and maybe a little mean-spiritedness thrown in the bargain.

NUNBERG: The obtuseness is important because it has to be culpable. The asshole is somebody who ought to know better. That's why kids can't be really assholes. They can be little shits, 'cause this kind of basic malignity can be inborn, but you can't really be an asshole till you're old enough to know what's expected of you, you know maybe in your teens or something like that. And it's important to realize that while there are people who are consecrated, chronic assholes—like Donald Trump, for example, or Gen. Patton—it's a condition that all of us are liable to.

MIKE: Well, you know this gets at this phrase that you coined in the book, which I really like, the "moral logic of assholism," which suggests that we license ourselves to act like an asshole if we believe that we're confronted with somebody who's being an asshole to us.

NUNBERG: That's terribly important, and I think the vulgarity of the word comes into that, because when you call somebody an asshole, you're swearing at him. We can talk at some point about why it's him for the most part, but you're swearing at him. You're abusing him, whether you do it to his face or much more often, actually, we call people assholes in the third party when they're not present. We're entitled to treat him disrespectfully. It's not simply saying, “I have contempt for you.” It's demonstrating the contempt.

BOB: In fact, there's an entire literary, or at least Hollywood, archetype, a kind of subcategory of the anti-hero you call the anti-asshole.

NUNBERG: Yeah.

BOB: Who behaves like an asshole to deal with a world of assholes.

NUNBERG: Right, this is the character embodied, certainly in one version, in Dirty Harry.

TAPE of The Enforcer:

CAPT. MCKAY: That's it, Callahan. You just got yourself a 60-day suspension.
HARRY CALLAHAN: Make it 90.
CAPT. MCKAY: 180. Gimme your star.
HARRY CALLAHAN: Here's a seven-point suppository captain.
CAPT. MCKAY: What did you say?
HARRY CALLAHAN: I said stick it in your ass!

NUNBERG: His boss is an asshole. The media people are assholes. The leaders of the minority community, as they call it then, are assholes. The police psychologist is an asshole. And the punks he's after are assholes. Surrounded by assholes as he is, he can abuse them, he swears at them, he can stick their head in a toilet. He can do all these things that John Wayne would never be allowed to do. Why? Because they're assholes, and assholes deserve to be treated like assholes. And, moreover, there's an enormous pleasure in watching somebody do really bad things to assholes.

TAPE of The Enforcer:

HARRY CALLAHAN: What?
CAPT. MCKAY: You've been transferred to personnel.
HARRY CALLAHAN: To personnel? That's for assholes.
CAPT. MCKAY: I was in personnel for 10 years.
HARRY CALLAHAN: Yeah.

BOB: So let's talk about the war of the sexes. It seems that asshole is pretty much mainly the province of men, as an epithet and maybe as a set of behaviors. You just don't hear many women being called assholes. But you do get to hear a lot of men being called assholes, mainly by women for the way they've treated women.

NUNBERG: You rarely, almost never, hear a woman being described as an asshole for doing to a man what a man would be called an asshole for doing to a woman. So, I think that there are lots of cases where we ought to call women assholes in the name of gender equity, where we don't. We call them bitch. But why should we use a word that's gender specific for this particular kind of behavior? I mean, it isn't as if this suddenly flows from some basic, primitive female malignity. It's because she's got a swollen sense of entitlement just like the guy does. And if we had any sense of gender equity, we'd call her an asshole, too.

BOB: So what's going on there?

NUNBERG: Well, I think there's a kind of sexism that reads the kind of aggressive or arrogant behavior that we call assholism in men as having a different source. When a woman does it, when a woman is aggressive or arrogant in that way it has to do with some particularly female drive or something, that really isn't the case. I mean that's just not how it works.

BOB: So, to paraphrase Sissy Farenthold, we will know when women have achieved some measure of gender equity when asshole women can be called assholes right alongside asshole men.

NUNBERG: You betcha. Look, if Eddie Fisher's an asshole for leaving Debbie Reynolds for Elizabeth Taylor, then what is Elizabeth Taylor when she leaves Eddie Fisher for Richard Burton?

BOB: Fuckin' bitch!

NUNBERG: [laughing] There you are.

MIKE: I wanna read just a brief passage from your book. You say: "There have been eras that took a far more intense interest in spectacles of cruelty than ours, but none that was so transfixed by watching people act like assholes.” You're arguing that we're in a kind of golden age of assholism right now.

NUNBERG: [laughing] Golden age, I don't know. But it certainly is an age that's as obsessed with assholism as I say the post-war years were obsessed with the phony or the age of Anthony Trollope was obsessed with the cad and the bounder. It's our vice. It's our miscreant. And you see that all over the place. You see that in the movies we make. You see it in reality TV. The Apprentice is a show whose entire arc is aimed at showing you this guy who's an asshole being an asshole to these supplicants who are also assholes, or if they aren't assholes are encouraged to be assholes by ratting each other out in the final scene. It's become the main strain of entertainment, and it's become also a theme of our political discourse in a more disturbing way.

MIKE: So we mentioned that the word asshole has in a sense replaced some of these earlier words. But if the word asshole itself didn't exist, would we still have that concept now in 2012? In other words, is the word a necessary component of the idea that we've been talking about?

NUNBERG: You know, that's the deepest question of all. Linguists spend a lot of time thinking about this. Does language shape thought or does thought shape language? My answer is yes. It works both ways.

I think we'd have some collection of concepts like this even if we didn't have the word asshole. I mean, it's a reflection of a whole bunch of cultural changes that are taking place in the post-war years and that express themselves in this way and so on. I don't think we'd think of them as a unified concept if we didn't have a single word for them.

The example I give is the notion of cool. The word doesn't really become part of American English until the mid-1950s, let's say. People have argued that that sensibility is there before the word cool appears, but I think if we didn't have the word, we wouldn't identify it as a common sensibility. So the word may not create the idea of the asshole, but it identifies it and gives it a kind of unity. Asshole stands in for me for a lot of the features of the culture that people describe with these grand words like incivility, which are really these words that live their lives only on op-ed pages. I mean nobody ever learned the meaning of incivility at the dinner table. And people who talk about incivility then go on to imagine, oh well, we have this problem with incivility, let's have a national conversation. Let's start an institute. Let's have meetings in church basements. We can deal with this. But this thing is really rooted in very deep features of the culture. And when you look at a word like asshole, you realize how improbable it is that any of that stuff could really make that much of a difference in the way we behave toward one another.

BOB: I got one more thing for you, Geoffrey. We are a dinky little podcast unregulated by the FCC or even grown-ups, come to think of it. And you can come on and talk about this stuff and call an asshole an asshole and say other naughty words with impunity. You're not even gonna hear any bleeps because it's fair game here. But you have a book that you wanna promote, and I'm sure you are dying to get on mainstream broadcast outlets and newspapers. And they all have standards which are, if not retrograde, at least they're still restricted in the extreme. You can't say the word asshole in talking about your book about assholes. What are you gonna do?!

NUNBERG: Well, I'll use other language. I'll do a little dance. I don't know if that's necessarily a bad thing. I mean, some people are shocked and distressed at hearing this word. I don't know a whole lot of people like that living in my part of Northern California. But I know a fair number of people who find it crude or coarse. I asked Eric Alterman to do a blurb for the book. Now Eric's not the sort of person you'd think of as a delicate flower. He's in fact thought of by some people as quite abrasive. But he said, “You know I hate that word. I don't even like to say that word.”

So, I understand the reluctance to say the word that some people have. I just think you have to talk about it. The New York Times never ran the word until I think this year. They ran it when they printed the transcript of the George Zimmerman 911 tape in which he referred to Trayvon Martin as an asshole. But that's the first time they'd ever run the word. And there are news sources that simply won't run it, so you talk about the A-word.

BOB: I don't know. It sounds like the circumlocutions are gonna turn the whole interview into a burlesque.

NUNBERG: It can happen. I did a radio thing this morning, and there was too much of the D-word and the C-word and so on. It became a kind of alphabet soup. But if you don't talk about the word, never mind if you don't want to say it, but if you don't talk about the word, you're implicitly acceding to one of these narratives that are just out there about this kind of language. Either you're doing the George Carlin thing—isn't it terrible, if we only could lose our bourgeois hang-ups, we would be able to use this language without any sense of discomfort. Or you get into the kind of William Bennett thing about the coarsening of American culture and the decline of civility and it all started in the ‘60s. Now those are the only two narratives out there on this kind of language. And when you see these cases coming up, like the FCC cases, the only story there is is this argument between two points of view that are fundamentally, both of them, disingenuous and naïve at the same time.

MIKE: Incidentally, Eric Alterman did write a blurb for the book, and he called it a "breathtaking achievement.”

NUNBERG: That's 'cause his breath was taken away by having to read a book about it.

MIKE: [laughing] Thanks so much, Geoff.

NUNBERG: Thank you very much.

BOB: Thank you, Geoffrey.

MIKE: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist. He teaches at UC Berkeley's School of Information. His book is called Ascent of the A-word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years.

Mike Vuolo is senior producer of podcasts and editor of @lexiconvalley.