Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years
It went from the mouths of WWII servicemen to the typewriter of a young Norman Mailer. By the 1970s it had become a staple of Neil Simon plays and Woody Allen movies. In 2000, George W. Bush accidentally uttered it on a live mic and sparked a debate as to whether that made him a man of the people, or just an asshole. Ours is the age of assholism.
There may be no more assholes in the world now than there ever were, but there are new ways for acting like one. And no less important, we've made the asshole the object of obsessive collective interest, in the way that the phony was in Holden Caulfield's day or the cad was in Trollope's. Over time, the word has become an expression of contemporary American values— about civility, about relationships, about pretension, about class. Yet the media are obliged to bleep it or disguise it with asterisks. And we use it unreflectingly and give it no attention. Considering how important it is to us, it doesn't get the respect it deserves. Until now.
Geoffrey Nunberg is an adjunct full professor at UC Berkeley's School of Information, a linguist, and former chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary. Since 1989, he has done a language feature on NPR's "Fresh Air," and his commentaries have appeared in the New York Times and other publications. A winner of the Linguistic Society of America's Language and the Public Interest Award, he is also the author of Talking Right and Going Nucular. Nunberg lives in San Francisco, California.