Geoffrey Nunberg’s “Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years”

Intersections of the American public and its academy are too rare. This is for myriad reasons. College is expensive and exclusive. The individual research of professors—especially in the humanities—is too obscure to have much traction with the small share of Americans who actually read books. And perceptions of the ivory tower/elitism owe a good deal to that expense and exclusion and obscurity.

Geoffrey Nunberg isn’t exactly a household name—no academic is. But Nunberg is known, his writings on language appearing in The New York Times and other publications, his voice heard often on NPR’s Fresh Air. Of course, The Times and public radio have very specific audiences. But with that proviso in mind, it’s clear that Nunberg’s been able to branch out of academia more than his fellow linguists.

Enter Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years, Nunberg’s charming and comprehensive study of the history, usage, and culture of the word asshole. If ever there were a word to unite Americans—academics, steelworkers, etc.—in 2012, it’d be asshole, for its common usage and what it evokes: our worries about our declining civility. But Nunberg’s work isn’t meant to sound the alarm about anonymous people being dicks in line at Cosi or pregnant women being forced to stand on public transportation. Rather, he’s more interested in its origins, rise, and definition. 

Nunberg begins where asshole did: WWII. It was just one of many vulgarities coined by the low-rank men fighting that terrible, terrible war abroad: pissed off, get on someone’s ass, and ballbreaker were also coined during WWII, largely in response to their superiors and the petty divisions of the military in general.

[D]raftees from a range of backgrounds were proletarianized for the duration and subjected to the unrelenting regime of petty harrassment and mindless bureaucratic rigmarole that passed under the heading of chickenshit.

And when the men returned, the word’s use spread, as men from that “range of backgrounds” were hardly bashful about using their new vocabulary. (To Nunberg’s credit, he leans on Paul Fussell a good deal for much of his evidence—further proof that you really can’t go wrong citing/reading/talking about the recently departed writer.)

Some of Nunberg’s own ideas about assholes, however, seem to have less traction. Its contemporary usage, he argues, is tribal—reserved for those in our class or neighborhood (metaphorically or physically).

It’s a word we reserve for members of our own tribe: the boss who takes credit for your work, the neighbors who get on your case for putting out your garbage the night before, or maybe a well-known politician or celebrity. It isn’t a word you’d use of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

But why not? Not to go Fareed Zakaria-BOT and mutter GLOBALIZATION BECAUSE GLOBALIZATION over and over, but it seems within reason that in our interconnected world one could justifiably call both Scott Disick and al-Zarqawi assholes. The life of the latter seems no more foreign to most non-slack-jawed Americans than that of the former. In other words, the difference seems arbitrary. (Nunberg later applies the same reasoning to Osama bin Laden, insisting we wouldn’t call him an asshole even if we knew “how he treated his wives.” Perhaps.)

Nunberg’s at his best when he’s working against societal platitudes about how downright rude Americans are today. As he cleverly shows, allegations of an increasing sense of rudeness throughout the culture can actually be proof that we are becoming less rude; we weren’t more civil twenty or thirty years ago, we just didn’t consider as many things rude or contemptible. (I guess this is the slow encroachment political correctness conservatives are always yelling about?) We’re going out of our way to correct and discipline ourselves.

Additionally, Nunberg’s tone is warm and welcoming. Though he makes no effort to hide his intelligence or credentials or even mind-bendingly annoying hang-ups (his pointing out that HBO’s Deadwood didn’t use period-appropriate language is…tedious), BERKELEY PROFESSOR doesn’t jump off the page. In fact, he playfully acknowledges the special sort of assholism he encounters on a daily basis.

You can’t live in San Francisco and teach at Berkeley, as I do, without being impressed by the myriad forms of assholism that bourgeois liberals nourish: the pretension and superiority, the preciosity, the way laudable commitments to social justice sit cheek by jowl with intrusive paternalism. (Berkeley has always been a place where people believe that consenting adults should be allowed to do whatever they please in the privacy of their bedroom so long as they don’t try to smoke afterwards.)

That self-awareness serves Nunberg well when he diagnoses the pathological assholism of the American right—something that I hesitate to describe much here as I’d just be typing *nods repeatedly* after each block quote.

And that self awareness helps in another way: it knocks Nunberg down a few pegs, perhaps down to the reader’s level. It’s a kind of talking shop: being very forthright and unbashful about the sorts of things we encounter on a daily basis. Nunberg obviously can’t hold a candle to, say, a custodian in terms of daily indignities, but the two could at least discuss, I feel, the exclusively awful things they each encounter. That he makes no bones about his class and his place only strengthens his arguments and widens his appeal.

Perhaps that’s why I’m so charmed not only by Nunberg’s tone but what it represents in the broad sense of that town-and-gown gap that is so common in America today. Too many times in college I witnessed asshole professors taking one giant leap off of campus and trying to diagnose the problems (why, yes, I am an English professor—I ought to run for mayor!) ailing a community. Closing that gap might be about finding common ground. And as Nunberg shows, assholes are absolutely everywhere.

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