THE BOOKSHELF: ASCENT OF THE A-WORD.

Geoff Nunberg was kind enough to have his publisher send me a copy of Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years, which I (as a connoisseur of feelthy language) was looking forward to. It turns out to be not as much in my wheelhouse as Jesse Sheidlower’s The F-Word (see this post), which of course was my automatic point of comparison; most of it is taken up with what you might call the sociological analysis of assholism (puts the anal in analysis!), which is fun and thought-provoking but not really LH material. But there are nice bits of philological investigation as well. Chapter Three, “The Rise of Talking Dirty,” is excellent stuff; it starts off by quoting Norman Mailer in The Naked and the Dead: “Lieutenant (sg) Dove, USNR. A Cornell man, a Deke, a perfect asshole.” Nunberg then writes:

By the time asshole appeared in print, it had undoubtedly been circulating in army slang for quite a while. In fact it doesn’t really make sense to ask when this use of asshole was “coined.” It isn’t one of those items like pizzazz or beatnik that a clever columnist or copywriter can drop into the language some Tuesday morning. After all, it doesn’t take a great deal of ingenuity to compare someone you want to disparage to the anus, and it’s fair to assume that people have been doing that from time to time for as long as asshole (or in its older form arsehole) has been around.
Still, it isn’t likely that asshole was a conventional epithet much before the modern period. Even in more straight-laced ages, vulgarities and profanities show up in sources such as diaries, personal letters, pornography, slang dictionaries, and the records of prosecutions for public disorderliness or military insubordination (“Go and f— yourself” made its first print appearance in the proceedings of the Old Bailey in 1901). People have been using arsehole to refer to the anus at least since Chaucer’s time, and there are citations from the 1860s on for the metaphorical use of the word for the most detestable spot in a region, as in “the arse-hole of the universe.” So if asshole had been a routine term of abuse much before World War II, there would most likely be some record of it. Ernest Hemingway didn’t use the word in the manuscript of A Farewell to Arms that he submitted to Scribner’s in 1929, which included shit, fuck, cocksucker, cunt, and balls, none of which made it into the published version. That’s not conclusive, of course, but if asshole had been around then, it’s a fair bet Hemingway would have taken to it (it did show up in Islands in the Stream, written in the early 1950s and set during World War II).

That’s good stuff there! He goes on to discuss the change from profanity proprement dit (damn, God, Jesus, etc.) to our modern secular swearing and the spread of such swearing from the military and other restricted circles into the wider society. And throughout the book he has intriguing charts tracking the ascent of asshole against the parallel ascent of words like empathetic and the descent of words like cad. In short, if the topic of assholes and assholery (or, to use Nunberg’s preferred term, assholism) interests you, this is the book for you.
Oh, and if you’re curious, as I was, about the Russian equivalent of asshole, Anatoly has a thorough discussion; I’m willing to accept his decision that мудак is the best candidate.

Comments

  1. So is it really true that ‘black hole’ literally translates to an obscenity in Russian, and that’s why Russian physicists call black holes ‘frozen stars’?

  2. i always thought it’s jopa in russian, i could be wrong cz don’t see they mention the word in the thread
    about suggestions in the avva’s thread, donkeyhole sounds perhaps neutral, in my language even funny and cute, iljignii nukh, we used to play card games until the lost party becomes ILJIG so i have always very fun and funny feeling about the word, if my older cousins were lazy to play with us they would suggest to play for öt (worm), cz that’s only two short rounds

  3. (or, to use Nunberg’s preferred term, assholism)
    This suggests a number of spinoffs. Someone with a habit of being nasty would be an assoholic. A mean-spirited philosopher could be said to take a holistic approach towards his students.
    I don’t suppose John Mortimer intended the name of his character Rump ‘ole to have cockney connotations.

  4. I always thought he did.

  5. John Cowan: it isn’t true. They call them black holes. There are no obscene overtones.
    On the other hand, I think it’s amusing that “the Big Bang” proved too colloquial for Russian (or Soviet?) sensibilities – it’s literally “the big explosion” in Russian.

  6. Perhaps people would be interested in this podcast:
    The ‘arse that Jack Built
    Ian McMillan goes on a quest to find one of Britain’s strangest linguistic features.
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01ljwm4

  7. The ‘arse that Jack Built
    Very interesting. Many of the respondents clammed up, or eased into proper-talk when asked about their accent. McMillan clearly brought out certain questions that Outsiders should ask themselves when doing fieldwork on accents.
    The program referred often to the SED (Survey of English Dialects), carried out in the 1950s-1960s. At one point it was mentioned that the respondents at the time were primarily older men. Why was the study not called Survey of English Dialects As Spoken By Men Of A Certain Age Willing To Speak That Way ?
    Is there a methodology to compensate for the effects of self-consciousness and respondent selectivity ? One method would be to suppress methodological shortcomings when reporting the results – as in the very title of the SED. I imagine similar questions should be asked when interviewing patients on the effects of psychotropic drugs.

  8. A good methodology for determining isoglosses might be to discard interviews altogether, in favor of recording with hidden microphones. That would seem to solve the self-consciousness issue, leaving only questions of representativeness – but these can be easily addressed by randomly distributing the microphones.
    Of course lexical coverage suffers with this approach. Perhaps locals can be hired to introduce certain words in conversations, in the hope that others present will then pick up those words in their remarks.
    Altogether, it might seem that spying and double agents are good techniques to find out how people “really speak”. But this can’t be right – speaking self-consciously to BBC interviewers is also “really speaking”, just a different kind. Isn’t it rather dubious to regard self-consciousness as a distorting factor that should be eliminated ? Are not people always conscious of themselves and others when conversing, in one way or another, whether or not interviewers are involved ?

  9. any good reason that my comment has been deleted? If there are boundaries to keep it mind, I would like to know

  10. No, I’m very sorry, it must have got caught in one of my mass spam deletions—I double-check to make sure I haven’t included any genuine comments, but every once in a while I screw up. Please repost!

  11. It was just about the comments thread on the avva blog, and how “mudak” may be a better a-hole equivalent than the other two suggestions (gad/kozyol), but neither of the three cut particularly close. The commenters actually suggested much more precise ones, such as govnyuk or gondon. And I wanted to cite from a tract by Psoy Korolenko (somewhat underappreciated here IMVHO) which pointedly juxtaposes gondon vs. mudak (as in, roughly, “he can’t dump this girl now if he isn’t an asshole” – “then he is a moron”)
    вот иностранец ебёт проститутку
    доллары платит сполна
    а проститутка сыграла с ним шутку
    вышло что девка она
    на посмотри как я чиста
    это тебе говорю неспроста
    если ты честный мужик не гондон
    едешь со мною в лондон
    ай да мудила
    ай да мудила
    ну и мудила
    хрен ему в стык
    а горбачёв никакой не мудила
    просто хороший мужик
    просто хороший мужик

  12. “Still, it isn’t likely that asshole was a conventional epithet much before the modern period. Even in more straight-laced ages, vulgarities and profanities show up in sources such as diaries, personal letters, pornography, slang dictionaries, and the records of prosecutions for public disorderliness or military insubordination (“Go and f— yourself” made its first print appearance in the proceedings of the Old Bailey in 1901). ”
    Question for the room – this sounds like regionalism fouling the results. I hahve a sense that “asshole’ is more American, and probably a loan translation of “Arschlock” and that it is not really very new in the US.
    I would not expect to find it in Britain, since they never had the waves of German migration (despite some really intense efforts) that the US had, until about “the modern period” when it would have had a chance to seep into the language over there.
    I remember being really surprised when I finally started reading on-line news and comment from Britian at the extent of the use of Americanisms like “guys” and even “pissed” in its American sense. I suppose this is a pretty recent development.

  13. Grumbly: When you are doing rescue dialectology (the 1950s was damned late, almost too late, to do a dialect study in England, 70-80 years after most of Western Europe), you look primarily to older rural males, because they are the least influenced by the standard.
    More recent studies actually quantify that: men run about half a generation behind women, because women adopt linguistic changes, which they pass on to their children, but their male children won’t adopt the further changes that their sisters will be making.

  14. “Go and f— yourself” made its first print appearance in the proceedings of the Old Bailey in 1901
    1901? So apparently Nunberg refuses to accept that 1898 “Special Instructions to the Players” memo supposedly issued by Major League Baseball.

  15. Jim, Surely the only difference between arsehole and asshole is the spelling not the etymology.
    People have been using arsehole to refer to the anus at least since Chaucer’s time
    I don’t doubt that. He’d be better off trying to figure out how long people have been using anus to refer to the arsehole.

  16. David Derbes says:

    On “black hole”: The late 1950′s saw the beginning of a golden age in general relativity. In Russia, the team of Yakov B. Zel’dovich and Ivan D. Novikov spearheaded many advances; in the US, the leaders were John A. Wheeler and his many students (notably Kip S. Thorne.) Gravitational collapse had been studied since Chandrasekhar’s pioneering work in the early 1930′s, and advanced by J. Robert Oppenheimer (of Manhattan Project and HUAC fame) and his students. But what to call these things? One of the curious facts about collapsed massive objects is that time near them slows down (as observed at a distance); at the edge (the “event horizon”), time actually stops. Hence “застывшие звезды”, frozen stars. Wheeler, much more flamboyant, invented the term and simply started calling them “black holes” in conferences, pretending that this was what everyone called them, and even in a famous article in “Physics Today”, “Introducing the Black Hole” (1968, IIRC). However, there is a problem with obscenity, or so says Kip Thorne: In French, black hole translates as “trou noir”, which really is obscene. Thorne thinks that maybe Wheeler knew that, and liked the frisson. I don’t know what the French astrophysicists do. I highly recommend George Greenstein’s “Frozen Star” and Kip Thorne’s “Black Holes and Time Warps” if this stuff interests you.

  17. David Derbes says:

    Whoops: Igor, not Ivan, Novikov. Lack of coffee, or lack of brain, probably the latter.

  18. It’s hard keeping Novikovs apart. (This is even clearer in Russian, where not only are there subcategories for Новиков, Николай (Nikolai Novikov), there is a subcategory for Новиков, Николай Васильевич (Nikolai Vasilievich Novikov), including a diplomat, an academic, and a minister of state.

  19. Jim, Surely the only difference between arsehole and asshole is the spelling not the etymology.
    People have been using arsehole to refer to the anus at least since Chaucer’s time”
    AJP, I get the rhoticism bit and the etymology is obvious. It’s historical geographical distributio is what I am asking about. I was asking a lexical question, what dialects had the term when. If it does go back to ME, is it just another relic that survived in America before spreading back into the Motherland, or is it in fact a Germanism that spread into English in the US and then elsewhere, or is the author just not really competent in his own language?

  20. Jim, It’s certainly an interesting question, but are you sure that it ever stopped being used in Britain?

  21. Trond Engen says:

    Danish røvhul, Swedish rövhål and arshål/arsle, Norwegian rævhøl, rasshøl and other dialectal forms are widespread as epithets today, and they feel old.
    I’ve asked around, and røvhul as an epithet was well-known to Danish lexicographers before World War 2, but not to Otto Kalkar. Neither is there mention of that sense in Norwegian in Norsk Ordbok 2014, but that may be for prudish reasons. I don’t expect such prudence of Swedish SAOB, but it still doesn’t know any such sense of arshål or rövhål.

  22. He’d be better off trying to figure out how long people have been using anus to refer to the arsehole.
    I think the general public has been using the word anus since about the seventies. I learned to pronounce Uranus as yeraynus in the fifties or even late forties. In those days only biologists and medical doctors used the word anus, so yeraynus didn’t elicit snickers then. Of course this is only a retroactive impression.

  23. He’d be better off trying to figure out how long people have been using anus to refer to the arsehole.
    I think the general public has been using the word anus since about the seventies. I learned to pronounce Uranus as yeraynus in the fifties or even late forties. In those days only biologists and medical doctors used the word anus, so yeraynus didn’t elicit snickers then. Of course this is only a retroactive impression.

  24. I learned “Your Anus”. I first heard of this planet when I was about 10, in 1963. My friend’s dad told us a joke about a woman, her daughter and the daughter’s husband climbing the Eiffel Tower at night: the husband says “What a beautiful evening! I can see Uranus!” and the daughter replies “Oh, can you ? I can see Mars!”

  25. Trond Engen says:

    Oh, I love arhotic stories.
    When did the pronunciation of ‘Uranus’ change from /’juR@n@s/ to /j@r’Ein@s/? I guess the joke works either way, though, if told carefully.

  26. The only pronunciation I know, apart from my own, is “URIN-us”, which is just as bad as “yer Anus”. The people who don’t like “anus” should try something like “the planet, Deodorant”.

  27. marie-lucie says:

    DD: black holes : I don’t know what the French astrophysicists do.
    The French version of the Wikipedia article uses un trou noir. Personally, I am not aware of an objectionable connotation, but that article mentions that there were objections from French and Russian scientists to literal translations of English black hole.

  28. Be A Charming Bride With The says:

    Be because smart as you can, but remember that it must be always easier to be smart than to be smart
    [I deleted the spam URL but could not bring myself to delete this profoundly profound comment.]

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