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.