Merriam-Webster’s Words At Play features one of my favorite words in Some Notes On ‘Asshat’:

One of the difficulties in the creation and upkeep of a dictionary is the issue of how to treat nonstandard language. English is constantly being refreshed with new slang words, some of which quickly wither and disappear, while others assimilate into the language and become standardized (our 1916 Collegiate listed awful, jinx, and measly as slang). Should the lexicographer enter every new slang term that comes along the dictionary would quickly become overloaded with words which have little current applicability; if too long passes before entering some of these words the dictionary is obsolete before it is published.

The compromise is to enter words after they have demonstrated a certain breadth and consistency of use, typically in printed form. A fine example of the kind of word that merits inclusion is asshat (“a stupid, annoying, or detestable person”), a word recently added to our dictionary. It occupies the space between assez and asshead.

Asshat is a new addition to the English language. Recent research has found evidence of use from the late 1990s, in Usenet groups. (Note: the first citation below may be a pun on the misspelling of musical group Hatebreed)

who are hatbreed? maybe it’s part of that ass hat crew selena hangs out with, 14 Apr. 1998

1977 CHiPs 3 3/4″ action figures (5 different: Ponch, Jon, Sarge, Jimmy
Squeaks, Stupid F***ing Asshat Erik Mouse, and Wheels Willie) $10-15 each
—, 23 Jul. 1999

The use of this word has, over the past two decades, spread considerably, and it may now be found even among the most urbane and sophisticated speakers of English […]

See the link for much information on further development; I like their last paragraph:

A final note: careful writers would do well to take care with the correct use of the hyphen and spacing when employing the suffix form of -ass. There is a profound difference between being in possession of a “sweet-ass hat” and a “sweet asshat”; failure to observe these conventions of punctuation may result in significant confusion on the part of your readers.

The OED also has it (s.v. ass, n.², entry updated September 2018), but their first citation is only from 2002: RSP=ASSHAT in (Usenet newsgroup) 4 Jan. “You’re an asshat too.” I take pride in having included it in my 2007 book of insults and curses (US edition 2009); in that entry I cited the website MetaFilter, where I first encountered the word and where you will find a thread on the M-W post as well as a link to cortex’s delightful little song “Please Stop The Asshattery,” in which he set to music a mod note from jessamyn. Asshattery may be an even better word than asshat.


  1. I’m not sure it was initially used on Usenet, but it’s quite probable.

    I think it was more probably used on a BBS first. Edit: I seem to recall a German BBS. might be wrong.

  2. Yeah, that seems very likely.

  3. The definitive Internet reference on that last admonitory paragraph is this early xkcd.

  4. Brett: before Randall got “famous” we could talk like normal people and share opinions. I can actually remember the last time we did.

  5. Berore the forum got hacked. And the IRC channel. My email is defunct anyway, and so is his.

  6. Some musings about the word “ass” from Ismo, the Finnish comedian

  7. I mainly know “asshat” from its previous appearances at LH in 2011 and 2015. “Arsehat” was submitted to Collins Dictionary in 2012 but is still “Pending Investigation”.

  8. I definitely remember someone referring to Ross Douthat as “Ross Asshat” in the early 2000s (around 2001, I think).

  9. Asshat, moonbat, and fucktard were a trio during the warblogger era (ca. 2002-2006).

  10. I always vaguely had this term mentally filed as a Briticism for no particularly good reason. I am mildly opposed to swearing in a mildly hypocritical way* so I had some level of incentive not to look up the history of the word but I definitely had somehow come to be under the impression that it was an English (sensu strictu) word which had jumped the Atlantic.

    *I had a strong inhibition against swearing as a child because I was afraid of receiving a stern look from my mother; whether I would actually have received such a look, I don’t know. I am not actually against swearing but find I don’t do it as much as many people and it doesn’t even occur to me to do so in certain contexts, such as hurting myself, where many people do swear.

  11. John Cowan says

    Asshat, moonbat, and fucktard

    Sounds like a legal firm, perhaps one engaged in progressive causes.

    I have always regarded moonbat with some affection, and even applied it to myself sometimes, especially by contrast to its antonym wingnut. On one occasion when Eric Raymond and I were on the same side of an issue, I wrote that this moonbat actually agreed with the wingnut this time. I believe he took it in good part.

  12. David Eddyshaw says

    So spiritual am I that “asshat” always makes me think of “arhat”; while I have no knowledge of the annoyingness or otherwise of arhats, the analogy with Christian saints (many of whom have been major-league pains in the ass*) suggests that the sets of asshats and arhats may not be altogether disjoint.

    * Note the fluent American.

  13. J.W. Brewer says

    I’m perhaps not as hip and with it as you Young Folks, but has “asshat” actually developed some sort of semantic nuance that gives it a meaning distinct from that borne by “asshole”?* I had always assumed it was a semi-jocular semi-euphemism for “asshole,” no more and no less.** And someone who is a pain in the ass need not be an asshole, at least in my ideolect.** Those have different referents.

    *In wiktionary’s sense 2: “A jerk; an inappropriately or objectionably mean, inconsiderate, contemptible, obnoxious, intrusive, stupid, and/or rude person.”

    **That the word “asshole” does not even appear in the Merriam-Webster thing the OP links to indicates to me that M-W is being cutesy-wutesy or something, rather than doing any sort of serious lexicography here.

  14. To me, “asshat” is not at all the same as “asshole”; the latter is far stronger, while the former has more of a ‘dickhead’ vibe. And Merriam-Webster always does serious lexicography, you heathen.

  15. Stu Clayton says

    Anyone who has to sit on a pillar for years is bound to get a pain in the ass, and then turn into one. The morphogenesis in one case was described by Burroughs in Naked Lunch (the Talking Asshole). On my understanding, the man was lonely and wanted someone to talk with.

  16. but has “asshat” actually developed some sort of semantic nuance that gives it a meaning distinct from that borne by “asshole”

    I agree with LH. The way I see it used, asshat is milder and is often a description of someone’s perceived foolishness rather than anti-social behavior.

  17. I think that this baroque variation makes it sound more playful or euphemistic, and therefore milder, like, say, bunghole.

  18. But I don’t think it’s a variation at all, I think it’s an entirely different word.

  19. My feeling (and I got to know asshat on Usenet in the 1990s) was that it started out as a mincing of asshole, but it has gone on to develop its own, particular connotations.

    As to asshattery: Whenever I see that form, I immediately hear it sing to the tune of the 1964 Academy Award winnetr for Best Original Song. (Don’t try to decode that if you are worried about a potential earworm.)

  20. ‘To me, “asshat” is not at all the same as “asshole”; the latter is far stronger, while the former has more of a ‘dickhead’ vibe.’

    Interesting. To me, “dickhead” is about as strong as “asshole”.

  21. Don’t try to decode that
    You know perfectly well that this is like putting a “Don’t open the door! Big secret behind!” in front of children. 🙂

  22. Stu Clayton says

    Well, at least it gives you a feel for the reigning musical zeitgeist of that year in the US. It sure fits with my memories.

  23. J.W. Brewer says

    @Brett: How would you gloss those “own particular connotations?”

    @Anyone (other than maybe laowai who has already given input on this): I take the point that a word that means more or less the same thing but is milder/less-taboo may not be an exact synonym of the stronger/more-taboo one with the “same” meaning but different intensity, but whether one uses the milder word could either be dictated by lower intensity of negative feeling about the person being so described or instead by speaking/writing in a context where there is a need to avoid the more taboo word. What is a plausible circumstance in which one might say “OK, that guy’s certainly an asshat, but he’s not an asshole”?

    Would “asshat” be a good contemporary gloss for the translator-baffling ancient pejorative in “whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire”?

  24. I take the point that a word that means more or less the same thing but is milder/less-taboo may not be an exact synonym of the stronger/more-taboo one with the “same” meaning but different intensity

    You are begging the question (or, if you prefer, assuming the conclusion). I repeat that I do not consider the two words related at all, except in the trivial sense that they share the “ass” morpheme. To me, “asshat” does not in any way imply the kind of unacceptable behavior that “asshole” does. Whether or not it’s literally the etymology, “he’s wearing his ass for a hat” conveys the mild and jocular deprecation the word involves for me. YMMV, as the kids used to say.

  25. Stu Clayton says

    the “ass” morpheme

    That is an example of a morpheme ?! It seems I can now claim to understand “morpheme” and its morphic cousin “phoneme”. Of course I could have looked them up in the WiPe before now, but the dog would then have et my homework.

  26. Yes, a morpheme is “a meaningful morphological unit of a language that cannot be further divided”; it can be a word (like “ass”) or a part of one (like “-ed” or “-s”).

  27. John Cowan says

    That is an example of a morpheme ?!

    Yes. So is “and”, although it doesn’t form compounds. So are English “-s” (noun plural), “-s” (verb third person singular), and “-ed”. though they can’t form words by themselves.

    Oops, pipped at the post. I’ll add that some morphemes have variants called allomorphs. English “-s” has three allomorphic pronunciations: the most common is [z] as in dog-s, but it can also be [s] as in hat-s or [əz] as in kiss-es. German Held takes that form when it is a word by itself or the last word in a compound, but is Helden- otherwise. Depending on your theoretical perspective, “-ed” has a number of allomorphic variants like change of vowel~ and -i.

  28. Stu Clayton says

    I see that the notion of “word” is bound up with the notions of morpheme and phoneme. For instance, “asshat” can be divided into “as shat”, as in the classroom sentence: “We will not be trying to interpret this shit, but will analyze it exactly as shat”.

  29. John Cowan says

    Not really. “Ass” and “hat” and “as” and “shat” are all morphemes, unless indeed “shat” is interpreted as the bimorpheme “shit” + “-ed” in its representation ~change of vowel~ (this is probably the usual interpretation). In English it is vague whether something is a compound or a single word (the notion of “word” is vague to start with) and only loosely tied to the spelling: base ball was probably a compound word even in Jane Austen’s day, before we started writing it base-ball and then baseball, but it has always had two morphemes.

  30. I see that the notion of “word” is bound up with the notions of morpheme and phoneme.

    The notion of “word” is problematic; I don’t know if linguists have a usable definition these days.

  31. John Cowan says

    Arrgh. For “compound or single word” read “phrase or word”.

    I otta shuddup.

  32. In my world “asshat”, “moonbat”, and “fucktard” were just insulting terms one group (warbloggers) applied jeeringly to a second group (anyone who doubted Bush’s war in Iraq). I don’t think “asshole” was particularly relevant; “a hopelessly stupidity laughingstock not worth talking to” is a good enough definition of any of the three. “Ass” was just convenient word to make the insulting intention clear, like “shit” in “shithead”, aterm which was was old and worn out and had lost much of its effect.

    I believe that the pre-2002 meanings, whatever they were, were swallowied up in this one, though they were probably not much different.

  33. David Eddyshaw says

    I rather like the idea of being a moonbat. Do you have to be American to qualify, though? (Also, I’ve an impression that I’m too Extreme Radical Socialist* to be a mere moonbat.)

    * Or, as Europeans say, “centrist.”

  34. Jerry Brown, youngest-ever Governor of California, was jeered as “Governor Moonbeam” in his day. That was before my time, but I get the impression that that was because of his superficially hippie affectations, not so much his policies, which were mainstream for 1970s liberal Democrats. In his second cadence (that time as the oldest-ever Governor of California) he was equally mainstream 2010s corporatist Democrat.

    The “moonbeam” nickname was originally an affectionate term which came from his then-girlfriend, Linda Ronstadt. It was picked up and publicized by old-style conservative Chicago columnist Mike Royko, and struck just the right chord among conservative audiences. I’d hate to think there’s no connection between moonbeam and moonbat.

  35. I don’t remember the last time I used such an inappropriate, discordant borrowing as “cadence” (from Hebrew kadentsia) for ‘term of office’.

    “Stint,” though informal, is what I should have used. I was struggling to find an alternative to ‘term,’ which to me usually means an elected term of office contiguous to another. (In California a governor may serve at most two four-year terms over a lifetime; that law came into effect after Brown had served two terms, which were thus not included in the calculation.)

  36. J.W. Brewer says

    @David E., in the long-ago “warblogging” era to which John E. referred, I believe the very model of the paradigm/prototypical “moonbat” (from the POV of those who deprecated him) was the English writer George Monbiot, with Monbiot of course looking rather like a Grauniad typo for “moonbat” or vice versa. So Americanness not required. I doubt a connection with “moonbeam,” which as applied in the Seventies to Jerry Brown was I take it meant to imply flakiness/goofiness rather than craziness.

    I had thought, FWIW that the “Governor Moonbeam” sobriquet had been coined or popularized by Garry Trudeau (the Doonesbury cartoonist) rather than Mike Royko, although quick googling shows an association with both and I’m not going to devote the time to investigating who had it first. I don’t think it’s fair to call Royko “conservative” other than in a certain cultural sense. He was an old-timey liberal Democrat of the FDR/Truman style who thought (with perhaps some empirical accuracy) that frivolous Boomer/hippie types obsessed with what you might call lifestyle issues rather than lunchbucket issues were not good stewards of that political tradition. Especially given that he was a Chicago journalist, I suspect that the undermining of the ’68 Humphrey campaign by utopian radicals did not leave a positive impression on him. Trudeau was by contrast from the demographic to whom Brown’s Moonbeam style would be naturally calculated to appeal, so he was (back in his bygone youth) satirizing the foibles of his own social circle rather than merely those of his social circle’s outgroup. And Trudeau’s own not-particularly-conservative readership presumably found his treatment of Brown amusing. (The next step, of course, was the Dead Kennedys’ portrayal of Brown as hippie-turned-fascist in “California Uber Alles,” but that was less of a mainstream thing …)

  37. David Eddyshaw says

    This is a thing in our politics too: the electorate pretty consistently likes economic policies of the traditional Labour variety but is small-c conservative on social issues (markedly more so, on average, than typical Labour party members.) This is, of course, why the Conservative party is going all-out on spurious culture-war nonsense (that, and that they’re not about to become magically more competent at yer actual governing stuff, so they don’t really have much else.)

  38. David Marjanović says

    The way I see it used, asshat is milder and is often a description of someone’s perceived foolishness rather than anti-social behavior.

    In that case, the story I read long ago might actually check out: that the original referent of asshat was the straw hat put on a donkey, combining two symbols of stupidity (straw and donkeys).

    I’ve always taken moonbat as related to batshit crazy, though I have no idea how bats or guano are supposed to be related to craziness. The moon, on the other hand, is what makes people looney, which makes it easier to insult perceived hippies.

    I’m also a bit surprised to see dickhead declared milder than asshole. Dick, yes, as in don’t be a dick (the short summary of all ethics), he’s a bit of a dick or that’s a dick move; but the uses of dickhead I’ve seen all seemed more intense.

    While I’m at it, dickwad is also more intense as far as I’ve noticed, and it seems to be becoming the agreed-upon translation for хуйло.

  39. “moonbeam,” which as applied in the Seventies to Jerry Brown was I take it meant to imply flakiness/goofiness rather than craziness.

    As a part-time inhabitant of California in the ’70s, I can confirm this.

    I’m also a bit surprised to see dickhead declared milder than asshole.

    If you’re referring to me, when I said “asshat” “has more of a ‘dickhead’ vibe” I wasn’t referring to mildness but semantics, thought that wasn’t clear in context. I do think “dickhead” is slightly milder than “asshole,” but “asshat” is (to me) milder than both.

  40. PlasticPaddy says

    Regarding bats and crazy, I thought this stemmed from having “bats in the belfry”, i.e., something awry in the upper storey…

  41. Stu Clayton says

    don’t be a dick (the short summary of all ethics)

    This is brilliant, no kidding. Kant must be turning green with envy in his grave. The market value of SparkNotes has just tanked.

  42. David Marjanović says

    “bats in the belfry”

    Oh, yes, I forgot!

    This is brilliant, no kidding.

    I’ve seen a few rule systems explained as “basically, don’t be a dick” or “it boils down to ‘don’t be a dick'”.

  43. Green on batty (here): “either SE colloq. have bats in the belfry or (although the chronology militates against it) f. the proper name Fitzherbert Batty, a 19C barrister whose certification as mad in 1839 caused much interest.”

    Batty, bat (insanity, especially delirium tremens), and bat house (“I could see myself in the giggle-giggle ward in a bat house”) all appear within a few years of each other, 1902–1904. Bats appears in 1924, and bat shit not until 1982; Green thinks the latter is modeled after apeshit (1950s–).

  44. John Cowan says

    Do you have to be American to qualify [as a moonbat], though?

    Certainly not. Europeans have to be practically neofascists not to be moonbats.

  45. David Marjanović says

    “I could see myself in the giggle-giggle ward in a bat house”

    Not bad… not bad at all.

  46. asshat immediately made me think of Асхат, a former classmate (Асхат is an asshat), whose name means:

    Имя Асхат употребляется преимущественно у мусульман. В переводе с арабского языка это имя означает «самый счастливый», что соответствует понятию «счастливейший». Имя также встречается в другой записи – Асаад, Асхаат, Асхад, Аскат. По значению имя Асхат синонимично именам Саид, Масуд, Феликс, Аркадий, Эде, Бодог, Евтихий.


    It’s a bit surprising that the ̔ ain is transliterated as x. Usually (with the exception of Chechen and other Caucasian languages), it’s rendered with a г (Газиза, eg, although not in my mother’s dialect—the grandmother’s name was Азиза), а, or nothing at all.

  47. Kate Bunting says

    Owen said:
    I always vaguely had this term mentally filed as a Briticism for no particularly good reason.

    If it were British it would be ‘arsehat’! I don’t remember having heard either word, but like you I’m not much given to swearing and don’t instinctively do so when I’m hurt.

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