Ascent of the A Word Review: How the Word Asshole Came to Be

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In many ways, ours is the Age of Assholes. Before we know it, we millennials will be marching into our 30s, and more and more of the people we’ve been raising up to celebrity status in recent years, (the high profile role models we’ve created) turn out to be self-centered, narcissistic phonies. In a word, assholes.

It’s time we start thinking about what makes an asshole an asshole, and what is to be said about a society that produces so many of them. If indeed we’re not completely disinterested in the example we set for Generation Z and beyond, we’d take care to start self analyzing soon; and what better place to start doing that than with Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, The First Sixty Years by Geoffrey Nunberg?

… Okay, so none of that is part of the book’s explicit message; Nunberg’s a professor, sure, but his zeitgeist masterpiece is far from being preachy. That urgency, however, is what I was left with upon finishing it — an asshole I am.

Ascent is an analysis of the meaning, prevalence, and history of the word asshole. It owes all of its effectiveness to its author, a linguist and professor at the UC Berkeley School of Information who generally seems to know everything (the breadth of his research is astounding; he cites and remarks upon everyone and everything, from Montesquieu and Hobbes, to Holden Caulfield and Don Draper, to Donald Trump and Sarah Palin, to Dr. Phil and Lady GaGa — I’ve never read anyone more cultured). If you think you’re well-read, you’ve never met Geoffrey Nunberg, and I wouldn’t want a book like this written by anyone less. It didn’t surprise me one bit to learn that he’s the emeritus chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary; I couldn’t have gotten through this book without a dictionary.

One of the interesting takeaways from Ascent is the remarkable fact that, though assholes have always existed (literally if not figuratively), only recently — like, within-the-last-50-to-60-years recently — has our culture begun to reserve special words for inconvenient people. He cleverly illustrates with a chart how we’ve gone all the way from using “You’re a heel,” or “You’re a phony,” to “You’re an asshole.” (Other charts of his show that “narcissism”, “inauthenticity”, “sense of entitlement”, and “asshole” all share a positive correlation between the frequencies of hearing them and time — indicating that we’re becoming meaner and scummier). The special words we’ve come up with to disparage not only reflect the underlying tone that growingly marks our acts of disparagement, but are downright uncivil and offensive. I’m not just talking about the word asshole

For all I know, Sandra Fluke could be a raging man-hater, but by no means do any of her remarks before the House qualify her as a “slut.” And if there were any shred of intelligence or validity elsewhere in Limbaugh’s diatribe, it understandably falls on the deaf ears of any would-be-convinced listener who’d already been too offended and appalled to listen on, let alone care.

Christine “Halloween Hater” O’Donnell? Bill Maher may technically be correct in labeling her a “bimbo” (if you go by most dictionaries). However, if his goal is to talk sense into these their zealous proponents, I don’t think he realizes how miserably he fails; he probably alienates more “teabaggers” than he educates, and the brilliant points elsewhere in his Real Time monologue are simply lost.

There’s no better argument than Nunberg’s for why and how assholism begets more assholism, especially in politics — another important takeaway from Ascent. “The great advantage,” Nunberg writes, “of seeing the other guy as an asshole […] is that you have permission to be an asshole yourself.” He goes further, arguing that “you’re not an asshole just for defending the use of waterboarding or even torture, but you may be if you try to turn the controversy into a question of wimpiness rather than morality.”

“That’s what makes assholism different from other kinds of personal attacks: you can’t assholize the other without in some way assholizing yourself.”

I'll take it a step further and charge that too many people (including me) would rather preoccupy themselves with pissing off their adversaries than debating with them. That’s what I was talking about earlier when I hinted at words beyond asshole. Think about the rest of the demeaning words men sling at women (a topic Nunberg also covers in Ascent), as well as the myriad of epithets we traditionally reserve for black people and gays (among others). 

You don’t need to be a bigot to throw the c-word, n-word, or f-word (the gay one) at someone. You need only the desire to be an asshole to someone whom you feel deserves it.

When I peer through the lens of Ascent, I see a society (of which I’ll always be a part, no matter how minimal or obscure I may be) that's all too often intent on people tearing other people down. I’m liberated because I can no longer claim to be dumb to that — I’m not restrained by ignorance. Instead, I’m left with a straight-forward choice: either remain part of the cycle … or raise my hand and admit that I haven’t gotten far in life because I’ve been little more than part of the problem (when all along I’d been so convinced that I was somehow above the problem).

That’s how simple Ascent makes this world for me. I only hope it does the same for other recovering assholes out there, too.