cover image Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years

Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years

Geoffrey Nunberg. PublicAffairs, $25.99 (272p) ISBN 978-1-61039-175-7

Tellingly, Nunberg's study of the word "asshole" begins with the observation that half of the people profiled in Barbara Walter's 2011 "Ten Most Fascinating People" feature could be considered assholes. What follows is an engaging blend of linguistics, analysis, and social commentary that breaks down the important place the word "asshole" occupies in our language and culture. Nunberg begins by charting the rise of "asshole" from its origins as WWII barracks slang, to its popularization in post-war literature (as in Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead), to its eventual adoption as part of Standard English in the 1970s. Nunberg then describes the various roles that "asshole" plays in society, detailing the formation of pop culture "anti-assholes" like Dirty Harry, musing on it as a psychological reclassification of a "heel," and charting its relationship to similar concepts of narcissism, inauthenticity, and incivility. The last of these relationships proves most fruitful to Nunberg as he spends a good amount of the book outlining "assholism" in the political realm, both as a quality popular in political commentators and as an insult when linked with incivility and lobbed across the aisle. In the end, Nunberg makes an entertaining and thought-provoking case for the importance and power of a "dirty" word. (July)