Linguistic analysis and cultural criticism meet sociopolitical rant in this investigation of the word asshole and the modern phenomena of “assholism.”
What exactly does it mean to call someone an asshole? When did the epithet come to prominence as a social and now political invective? Who are some of the biggest assholes in the public eye today? These are just a few of the questions that linguist Nunberg (The Years of Talking Dangerously, 2009) explores in this often raucously funny account of what seems to be America’s most popular insult. The author avoids many potential hazards, including an overly academic and pretentious tone or, conversely, an exceedingly snarky or droll satire. In other words, he avoids, by his own surmising, being an asshole himself, thereby rendering a skillful narrative. He looks carefully at both the political right and left with a plethora of examples from different mediums: blogs, radio talk shows, twitter feeds, TV news, reality television, films, literature and more. At the top of the asshole list—the arch-assholes—he places Donald Trump, Steve Jobs, Newt Gingrich, Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh, among others. Like other obscenities, asshole is closely linked to class tensions, and Nunberg is deft at examining the word in this and other contexts. Though the word ass as a term of derision seems to have ancient origins, Nunberg traces asshole as a derogative filled with anger and contempt to the slang of World War II soldiers. He examines its potential for symbolic violence, as well as the unique characteristics that distinguish it from other kinds of disparagement. The nearly universally understood qualities of an asshole—self-delusion, arrogance, thoughtlessness, pretentiousness, egotism and an exaggerated sense of entitlement—become a kind of catalyst for the author to enact a broad critique of contemporary public discourse and behavior.
A witty and politically charged analysis of a potent obscenity in its modern and contemporary context.