There is something about that word. Hell, the last line of The Social Network is Zuckerberg’s lawyer telling him, “You’re not an asshole, Mark. You’re just trying so hard to be.”

In his new book Ascent of the A-Word, linguist Geoffrey Nunberg gives thought to the psychology of assholism, the debate over civility, and the action-packed life of the word we all wield so ferociously during rush hour.

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It's quite the predicament we find ourselves in these days, surrounded, as you note in Ascent of the A-Word, by the worst sorts. To what end does your new linguistic and cultural exploration devote itself?

The idea is that there are things we can learn about our culture from looking at the words we use that are hard to pin down in any other way—particularly the words we give little conscious thought to. If you want to know about the "civility crisis," for example, don't listen to the things people say about civility, which is a word that invites self-conscious op-ed posturing. Look at "asshole," which really reflects what we think about how we should treat each other in everyday life. And it turned out that "asshole" really does encapsulate a very broad range of contemporary attitudes—about class, gender and politics, among other things. In the end, this is about those attitudes, not just the word itself.

Why are narcissism and moral certainty so essential to the condition of assholism?

At the root of assholism is a kind of obtuseness, a culpable refusal to acknowledge the rights of others. People associate that with "narcissism" or a "sense of entitlement," both terms that became common around the same time "asshole" entered everyday speech.

Why doesn't this particular pejorative get the respect it deserves?

Vulgarity has a lot to do with it. There was no particular reason why we had to give a vulgar name to the people we used to these people—when you call someone an asshole, you're not necessarily saying anything about his sex life or personal habits. But the vulgarity of the word marks it as something that grows out of our unreflecting everyday experience, something we all understand without instruction. It's not a word that anybody ever bothers to look up in a dictionary—and if you did, you'd just find something like "a contemptible person," which is not very helpful.

What made you decide to examine how and why today's assholes suck up so much collective attention? What characteristics definitively identify these folks as "special?"

Well, in every age there's a particular social offender that exerts a hold on the cultural imagination. For the Victorians it was the cad, for Americans of Holden Caulfield's day it was the phony. The asshole has that role for us. That's why we fix on figures like Donald Trump, Charlie Sheen and Newt Gingrich. It underscores our obsession with status and "authenticity"—by the way, another word that became very common around the time "asshole" did. And in fact, when we call somebody an asshole, we're laying claim to our own authenticity, our unpretentiousness and decency, our status as regular guys.

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You're not the first intellectual to choose a provocative title—you note Harry Frankfurt's colorful essay "On Bullshit" as an example. Why is it important to make the point upfront that the profanity is irrelevant to the subject?

Well, I don't think the vulgarity of "asshole" is irrelevant—it's why the word can do the work it does. It's the vulgarity of the word that makes it a convincing demonstration of our indignation, the mot juste for the guy who starts up his leaf blower at 7 on Sunday morning.

And in fact "asshole" is just one of a number of obscene words that were converted to social descriptions for nonobscene notions over the course of the 20th century, from "bullshit" to "fuck up" to "shitty" to "pissed off" and so on. This is all recent—the English language never did anything like this before. That fascinates me.

You point out guys like the fictional Harry Callahan as the epitome of the "anti-asshole." What do these guys do for society?

The notion of the anti-asshole is implicit in the asshole—to call somebody an asshole, after all, is to abuse him, in an act of symbolic violence. That follows from the vulgarity of the word itself—it implies that there are certain kinds of anti-social behavior that warrant or even require an anti-social response. The anti-asshole is just the embodiment of that principle.

Eastwood's Dirty Harry is surrounded by assholes, from the police brass to the bleeding-hearts to the cynical media to the punks he has to deal with—actually he uses the word "asshole" for all of these. That's what legitimates Harry's ruthless and sometimes violent responses—choking a prostitute to get information from her, forcing a hood's head into a toilet bowl with a plunger and then flushing. You can't imagine a John Wayne character doing that, much less taking such voluble pleasure in it, as in "Make my day."

But the anti-asshole has other forms. It's the role Woody Allen plays in a movie like Annie Hall, where he does a kind of verbal violence to the pretentious academics and artists he encounters. Really it's the anti-asshole who's the defining hero of our age, just as the asshole is the defining social offender. 

In an age when tempers are high on all sides of the political spectrum, is there any way to foster a return to some kind of civility?

Only by recognizing the assholism in ourselves. The thing about being an asshole is that you're never aware of it at the time—that's the obtuseness that makes an asshole different from a prick, say. We think of assholes as a breed apart, which is why I prefer to use the term assholism to mean a kind of behavior we're all subject to.

There are times when being an asshole is an appropriate and healthy reaction to someone's behavior. But in public life in particular the worst thing about it is how corrosive it is. Think of what it does to people to find themselves cheering when a candidate proudly announces how many people his state has executed. Assholism is really just a form of stupidity, a disease of the spirit.