It first surfaced in the gripes of GIs during World War II and was captured early on by the typewriter of a young Norman Mailer. Within a generation it had become a basic notion of our everyday moral life, replacing older reproaches like lout and heel with a single inclusive category -- a staple of country outlaw songs, Neil Simon plays, and Woody Allen movies. Feminists made it their stock rebuke for male insensitivity, the est movement used it for those who didn't "get it," and Dirty Harry applied it evenhandedly to both his officious superiors and the punks he manhandled.
The asshole has become a focus of collective fascination for us, just as the phony was for Holden Caulfield and the cad was for Anthony Trollope. From Donald Trump to Ann Coulter, from Mel Gibson to Anthony Weiner, from the reality TV prima donnas to the internet trolls and flamers, assholism has become the characteristic form of modern incivility, which implicitly expresses our deepest values about class, relationships, authenticity, and fairness. We have conflicting attitudes about the A-word -- when a presidential candidate unwittingly uttered it on a live mic in 2000, it confirmed to some that he was a man of the people and to others that he was a boor. But considering how much the word does for us, and to us, it hasn't gotten nearly the attention it deserves -- at least until now.
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.