Geoffrey Nunberg on "Ascent of the A-Word"

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Geoffrey Nunberg talks to Jim Fleming about his book, "Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, The First Sixty Years."

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length. 

Jim Fleming: We're talking about the word we can't hear, beginning with linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, author of a book called... well, I'm going to let him tell you the title of his book.

Geoffrey Nunberg: It's “Ascent of the A-word”, and the subtitle is “A**holism, the First Sixty Years”. I feel this is a serious book- though it has its moments of levity- about a serious subject; I didn't want to seem to be doing a kind of nudge-nudge thing so in fact it was only with a certain reluctance that I even used the a-word with an “-ism” tacked on to it.

Fleming: Well, I have to say it's a word that I don't like much. I've used it, and I've certainly heard it used, and I think that a discussion of what it means and why is fascinating, but I also think that probably for the course of our conversation we want to say something else and maybe “the a-word” is enough.

Nunberg: I think “the a-word” should be enough- look, this is a vulgar word, it's a coarse word, it disturbs even people who really don't have those qualms about using the f-word or the s-word or other words of that nature, and it's supposed to be a coarse word; if it weren't a coarse word it wouldn't do the work we ask of it. We wouldn't have anything to yell at the guy who starts his leaf blower at seven o'clock on Sunday morning.

Fleming: [laughing] Yes, I think probably the word is applicable in that particular situation. Nunberg: There are plenty of times when this is just the word you want because it expresses your disdain, and your contempt for somebody, with a kind of coarseness that does real semantic work Fleming: Well was that what you were thinking about when you decided to write this book?

Nunberg: I was interested in language like this because it's words like these that in a certain sense betray our real attitudes. When people talk about a word like “incivility”, for example, they're almost invariably not going to tell you what they're really thinking, it's a word that's cut out for op-ed pages and so on. When people use the a-word, they're expressing genuine feelings, and feelings they don't really think about much, which makes it all the more accurate as an indication of these attitudes.

Fleming: Yeah. How do you define it? Can you define it?

Nunberg: You can define it as someone with, you know, obtuse refusal to acknowledge what the situation requires. That's an abstract definition. I think it's better defined by example, when you ask someone to define the word they start giving you a list of names, they don't go to Webster.

Fleming: [laughing] Yeah.

Nunberg: There’s a case I use for example: a friend from Texas finds himself in New York on 9/11, gotta get home to his family, freaked out, goes to the Hertz rental place, it's jammed with people with the same idea he has, beleaguered clerks, and this little guy comes in to the room and walks to the front of the room, and pulls out his wallet and says “Excuse me, can you tell me where the gold card line is?” Everybody in that room had the same three word sentence in his head and the third word was not “boor”, right? Fleming: Yeah. Nunberg: So it demonstrates these properties I'm talking about. There's an obtuseness there, this guy's not evil or maligned, he's just obtuse.

Fleming: Yeah, in fact in one part of the book you talk about “culpable obtuseness”.

Nunberg: A culpable obtuseness, he should know better. That's one reason why we don't use the a-word, for example, of little children. They can merit the s-word because there's a malignity that's innate in little kids sometimes, but you can't merit the a-word until you're old enough so that you ought to know better. And this guy, in that Hertz place should have known better, and was just acloueting from himself the realities of this situation so easily taken advantage of a little piece of plastic that gave him, he thought, particular privileges in this setting.

Fleming: You know what I liked about that explanation, and the one that you give similarly in the book, is the next piece of it. Somebody behaves like that and it gives us permission to use the word, because they're so obviously... they're so obviously the a-word.

Nunberg: And when we use the word, we're being uncivil ourselves, it's an uncivil response to incivility, that's one of the things that fascinates me about it. Because you can't use this word without swearing at somebody, and in a certain sense it gives us license to treat that person badly, to disrespect that person, often with reason, like this guy in the Hertz place. But often we depict the other person as an a-word precisely so that we can have the pleasure of being uncivil, of being a jerk back at them.

Fleming: But being uncivil back at them, using the a-word back at them, it is more like being a jerk, then, at least in the way I look at myself, being... being the a-word.

Nunberg: No, I think that's right, and I think one of the problems, particularly in public life, is that there's this kind of reciprocal “a-word-ism”, where you depict the people on the other side as people who merit this label, and that gives you the right to behave in the same way back at them. And I think that's the animating principle, for example, of cable talk shows- political discourse in particular. We depict those guys as people who merit the a-word, as effete, as full of themselves, out of touch, pretentious, and so on, and that gives us the right to be Dirty Harry back at them.

Fleming: It is interesting though, isn't it, because you talk about the cable people, and in fact it can be the people on either side of an issue depending on where you are.

Nunberg: Right, the word and the concept license a certain incivility. And when people complain about the incivility of public discourse, which they do all the time, I think this is really what they're complaining about. People say that this is a more uncivil age than previous ages, but the historians point out “No, they were talking that way during the McCarthy years, during the Roosevelt years...” Anybody who's seen the film 'Lincoln,' which accurately depicts the tone of political rhetoric of that period can see that they were just as uncivil as we were. But we're uncivil in different ways, and in particular this kind of a-word-ism, this reciprocal nastiness, performed mostly for the enjoyment of our partisans, that's a new node in American political life.

Fleming: Is it really? Or is it just that it seems more vulgar than the kind of political rhetoric that was true a century, or two, ago, because I've read that the political rhetoric at the time of the founding fathers was pretty nasty.

Nunberg: It's always been nasty, and at times much nastier than it is now. I think there is a difference though. A character like Westbrook Pegler, the acerbic columnist of the Roosevelt years, could say things about Roosevelt, or about the Jews, that would just be beyond the pale in contemporary political rhetoric anywhere in public life. But he would not have thought to say of the 9/11 widows, as Ann Coulter did, that they were enjoying their husbands deaths. Not because he wasn't capable of that kind of cruelty but because it wouldn't have occurred to him that there was any rhetorical point to it. And I think that's the difference- that people are now gratuitously nasty and abusive, not really to get at the other people and not really because they hate these people, but because of the pleasure their own partisans take in imagining how indignant it makes the other side to hear that.

Fleming: You know one of the interesting things about that, it strikes me, is that in that instance you just described, where Ann Coulter did, as you say, refer to the widows of the 9/11 victims as “enjoying” that, it springs to mind immediately to use the a-word and that is unusual because it doesn't fit women very often.

Nunberg: You know some people say “Oh well women can't be a-words”. I think that's true of some other terms that are more closely connected to parts of the male anatomy, but, in the case of women, it's true that we rarely use the word of women, but there are various reasons for that. One is that, well, its a word we tend to use of powerful people and powerful people are more often men, still nowadays. Also, men who are in powerful positions tend to be the kinds of people who walk around saying “Do you know who I am?”, which is a characteristic a-word thing to do. But there's another reason that I think is more interesting, which is that when a woman does the sort of thing that would earn a man the a-word label- bellows at the check-in agent at the airport “Do you know how much my company spends? How come you're not giving me an upgrade?”, and so on- when a woman does that, we're much more likely to use another word, the b-word, as if suddenly this was not something that followed from just an undue sense of entitlement, but rather from some primordial feminine nastiness.

Fleming: Ah.

Nunberg: And there's a kind of sexism in that, I think, genuinely. If we were more interested in gender equity we would call women with the a-word much more frequently than we do.

Fleming: Do you think any of this has to do with the anatomical nature of the a-word, is it something that is more easily talked about in modern times than it was a hundred years ago?

Nunberg: Well the word itself is a new word, like a lot of these vulgar terms that we use to describe people. It's coined in the mouths of GIs during WWII. In fact the first military leader to earn the label was General Patton, from both his men and his superiors. It enters the language around 1970 and there is a sense, certainly, in which we're using these anatomical terms, for the first time in the English language, to describe people. It's also something that is particularly regarded as something that's small, and dirty, and hidden, and dark, and that certainly colors the way we think of people when we use this word. It's an expression of contempt, it makes them small, and in some way vile or infected.

Fleming: It's interesting to realize that it only came into common usage in the seventies, and it really only surfaced in the slang of WWII GIs. I would have thought it was earlier than that, but you say it was actually Norman Mailer who introduced it to literature for the first time.

Nunberg: Well the first, certainly the first literary character to bear this description, appears in “The Naked and the Dead”, Norman Mailer's 1948 novel, really written early than that, about WWII, and it was a word that appeared first in the mouths of WWII GIs, but it really isn't until the seventies, as you say, that you start seeing it in Woody Allen movies and Neil Simon plays, that you get a film series like Dirty Harry where this word figures centrally. It's really there that it becomes part of the American moral repertory. And that's one reason it's particularly interesting to me because I think that one has to examine the words of one's moral life if only to be able to control them and to be able to think reflectively on them. And this is very much a part of our moral life. It may be a word we disdain and we think is coarse, but was we go through our day we're classifying people and this is one of the important classifications we use.

Fleming: Did Mailer's use of the word change things, I mean how did its use in that novel influence the word's development later on? Do you think it was influential in its spread?

Nunberg: No, I don't really think so. I think it's in this moment that you start to see this kind of language used widely in a certain kind of fiction, naturalistic fiction about the soldiers, and crime, and so on and so forth. When Herman Wouk published "The Caine Mutiny" a couple of years later, it was notable for not having used any of that language, the reviewers mention it, so by then it was almost obligatory in a novel of this type. It's striking that the word doesn't appear in "The Catcher in the Rye." Holden Caulfield, had this book been written twenty years later, would surely have called a lot of people with the a-word that he instead designated as phonies.

Fleming: Yeah.

Nunberg: So it's coming into general usage around this period but it really, as I say, isn't til the late sixties, the seventies, that it just becomes an ordinary word. It's no longer slang, it's just the first word that comes to mind when somebody who merits that label crosses your line of sight.

Fleming: And it's fascinating, isn't it, as good a book as "Catcher in the Rye" is, and Holden Caulfield, what an incredible character, that seems wrong, somehow. Phony isn't a strong enough word for what he's referring to, whereas the a-word would fit pretty well.

Nunberg: Well except that Holden Caulfield in that era would not have used the a-word. It doesn't appear in any John O'Hara novels, and O’Hara certainly has his characters using very strong language. Holden would have use phony as Allen Ginsberg did. Phony was a very strong word, a condemnation of the immediate post-war period. It's only later, when you get words like the a word coming in, that it's driven so to speak, to the moral margins, as is heel, another word that seems to us-

Fleming: Quaint, almost.

Nunberg: But the quaint characters played by Zachary Scott in "Mildred Pierce" and Dan Duryea and Frank Sinatra in "Pal Joey," those are real movie heels, and they too are re-named with the a-word in the early seventies, first by feminists and then by women in general. It isn't as if men have changed or men are no longer doing these things, but there is a new diagnosis of what they're doing, and that's really what's happening when this word moves into the language and it drives those other words to the margins.

Fleming: Thinking about this, it just amused me to realize that in 1970 when it wasn't so well used we had the Age of Aquarius; maybe this is the Age of the A-word.

Nunberg: I think it is. I think that the category itself exercises a kind of fascination for us. I went to look at the lists of most fascinating people that Barbara Walters compiles year after year, and every year anywhere from four to six of the ten are people who merit the a word. Last year it was Steve Jobs, Trump, Simon Cowell, Herman Cain, the Kardashians, Derek Jeter- I think people could go either way on him- and a people who don't merit the word. But historically Mel Gibson, and Tiger Woods, and Trump always, and James Cameron, and Michael Moore, Glenn Beck. More than half of the people are people who are generally associated with this word and thats a disproportion even for the worlds of sports and entertainment and politics from which she draws these people. So, I think there's a fascinations with these characters as characters. Every age picks a characteristic, a social abuser, it was the phony in the post-war years, it was the cad and the bounder in the age of Anthony Trollope, of the Victorian period, and I think the a-word is ours.

Fleming: There a couple of ways to look at this, of course. One is just as words and the other is the emotions that lie behind it. Linguists, as you are, spend a lot of time thinking about the question “Does language shape thought or does thought shape language?” Do you think that applies here, and if it does, how does it play out in the context of the a word?

Nunberg: I think it very much shapes the way we collectively think about the world. This word comes in sometime between the war and the 1970s. It drives out these other words like heel and phony, or drives them to the margins. It classifies, reclassifies, a group of people whose behavior may have been reprehensible fifty or a hundred years ago, but whom we think about differently now because we have a word that says that the things that Donald Trump is doing, and that Charlie Sheen is doing, and that Ann Coulter's doing, all are manifestations of the same kind of behavior, which we wouldn't have thought of forty years ago.

Fleming: You've trawled the language quite a lot, you've used Google quite extensively. Is there any other word that is making a play to take the place of the a-word?

Nunberg: Well there are always these variants. There's the a-hat, and the a-wipe, and so on and so forth, that've always been around. All of these words are out there and it's really the concept that I'm interested in, that these words signal more than the word itself. In fact, other languages have other words to do this. The British use something like the a-word, with arse instead of ass, but they also have words like wanker, and tosser, and git, and so on and so forth, which we can say on American radio. In Italian they have the word “stronzo” which is literally a turd. In Mexican Spanish they have “pendejo” which is a pubic hair. All of them doing more or less the work that the a-word does in the English language, and all of them new words- twentieth century words formed from vulgar notions. So I don't know that it's the word itself, but rather this sensibility that it announces that's really the interesting thing. The word is more of an indicator than the thing of interest itself.