Ascent of the A-Word

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It first appeared in the gripes of GIs during World War II; the first literary character to bear the description appeared in Norman Mailer’s 1948 war novel The Naked and the Dead (“Lieutenant (sg) Dove, USNR. A Cornell man, a Deke, a perfect asshole”).

Within a generation the asshole had become a basic notion of our everyday moral life, replacing older reproaches like phony, lout and heel with a single inclusive moral category. By 1970 it was found across the culture, in country and western songs, the movies of Clint Eastwood and Woody Allen,  the plays of Neil Simon, and the essays of Tom Wolfe.

Along the way the asshole became 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.

Some Reviews:

Ascent of the A-Word was released on August 15 by PublicAffairs. Here’s an excerpt at Salon, and here are  bits of some early notices:

We are taught that there is no such thing as a Theory of Everything, and that we should beware of anyone nutty enough to claim that you can reduce reality to its gist with one handy explanation-philosophy-catchphrase. But now comes Geoffrey Nunberg with Ascent of the A-Word, a marvelous book that explains so much so well that it’s tempting, really really tempting, to claim that Nunberg has explained everything….a ceaselessly entertaining book. — “The Beauty of the Indispensable Vulgarity,” Malcolm Jones, The Daily Beast 

With the hugely enjoyable Ascent of the A-Word we are right on the cutting edge of asshole studies. What is an asshole? What does it mean to be an asshole? What does it mean to call someone else an asshole? And why, in 2012, do we seem to be dealing with more assholes than ever? If these questions are of interest to you at all, read this book….Dirty Harry, est, feminism, the conservative movement… The Web, that womb of assholism… I’m barely scratching the surface of this rich and educational book.  — James Parker, Barnes and Noble Review

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 makes an entertaining and thought-provoking case for the importance and power of a “dirty” word. — Publishers Weekly

You are familiar with louts, oafs, and jerks, and your reading of the literature of years past will have acquainted you with scoundrels and cads, but Mr. Nunberg argues that the asshole represents a cultural type peculiar to our time and place… I can only sketch here some of what Mr. Nunberg has to say about the cultural phenomenon encapsulated in this rude word, and I encourage you to look closely at his insightful and witty book, which tells us a great deal about who we are by looking at the way we talk to one another. —John McIntyre, Baltimore Sun

Nunberg has bored out a core sample of American public life, and chattily parses it with insight and wit, as he does in his linguistic commentaries on public radio’s “Fresh Air.” It’s not much of a gamble that there are a lot of interesting things to say about the word and how we use it….Nunberg compliments the right for its professional achievements in incivility, and warns that “political assholism” is a good tactic for building media audiences but may be less successful as an electoral strategy. I hope that media commentators of all stripes will go to town evaluating that last point, but I wonder if they’ll have the courage to take on the whole book, which holds up a mirror to the business of politics: small, foul, noisome, and low. Michael Erard, Chicago Tribune Printers Row

[An] 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….  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. — Kirkus Reviews

The author … undertakes a serious examination of not just the word, but also the concept surrounding it (known as assholism, a type of behavior with, it seems, pretty clear markers)…. An intelligent and wide-ranging study of linguistics, ideas, and social trends.— Booklist

In this delightfully and devilishly trenchant and provocative book, Nunberg traces the use of common and coarse language by well-bred, well-educated critics of Victorian prudery in the 1920s; the spread of the A-word by returning World War II servicemen (and novelist Norman Mailer in “The Naked and the Dead”); the penchant for obscenities by dissenters in the 1960s and ’70s; and, most importantly, changes in ideas about civility, compromise and social class (marked by a shift from power and wealth to lifestyle and attitude as the criteria for membership in the “elite”), which paved the way for asshole to become a staple in middle-class conversation and for assholism to become entrenched in political discourse….  Nunberg dissects his subject with style and surgical precision. — Glenn C. Altschuler, San Francisco Chronicle

The book is a satisfying blend of great scholarship, wit, and splendid logic.  It is a joy from start to finish, and the reviewers agree. …Nunberg starts with a magnificent first chapter called The Word, which talks about the battles between “Assholes and  Anti-assholes.”   I love this sentence about the current state of public discourse in America “It sometimes seems as if every corner of our public discourse is riddled with people depicting one another as assholes and treating them accordingly, whether or not they actually use the word.” … Nunberg makes a compelling argument that critics on the right and the left both use the tactic of claiming that an opponent is rude, nasty, or indecent  — that they are acting like assholes and ought to apologize immediately. …I get piles of books every year about bullies, jerks, toxic workplaces, and on and on. Although this isn’t a workplace book, it is the best book I have ever read that is vaguely related to the topic. — Work Matters blog of Bob Sutton of the Stanford Business School, author of The No Asshole Rule

Other Reviews:

Michael Kane, New York Post

Nancy Connors, Cleveland Plain Dealer

Chuck TwardyLas Vegas Weekly

Geri Spieler, New York Journal of Books

Dave Gilson, Mother Jones

Breteney Hamilton, Dallas Observer

Sophisticated Dorkiness

DBC Reads