Credit: Nicole Katano
Wednesday, September 12, 7:00 p.m.
It went from the mouths of WWII servicemen to the typewriter of a young Norman Mailer. By the 1970s it had become a staple of Neil Simon plays and Woody Allen movies. In 2000, George W. Bush accidentally uttered it on a live mic and sparked a debate as to whether that made him a man of the people, or just an asshole. Ours is the age of assholism.
Over time, the word has acquired a unique definition -- an asshole is not a cad or a rogue or phony, though assholes may be all of these. And because it is a dirty word, a vulgarism that we pretend does not belong to us, it passes by without self-conscious explanation or affect. It's a very pure reflection of our times and collapsing culture precisely because we pay so little attention to it. Until now.
Geoffrey Nunberg is an adjunct full professor at UC Berkeley's School of Information, a linguist and former chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary. Since 1989, he has done a language feature on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” and his commentaries have appeared in the New York Times and other publications. A winner of the Linguistic Society of America’s Language and the Public Interest Award, he is also the author of Talking Right and Going Nucular.
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