Why the A-word dominates our culture

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First aired on Q (2/10/12)


The new millennium has been described in various ways: the Age of Technology, the Age of Knowledge, even the Age of Aquarius. But linguist and Berkeley professor Geoffrey Nunberg believes we're living in the Age of Assholism. He spoke to Jian Ghomeshi on Q earlier this week about his book Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, The First Sixty Years, which is an examination of the history of the word itself, and an exploration of why we're so fascinated these days by people who are, well, assholes.

"This word is a particularly interesting one. It emerges around 1970 after being invented during the Second World War, and comes very quickly to play an important role in our moral lives," he said. "It's a category that we use just in the course of driving around, or negotiating business at the office, but we really don't give very much thought to it. And the words that we give very little thought to tend to be the ones that are most revealing about our social attitudes."

According to the CBC's language guide, on a scale of mildly, moderately and extremely ofensive, the word "asshole" falls under "moderately offensive." Nunberg's book doesn't use the full word in its title, which he explains by saying he's paying homage to the A-word's power as an expletive. These days, he says, we don't give "asshole" the respect it deserves. "It's a vulgar word, a coarse word. A lot of people don't like to hear it used and I sympathize with that, but the fact that you don't like to hear it used doesn't mean that you should not want to hear about it," he said. "It's a very powerful word that plays a strong role in our everyday life."

So when we call someone that powerful word, what do we mean? "It signals a culpable obtuseness," said Nunberg. "A confusion of what I am and who I am -- my status and role on the one hand, and the things I owe to other people based on our common humanity." Figures in popular culture who might rightly be called the A-word include The Office's David Brent (Ricky Gervais). "He's not a malignant character," explained Nunberg. "He's just confused. He imagines that being the boss entitles him to impose on the personal lives of his employees, and demand respect from them that he doesn't have coming as a person. That confusion is what characterizes the people who merit this label."

But if we are living in an age of assholism, as Nunberg claims, it's only because we find those people so fascinating. "Every age seems to have one category, one type of social miscreant, that embodies its anxieties," he said. The Victorians had their cads and bounders, while in the post-war years nobody (especially Holden Caulfield and Allen Ginsberg) liked a phony. Nunberg cites Barbara Walters's annual list of "Most Fascinating People."

"I looked at the list year in and year out, and about half the people are people who deserve this label," he said. "Last year it was Donald Trump and Steve Jobs and Simon Cowell and Herman Cain and the Kardashians."

So what does our obsession say about us as a culture at this point in time? "It says, on the one hand, that we're very anxious about this confusion of status," Nunberg said. "And then there's this fascination with people who can get away with it."

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