≡ Menu

Review: ‘Ascent of the A-Word’ by Geoffrey Nunberg

Review: ‘Ascent of the A-Word’ by Geoffrey Nunberg post image

Title: Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years
Author: Geoffrey Nunberg
Genre: Nonfiction
Year: 2012
Publisher: Public Affairs
Acquired: From the publisher for review consideration
Rating: ★★★★☆

Review: When someone cuts you off on the freeway, what’s your first thought? When you see Donald Trump on television, what’s the first word you think to call him? When a politician is exposed as a hypocrite, for whatever reason, what’s do you turn to your friends and exclaim?

For me, it’s usually something along the lines of “What an asshole!” And I’m not the only one, at least according to linguist Geoffrey Nunberg. As Nunberg, a scholar in UC Berkeley’s School of Information, explains in the introduction of his new book Ascent of the A-Word:

Every age creates a particular social offender that it makes a collective preoccupation — the cad in Anthony Trollope’s day, the phony that Holden Caulfield was fixated on in the postwar years — and the asshole is ours. … The advent of the asshole is reflective of very sweeping revisions in the personal and social values that we all share, even if we sometimes find ourselves railing about them. The point of this book, more than anything else, is that the ascent of the A-word and the attention it gets says a great deal about who we’ve become.

So what makes being an asshole different from being, say, a jerk or a prick? A couple of things. First, calling someone an asshole implies a certain “culpable obtuseness — about one’s own importance, about the needs of others and the way one is perceived by them,” says Nunberg. The unique thing about assholism is that when you cast someone else as an asshole, it gives you permission to be an asshole right back. When in an argument, the more of an asshole you can make your opponents seem to be, the more of an asshole you yourself can be, which helps you bond with the people on your side of the argument. The assholization of society isn’t necessarily a reflection of a general growth of incivility or disrespect, argues Nunberg; it’s a whole new way of casting our own behavior when we compare it to the behavior of others:

This isn’t an age of assholes — or at least there are not more of them walking the earth than there used to be back when they went by other designations. But it’s fair to call it an age of assholism, one that has created a host of new occassions for acting like assholes and new ways of performing assholism, particularily among strangers and in public life.

I could go on and on pulling quotes and examples from Ascent of the A-Word — for a relatively slim book, it was full of moments where I found myself knodding in agreement or thinking differently about the way I interpret my own behavior and the behavior of others. And reading about something as easy to understand as assholes — they’re one of those things that we tend to know when we see them — makes reading about linguistics more fun too.

Nunberg clearly has a perspective on where assholism comes from and offers plenty of examples of assholes (Rush Limbaugh, James Cameron, Kate Gosselin) and anti-assholes (people we cheer for when they act like assholes because they’re taking on other assholes — Jimmy McNulty taking on the establishment in The Wire). He also has a pretty clear perspective on which of the major political parties/causes offers up more examples of asshole behavior. I tend to agree with his assessment (that it’s not that there are more conservative assholes, but that conservatives pundits are better organized about being assholes), but readers who don’t might find that (relatively small) part of his analysis a bit off-putting.

For a book focused entirely on people who behave unpleasantly, I actually found Ascent of the A-Word pretty darn enjoyable and will be recommending it whenever I come across people bemoaning the behavior of the asshole down the street.

Other Reviews: If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Jessica @ Quirky Bookworm August 28, 2012, 8:10 am

    Sounds fun! Going on my to-read shelf…

  • Ali (Worducopia) August 28, 2012, 9:04 am

    My inner child says, “Haha—there’s a whole book on the word asshole!!”
    But really, it seems like a fascinating look at the interaction between human behavior, language, and culture.
    If only I could read it without my 2 kids going around saying, “Haha—there’s a whole book on the word asshole!!”

    • Kim August 29, 2012, 6:13 pm

      I felt a little bit like your kids much of the time I was reading the book. I felt weird taking it out in public, like people around me would stare and judge me for reading it!

  • Nikki August 28, 2012, 1:12 pm

    Linguists and curse words are always such a fun mix. Does the book have a certain takeaway message or is it just looking at our usage of the word?

    • Kim August 29, 2012, 6:15 pm

      I think it’s mostly concerned about usage, but I suppose the thing I’ve been thinking about since reading it is his suggestion that it’s not that there are more assholes now, it’s that the way we use asshole gives us each permission to be more of a jerk to others… it’s a word/behavior that perpetuates itself.

  • Jennifer August 29, 2012, 2:54 pm

    Ha, fantastic! I’m requesting this *rightnow* from my library. Like Ali above, my kids will get a huge kick out of seeing me read this. (My 14 year old son in particular because, well because he’s a 14 year old boy)

    Thanks for reviewing this! I just saw an article about this book/author on NPR.org and then your post popped up. Serendipity!

    (Psst, following you on Twitter)

    • Kim August 29, 2012, 6:16 pm

      I saw a few links to NPR features on this book today too. I haven’t read them, but I’m curious!

      • Jennifer August 29, 2012, 8:36 pm

        So I tried to request this book from the library. It’s not available yet is it? Duh Jen! 😉

        • Kim September 9, 2012, 1:51 pm

          It should be out? The pub date on Amazon is August 14, maybe your library doesn’t have it yet?

          • Jennifer September 11, 2012, 12:12 pm

            Darn library! I’ll keep my eyes open, I really want to read this!

  • Stephanie August 29, 2012, 3:27 pm

    I am intrigued that “assholism” is now a word. 🙂 This definitely sounds like an interesting book.

    • Kim August 29, 2012, 6:16 pm

      If a linguist says something, does that make it a work? I’m not sure you’ll find “assholism” in the OED just yet, but it’s a useful term in the context of the book 🙂

  • Athira September 5, 2012, 12:19 pm

    This sounds like a fun read! I would love to check it out!

  • softdrink September 6, 2012, 9:57 pm

    He could turn this into a whole series. 😀

    • Kim September 9, 2012, 1:52 pm

      Ha! That would be pretty awesome.