A Linguist's Serious Take On 'The A-Word' In his new book, Ascent of the A-Word, linguist Geoffrey Nunberg looks at how the term took root among griping World War II GIs — and how its meaning evolved in the '60s and '70s. He tells Fresh Air that crude words are "wonderfully revealing."
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A Linguist's Serious Take On 'The A-Word'

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A Linguist's Serious Take On 'The A-Word'

A Linguist's Serious Take On 'The A-Word'

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Our linguist Geoffrey Nunberg is always listening to how people talk and analyzing what the words we use say about who we are and the times we live in. His new book is about the history and usage of a word that is coarse and vulgar, a word that many people find offensive, a word you might find offensive. It's a word that's pretty commonly used to describe someone who is foolish or contemptible when the word jerk just isn't strong enough.

Geoff's book is called "Ascent of the A-Word." Geoff is the emeritus chair of the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary and teaches at the University of California at Berkeley School of Information.

Hi, Geoff. Good to talk with you again. So here's the thing, your book is about a word, the word asshole, a word which we don't typically use on the radio, at least not on NPR. So what should we do? Should we do what you do in the title and just call it the a-word?

GEOFF NUNBERG, BYLINE: I think that's fine. I don't see a need to use this word. I think it's a crude word, it's a coarse word. That's why it has the force it does. And I think it's important to keep it crude and coarse and in a certain sense, in a certain context, you want to be able to avoid it. The important thing is to realize that the fact that the word is crude and coarse maybe give you a reason for not saying it. But it doesn't give you a reason for not thinking about it and talking about it because these are really interesting and revealing words.

GROSS: So of all the words in the world, I mean of all the crude words in the world, more specifically, why did you choose this one?

NUNBERG: Well, crude words in general are wonderfully revealing because they're words about - it's not just that we don't think about them or reflect on them. We almost have an investment in believing that they don't have meanings; they're just these bubblings up of emotional steam. And in fact, for that very reason they have precise meanings and for that very reason they reflect our genuine attitudes rather than what we think our attitudes should be.

And in the case of the a-word in particular I was interested in the notion of incivility, about which people write a lot these days and talk about the coarsening of American culture and so forth. If you want to understand that phenomenon, it's better to look at the word that we use in our daily lives to react to incivility and that reflects our genuine attitudes without being contaminated by all the pontification that a word like civility can evoke.

Then, too, the a-word, it turns out, is connected to a wide range of things that happened in American culture about 40 years ago, its emergence into the general language around the 1970s coincides with feminism, with the self-discovery movements like Est with changing notions of social class.

So this word in a certain sense embodies a whole set of cultural changes and again at a very visceral level, a level at which people are not aware and so is a more accurate reflection of what's going on.

GROSS: Well, you trace the a-word back to World War II. You say World War II is basically the first time it's used not just as a purely anatomical description. So how does it emerge in World War II? Like, is it - I assume it's, you know, in the military among, you know, the men who are fighting?

NUNBERG: Yeah. It's a GI's word. It's a GI's word most often used for officers and particularly officers who were full of themselves. The first military leader to have been called with the a-word both by his men and by his superiors, by the way, is George Patton. And that makes perfect sense, particularly if you read the unexpurgated Patton, not the Patton of the movie.

Its first appearance to describe a character in a novel is in Norman Mailer's 1948 novel "The Naked and the Dead," a war novel. So it's in that context that it originally emerges. And then the GIs bring it home and it begins to spread through American speech.

GROSS: And what exactly does it mean in the World War II context?

NUNBERG: Well, it's a reproach for somebody who thinks that his status as an officer, a non-com, entitles him to a kind of behavior either to abuse his men or makes him more important than he really is. So it's a word that looks up and the a-word always does. It's a critique from below, from ground level of somebody who's gotten above himself.

GROSS: So do you think the use of the word changes when the GIs return home and the word starts to spread out into the general population?

NUNBERG: It certainly does change. It broadens, in the '60s it's used by the movement radicals, for example. It becomes more widely used but it really isn't until around 1970, just to pick an arbitrary date, that it becomes part of everyday language, that you start to see it in Neil Simon plays and Woody Allen movies and "Dirty Harry" and "Animal House," and all over the place, that the feminists start to use it to replace this old word heel that was used for a man who mistreated women. It's at that moment it becomes part of general culture and spreads to cover all forms of entitlement. Entitlement, by the way, in this sense is also a word that enters the language at about that moment.

GROSS: Do you think that the broader use of the a-word in the 1970s is also like the ripple effect of, like, say, the '60s counterculture thinking, like, we're going to do away with taboos. Like, you know, a lot of social taboos we're going to, like, we're going to tear them down, whether they have to do with sexuality or with language, and that starts to have a ripple effect, you know, in...

NUNBERG: Absolutely.

GROSS: ...the wider popular culture.

NUNBERG: In the '60s the kind of behavior you're talking about - swearing, sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll, wearing jeans, long hair on men, all of that behavior has a subversive meaning. It's very disturbing and alarming to a lot of people in society. By the '70s it's been domesticated. It's been stripped of any real political significance. It's just the way in which you manifest your authenticity.

There's a rejection of formality. It's the moment at which students start calling their professors Bob. And the use of obscene language or profane language is an important part of that. It's the moment, for example, in which women really take up this language. They never use it quite as much as men do but they use it far more in the '70s than they did in the '50s, where with men, they've kind of always used it.

GROSS: I think in some ways this kind of crude language was considered empowering by a lot of people in the '60s and the '70s because it hadn't been that commonly used, at least not among, you know, in polite company. And so it gave you a certain power. You could offend with it. You could upset somebody with it. And because there were so many lines drawn between different parts of American culture and there was a real culture war going on then, although the word wasn't used, I think people liked the power it gave them to use that word. And to use other words like it.

NUNBERG: Oh, absolutely. It was a blow against these old conventions and formalities and so on and very much part of the liberating spirit of that moment.

GROSS: My guest is our linguist Geoff Nunberg. His new book is called "Ascent of the A-Word." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is our linguist Geoff Nunberg. His new book, "Ascent of the A-Word," is about the history and usage of the vulgar word used to describe someone foolish or contemptible.

You used to be, and you were the long-time usage editor of the American Heritage Dictionary. What year did the a-word enter into that dictionary?

NUNBERG: You know, I think it was in the 1969 first edition. I think the first or second of the American Heritage was the first one to list it and I recall talking to a sales rep for the company and he was rolling his eyes because he was trying to get these dictionaries accepted for use in the libraries of the public schools of Georgia or something, and the presence of the a-word - not so much the a-word but the f-word and the s-word - gave him enormous trouble.

He said, anyway, the kids just look it up to see if it's in there, which is true. Nobody ever learned the meanings of these words from the American Heritage Dictionary.


GROSS: Yeah. I think that is true.


GROSS: Right. OK. So let's skip ahead to where we are now. Do you think that the word has become any more or less powerful than it was, say, in the early 1970s or late 1960s when it really starts becoming more widely used? Do you think it's more frequently used now? Do you think the meaning of it has changed?

NUNBERG: It's more frequently used now and if you look at these databases you can tell that, even allowing for the fact that publishers are more comfortable about allowing it to appear. But I think we have more opportunities both to behave this way to other people and to use this kind of language.

The Internet is extraordinary because all of a sudden it's - if you want to pick a political fight or a fight over chess games or a fight over language or a fight over bird watching, really, you can go out there and see all these discussion groups and people making comments on blogs and so on and freely using this language to one another.

It's an opportunity just to behave like a jerk if you wake up at three in the morning and you feel like it.

GROSS: So the title of your book is "Ascent of the A-Word" and you don't use the word in the title, although you do use it in the subtitle. Give me some sense of what the discussion you had with your editors or the publisher, what those discussions were like about what to call your book since the a-word is used on every page in the book, usually several times, but it's used in its full word - you don't use a-word, you use the actual word. So what were the discussions like about what to actually call the book?

NUNBERG: Well, in fact, it was the publisher who was pushing a bit for using the word and that may be because there had been so many books lately that use this kind of language for a kind of shock value. It began maybe with Harry Frankfurt, the philosopher's book "BS," "On BS" using the full word. And then there's, what is it, "Go the F-Word to Sleep," and "S-Word My Father Says," my dad says, and so on. There's a whole string of these books.

I didn't want to seem to be exploiting the more or less prurient interest that those titles involved because I wanted to say, look, this is a serious book about a word that I think is deeply revealing of stuff that's going on in our cultural attitudes.

You know, I'd meet people when I was working on the book and even academics and they'd say what are you working on. I'd tell them and they'd giggle or they'd say you must have a lot of time on your hands or so on. And I always felt the need to justify the project. So I didn't want to blow it in the title.

Now, once you get into the text of the book you can't write a book about this word and keep saying the a-word and talking around it. And I think if you open a book you've kind of made a compact with the author that you haven't made when you just - when your eye happens on it on a shelf in the bookstore.

GROSS: Geoff, it's good to talk with you. Thank you so much.

NUNBERG: Thank you so much, Terry.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is FRESH AIR's linguist and teaches at the University of California Berkeley School of Information. His new book is called "Ascent of the A-Word." You can read an excerpt on our website freshair.npr.org where you can also download podcasts of our show. And you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.

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