My Favorite Vulgarity

I can’t believe it’s been five years since Aaron James published Assholes, a Theory, a book that got me in trouble at school when I explained to a star student athlete breaking in the lunch line that he was an “asshole” according to a philosophical treatise I’d just read.

Much to my surprise, although a senior, the violator-of-queue-protocol told his mama, who called the higher-ups demanding an apology, which I refused to offer. “Would she rather I call him despicable?” I asked rhetorically, mentioned he was older than an acquaintance of mine killed in Nam, that I had offered the Anglo-Saxon descriptor in the context of a bone fide academic argument, etc. My bosses, to their credit, demurred. After graduation, I did, however, tell him that I was sorry calling him an asshole had upset him, but he claimed it hadn’t.

Anyway, “asshole” is an example of synecdoche, one of the gadgets poets use in their bag of tricks, a part standing for the whole, illustrated here in Eliot’s famous lines from “Prufrock”:

I should have been a pair of ragged claws

Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

Synecdoche, a sort of cinematic device, focuses the mind’s eye on concrete images, renders the airy world of words in flashes of substantiality as we atomistically see the part and perceive the whole, our mental cinematographer panning out from the rugged claws to the crab itself and our imaginations morphing the symbol into meaning however our imaginations will.

In explaining this concept to students, I actually use asshole as in a despicable person to illustrate synecdoche because, flash, they immediately get it and tend not to forget it.

I have to admit I love the word [1] – almost a perfect spondee – bam-bam.  Not surprisingly, it comes to English via the Vikings [2], those juvenile delinquents with battle-axes, as one of my history professors described them.  Actually, though, according to Wiktionary.com (my OED doesn’t list asshole), its vulgar usage as a despicable person doesn’t appear until the 1950’s in of all places, the Harvard Advocate 137, March 1954.

Asshole’s popularity as a derisive term is not only evident in its broad usage but also in the number of offshoots it has spawned – assholery, assholic, etc.

But back to James’s book and his ruminations. He writes

Our theory has three main parts.  In interpersonal or cooperative relations, the asshole:

  1.  allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically;
  2.  does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement; and
  3.  is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people.

I say, bravo.

Professor James is less successful, however, in classifying assholes because he doesn’t base his division on one principle; therefore, he creates categories that overlap, e.g., the boorish asshole, the smug asshole, the asshole boss, the corporate asshole, the self-aggrandizing asshole.  Obviously, it’s easy to perceive a corporate boss like Donald Trump as being smug, self-aggrandizing, and boorish all in one.

Certainly, he is by far, according to James’s theory, the ass-holiest US president in this and the last century if not the most egregious of all time.

At any rate, I enjoyed James’s book and now that it’s five years old you can probably cop it for pennies on Amazon.


[1] Cognate with Norwegian rasshøl (“asshole”), Swedish arsle (“asshole”). Compare also German Arschloch (“asshole”). Attested from the 1370s, replacing earlier Old English earsþerl (“anus”, literally “arse thirl”). First recorded in Middle English, as ers hole (Glouc. Cath. Manuscript 19. No. I. , dated 1379, cited after OED), ars-hole (Bodleian Ashmole MS. 1396, dated ca. 1400, ed. Robert Von Fleischhacker as Lanfrank’s “Science of Cirurgie”, EETS 102, 1894, cited after OED.) Wikipedia.com

[2] Check out TC Boyle’s “We Are Norsemen” for a primer on Norse assholedom: “The idiot.  The pale, puny, unhardy idiot. A rage came over me at the thought of it – I shoved [the monk] aside and snatched up the book, thick pages, dark characters, the mystery and magic.  Snatched it up, me, a poet, a Norseman, an annihilator, an illiterate.  Snatched it up and and watched the old man’s suffering features as I fed it, page by filthy page, into the fire.  Ha!”

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