the earliest 'asshole'?

Geoffrey Nunberg nunberg at ISCHOOL.BERKELEY.EDU
Tue Jul 19 19:05:48 UTC 2011

I recently got my copy of Green's slang dictionary, thanks to an old OUP honorarium I had forgotten to cash in. Under the sense of 'asshole' that Green defines as "a fool, a derog. description of a subject," he gives as the first cite a 1933 eg from V. Randolph _Pissing in the Snow_: "It looks to me like the Almighty just throwed them ass-holes together, and made the Easton family." This is the same cite that RHDAS gives. But Google Books shows that in the context of that citation the word was being used anatomically:

Finally one of them Coon Creek fellows says, "Well, there aint no doubt but what God made men and women, but the Book don't tell just how He done it. I reckon there was arms and legs and all kinds of pieces, but the Old Master stuck 'em together kind of hasty, so that's why we ain't none of us perfect. ... Garvin says it sounds reasonable to him. "When God got the job done," says he, "there was a big pile of ass-holes left over. It looks to me like the Almighty just throwed them ass-holes together, and made the Easton family." ... It sounds pretty sensible to anybody that knowed the Eastons, and seen them walking around with their mouth a-hanging open.

So what's the first attested use of the word in this sense? Green gives as a second cite Mailer's quasi-Proustian decription of Lt. Dove from The Naked and the Dead as "A Cornell man, a Deke, and a perfect asshole," which was written around 1947 (but set in 1944). Jonathan in RHDAS has some intervening cites (Green probably didn't feel obliged to list everything after what he took to be the first one.) The earliest is from a Canadian WWII song dated as 1941: "We're a bunch of bastards... assholes of the earth and the universe." Without context, though (Google Books doesn't turn this one up), it's hard to know whether this is the sense that RHDAS defines as "a foolish or despicable person" or an extension of the sense "the most detestable place" -- "asshole of the earth/nation/etc." was common from ca 1920 on, as RHDAS shows. (Jonathan -- do you have more context for this?) So the first uncontrovertible example is from Shibutani 1945 ("He's a combat man and ... I'm just a chairborne asshole") and then Mailer. In any event, all of these suggest that the use of 'asshole' as a personal description was coined by soldiers during the War. 

One oblique piece of evidence for this comes from Paul Fussell's 1998 memoir Doing Battle. Fussell recounts that as a college student waiting to be called up in 1942, he and his roommate invented an imaginary student named Philip Phallus:

"Philip was a nerd—a chemistry major—who played the violin…. Waiting entailed other forms of idleness, like the hours I spent with Ed refining definitions—trying especially to specify the difference between an asshole and a shit, with examples drawn from male students of our aquaintaince or our imagination. Philip Phallus was clearly an asshole, dumb, sincere, dull, and harmless."

So at that time, Fussell thought of asshole as meaning something like the modern dweeb or wuss. But in his 1990 book Wartime, he recounts how, as a junior officer in the European theater not long after, he was forced to listen to "a vainglorious harangue" by General George S. Patton and turned to the officer standing next to him and remarked sotto voce  "What an asshole!" by which he presumably didn't mean that Patton was sincere, dull and harmless. That's consistent with the notion that the word was at that time chiefly a military usage, which Fussell understood only after he was called up.


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