the earliest 'asshole'?

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at GMAIL.COM
Tue Jul 19 20:18:40 UTC 2011

I disagree. The jest seems to be effective only if it plays on the
metaphorical sense of the term as well.


On Tue, Jul 19, 2011 at 3:05 PM, Geoffrey Nunberg <
nunberg at> wrote:

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> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Geoffrey Nunberg <nunberg at ISCHOOL.BERKELEY.EDU>
> Subject:      the earliest 'asshole'?
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> 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.=20
> 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=97a chemistry major=97who played the violin=85. =
> Waiting entailed other forms of idleness, like the hours I spent with Ed =
> refining definitions=97trying 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.
> Geoff
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