the earliest 'asshole'?

victor steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Tue Jul 19 21:04:55 UTC 2011

I'm somewhat confused--which is not an extraordinary state of course--but
what is the distance from a "contemptible place" to "contemptible person"?

OED only has a "compound" entry for asshole with a cross-reference that does
not offer any improvements:

  asshole n.  (a) = arsehole n.;  (b) someone or something foolish or
> contemptible; an uncompromising term of abuse; also attrib.
> 1935    D. Thomas Let. July in Sel. Lett. (1966) 159   The best socialists
> suck all they can from the jaundiced ass-hole of an anti-socialist state.
> 1948    Amer. Speech 23 319   Ass hole buddy, comrade-in-arms.
> 1962    J. Baldwin Another Country i. ii. 111   Of course, he's an asshole
> too.

My first puzzlement is that "someone" and "something" are lumped
together--they don't mean the same thing and, while there might have been a
transition from one to the other use, they don't really coexist. The first
example is, of course, exactly in the "something" category (I), the second
is ambiguous, at best (although I see it as "something" as well), and the
third clearly refers to "someone" (II). The cross-referenced "arsehole" is
even later. But what of the earlier appearances found in GB (and other
places, but look at GB, for starters)?
Court of Appeals Of Texas. Tyler Term, 1887.
Case No. 2470. (24 Tx Ct. App. 1, 2)

> Morrison Bass was the first witness for the State. He testified, in
> substance, that, on Sunday, August --, 1886, he attended divine service at
> Cox's Chapel, in Henderson, county, Texas, and occupied a seat on a bench
> with the defendants on trial. While the congregation was kneeling at prayer,
> the defendants, each having an open pocket knife in hand, employed their
> time in carving on the back of a bench in front. Witness saw each of them
> cutting on the bench, but could not, at the time, distinguish the characters
> cut by either of them. After church was dismissed the witness saw the words "Ass
> hole work" engraved on the back of the bench at the point where he saw the
> defendants cutting. He could not tell which of the letters or words were cut
> or engraved by the defendant Smith, or which by the defendant Coker. He
> knew, however, that the words were not engraved on the bench when the
> services began, and when he and the defendants took their seats on the bench
> immediately behind.

Now, there could be some debate as to whether it belongs to category I (work
in an ass hole) or category II (work for ass holes), but the fact that there
is a question here cannot be ignored.

The other issue is a number of dialectal dictionaries from the mid-19th
century pick up "ass-hole" as "hole for collecting ashes beneath the grate"
(also an ash pit outside) and blames it on the Scotts (as/ass==ash). To
buttress this, there is also ass-pit, ass-midden and ass-manner that
represent, respectively, the ash pit, dust heap and ash manure. Plus
ass-card/ass-caird (fire shovel), ass-coup--pail for carrying ashes and
ass-riddlin--sifting of ashes (St. Mark's). This pops up not only in
manifestly Scottish dictionaries, but those for Lancashire (esshole for S.
Lancash.), Yorkshire and ... Cleveland (no--Northumberland, not the one in
Ohio). What are the chances that the "contemptible place" meaning was
derived through the merger of the two "asses" rather than directly from the
anatomical one? After all, an ash trap is a pretty contemptible place (and
one for receiving refuse, albeit only of one kind). Certainly the GB hits
from mid-19th century that are not such glossaries all point to the same

>From the more recent lot, there is one hit (not verified on paper, but
WorldCat only lists 1941 and 1942 editions):
The Deep. Kaj Klitgaard. 1941

> "Whings? What were you then?"
> "An Angel."
> "An angel, you ass hole. Did you ever see a red-haired angel?"
> "No."


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

> 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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