the earliest 'asshole'?

Geoffrey Nunberg nunberg at ISCHOOL.BERKELEY.EDU
Wed Jul 20 04:53:44 UTC 2011

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

> JL

At the risk of belaboring a petty point, I don't get the argument here. The jest involves saying that the Eastons (who are elsewhere described as "trash") were literally made out of assholes and that their appearance confirms this ("It sounds pretty sentsible to anybody that knowed the Eastons, and seen them walking around with their mouth a-hanging open"). This isn't metaphorical but literal, if outlandish. And I think the mere fact of comparing somebody to an asshole would be sufficient to imply that they're dirty, low, or foul without requiring the independent existence of a figurative use as a term for someone who is arrogant, etc. I mean, if somebody told me, "You look like a rectum with your mouth hanging open like that" I would take their meaning. (I assume too that the story would be effective to a speaker of French or Italian speaker, whose languages don't use the word for the anus this way.)

So I don't see why one would take this as an antecedent for the standard use that begins to appear in WWII literature  in the 40's, no more than the Blake is (which is not to say it shouldn't be included in the entry).* It doesn't take a lot of ingenuity to compare someone you want to disparage to anthe anus, and it's fair to assume that people have been doing that from time to time for as long as 'asshole'/'arsehole' etc. has been around. But the WWII isn't simply a metaphor but a conventionalized figure to refer to a specific type of person -- someone who is arrogant, pretentious, or has an overblown sense of entitlement, etc. As best I can tell, Mailer's use is the first that gives us enough content to get a sense of this:

Lieutenant (SG) Dove, USNR. A Cornell man, a Deke, a perfect asshole.... [Dove] had been assigned to the division as an interpreter at about the same time Hearn had come in, and with amazing, with startling naiveté he had announced to everyone that his rank was equivalent to captain in the Army, and that the responsibilities of a lieutenant sg were greater than those of a major or lieutenant colonel in the Army. He had told the officers this in officers' mess on Motome and had been loved accordingly. [There are more examples of Dove's assholic behavior.]

This meaning is underdetermined by the metaphor itself, which is presumably why Fussell didn't cotton to it until he was actually in the service and thought before that that it meant dweeb; that is, it isn't immediately obvious why 'asshole' should convey this particular disparagement (or why words for turd, public hair, etc. should do so in other lgs.).

The deeper question is about how we individuate "words" diachronically. I take it this necessarily implies a causal relation -- not between tokens, obviously, but in the sense that both items instantiate a persisting convention or a referential chain a la Kripke/Evans. I don't see a reason to suppose that this is the case here -- in fact there's no reason to suppose the 1933 use involves any convention at all. Which doesn't mean it isn't worthy of mention, but maybe bracketed, like the Blake.

(FWIW, a few quibbles aside, I think the RHDAS treatment of this word and the others of its type is incredibly comprehensive and nuanced.)


*BTW, the 1941 Klitgaard cite is a nice find. But while the book was written in English, according to the reviews it recounts a fictionalized recounting of the author's own boyhood voyages on Danish and Norwegian training ships and tramp steamers in the years leading up to WWI. So it may very well be that the 'ass-hole' is a translation of something said in another lg.

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

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>> Sender:       American Dialect Society <
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>> Poster:       Geoffrey Nunberg <
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>> Subject:      the earliest 'asshole'?
>> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
>> 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.

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