the earliest 'asshole'?

Jesse Sheidlower jester at PANIX.COM
Wed Jul 20 10:27:26 UTC 2011

On Tue, Jul 19, 2011 at 09:53:44PM -0700, Geoffrey Nunberg wrote:
> > 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 the 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.


Not to further belabor what you describe as "a petty point", but I agree
with Jon Lighter here. It may be true that the WWII examples are the
first we have that are unquestionably referring to this specific type,
but to say that any earlier, less-clearly-specific use should not be
regarded as an antecedent strikes me as an extremely narrow
interpretation of the evidence.

The Easton example cannot, I think, be used on its own--if the only
humor in it is that they are compared to the rectum, then the joke
fails. (And the Ozarks humor of the type that Randolph collected very
often relies on some broader understanding of expected gender roles,
cultural types, sexual behavior, etc.; i.e. they're not just simple 'you
are ugly' jokes.) You couldn't substitute "You look like a rectum...".
For it to work as a punchline of this story, there must have a commonly
known use of _asshole_ to refer to people. Maybe this use was not
exactly the conventionalized figure of WWII use, but it has to be
related, and related in a more direct way than just _asshole_ = 'bad'.

Jesse Sheidlower

The American Dialect Society -

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