the earliest 'asshole'?

Geoffrey Nunberg nunberg at ISCHOOL.BERKELEY.EDU
Wed Jul 20 17:41:15 UTC 2011


Well, of course with 'rectum' there's a register difference so the analogy isn't quite right. Anyway, if I understand what you and Jonathan are saying, the idea is that even if this eg isn't itself metaphorical, it presupposes the existence of an (unattested) metaphorical use. I'm not sure if that would count as grounds for calling something an antecedent, even if the conclusion happened to be true. But it's an empirical question: if you're right then the line won't be an effective put-down to an Italian or French speaker if you substitute the words "buchi del culo" or "trous du cul" in the sentence "God made out of ____ and you can tell if you look at them with their mouths hanging open," but it will work for a German. 

BTW, there's a line from The King's Speech that works very nicely as a pun, but is almost certainly anachronistic: It's set in Westminster Abbey in 1936 during the preparation for the coronation of George VI:

King George VI: You can't sit there, get up.

Lionel Logue: Why not? It's a chair.

King George VI: No that is not a chair, that is St. Edward's chair…. That chair is the seat on which every king...

Lionel Logue: I don't care how many royal assholes sat in this chair.

This one does presume a metaphorical meaning, of course.


> 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.
> Geoff,
> 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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