A Linguist’s Serious Take On ‘The A-Word’
Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg wants people to take his new book, Ascent of the A-Word, seriously.
“I’d meet people when I was working on the book, and even academics — they’d say, ‘What are you working on?’ and they’d giggle. Or they’d say, ‘You must have a lot of time on your hands,’ ” Nunberg tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross.
Nunberg says he believes crude words are wonderfully revealing, not least because people tend to think “they’re just these bubblings-up of emotional steam.”
“For that very reason, they have — it turns out — precise meanings,” he says. “And for that very reason, they reflect our genuine attitudes, rather than what we think our attitudes should be.”
Interested in the phenomenon of incivility, Nunberg wanted to study the word “asshole,” and quickly discovered that it was connected to a wide range of changes in American culture in the 1960s and 1970s, including feminism, self-discovery movements and changing notions of social class.
Nunberg says the usage of the word, as not being purely anatomical, originated during World War II as a GI’s term for an officer who thinks his status “entitles him to a kind of behavior — to either abuse his men, or makes him more important than he really is.” When GIs came home, they brought the word with them, and movement radicals began to use it.
But it wasn’t until 1970 that the A-word entered everyday language.