Consider the Asshole

In Slate’s Lexicon Valley, hosts Bob Garfield and Mike Vuolo talk with linguist Geoffrey Nunberg about the “moral license of assholism.”

The podcast is a romp through the history and culture of vulgarity, obscenity and profanity with nifty explainers about the differences between them.

For example:

MIKE: [laughing] I wanna talk a little bit about what was happening in the first few decades of the 20th century with regard to a number of other obscenities. There were, as you point out, a whole bunch of words that were starting to take on new usages around this time. For example, the word fuck, which had been in the vocabulary for centuries, was used for the first time as a noun for a person, as in, “You’re such a fuck.” The word cocksucker was used for the first time as a general term of contempt, without any imputation of homosexuality. And the word shit was used for the first time as a verb meaning to deceive, as in, “You’ve gotta be shitting me.”

NUNBERG: Bullshit was one, fuck-up, up shit creek and so on. Dozens and dozens of these words that, although they were vulgar in their origins and had obscene meanings, in these new uses referred to things that really didn’t have any particularly obscene properties or consequences. When you say, “That’s bullshit,” you’re merely saying it’s nonsense or a kind of stronger form of nonsense, but you’re not imputing to it anything obscene. And when I call somebody an asshole, I may be talking about his arrogance or sense of entitlement or obtuseness, but I’m not saying anything about him that I couldn’t say on the op-ed page of the New York Times if I couched it in more decorous language.

Nunberg is with UC Berkeley’s School of Information and just released a new book called Ascent of the A-word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years.

  1. awesomeocelot reblogged this from futurejournalismproject
  2. fromrusholmewithlove reblogged this from futurejournalismproject and added:
    This is a very interesting discussion and I’m trying not to snigger like a 5 year old. Lol, naughty words.
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    Putting a language advisory on Tumblr would be kind of a waste, right? Either way, listen to this.
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