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Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years Hardcover – August 14, 2012

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: PublicAffairs; 1 edition (August 14, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1610391756
  • ISBN-13: 978-1610391757
  • Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 6 x 8.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #494,377 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


Kirkus Reviews
“What exactly does it mean to call someone an asshole? When did the epithet come to prominence as a social and now political invective? Who are some of the biggest assholes in the public eye today? These are just a few of the questions that linguist Nunberg explores in this often raucously funny account of what seems to be America’s most popular insult. The author avoids many potential hazards, including an overly academic and pretentious tone or, conversely, an exceedingly snarky or droll satire. In other words, he avoids, by his own surmising, being an asshole himself, thereby rendering a skillful narrative…. A witty and politically charged analysis of a potent obscenity in its modern and contemporary context.”

“Only an asshole would say this book is offensive. Sure, it uses the A-word a lot, but this is no cheap attempt to get laughs written by a B-list stand-up comic. The author … undertakes a serious examination of not just the word, but also the concept surrounding it (known as assholism, a type of behavior with, it seems, pretty clear markers)…. An intelligent and wide-ranging study of linguistics, ideas, and social trends.”
“An engaging blend of linguistics, analysis, and social commentary that breaks down the important place the word "asshole" occupies in our language and culture…. In the end, Nunberg makes an entertaining and thought-provoking case for the importance and power of a ‘dirty’ word.”

San Francisco Chronicle
“In this delightfully and devilishly trenchant and provocative book, Nunberg traces the use of common and coarse language by well-bred, well-educated critics of Victorian prudery in the 1920s; the spread of the A-word by returning World War II servicemen (and novelist Norman Mailer in The Naked and the Dead); the penchant for obscenities by dissenters in the 1960s and '70s; and, most importantly, changes in ideas about civility, compromise and social class (marked by a shift from power and wealth to lifestyle and attitude as the criteria for membership in the ‘elite’), which paved the way for asshole to become a staple in middle-class conversation and for assholism to become entrenched in political discourse. Nunberg dissects his subject with style and surgical precision.”

Malcolm Jones, Daily Beast
“We are taught that there is no such thing as a Theory of Everything, and that we should beware of anyone nutty enough to claim that you can reduce reality to its gist with one handy explanation-philosophy-catchphrase. But now comes Geoffrey Nunberg with Ascent of the A-Word, a marvelous book that explains so much so well that it’s tempting, really really tempting, to claim that Nunberg has explained everything….Ceaselessly entertaining.”

Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Interesting, and at times provoking, when [Nunberg] uses the word and others like it as a takeoff point for riffs on usage, political correctness and why we sometimes cheer an a - - - - - -…. [Ascent of the A-word] will make you think about whether ‘a - - - - - -’ really is the right word for your boorish neighbor, and what using it says about you.”

Mother Jones
“Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg of the University of California-Berkeley briskly and entertainingly traces how a bit of World War II GI slang became an ubiquitous epithet and a moral category that's come to embody our polarized politics. Though he doesn't buy into simplistic notions of civility, Nunberg is concerned about the toxic side of assholism: When we declare someone an asshole, we're usually giving ourselves leave to act like one.”

B&N Review
“With the hugely enjoyable Ascent of the A-Word we are right on the cutting edge of asshole studies…. Rich and educational ."

Chicago Tribune Printers Row
“Refreshingly uneuphemistic…. Perhaps the most acute pleasure of Ascent of the Aword is having people labeled as they really are.”

Toronto Star
“Nunberg brings all his scholarly oomph to examining the traits that earn one an A-hole label in our culture…. Quirky scholarship at its best.”

About the Author

Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist, is a professor at the UC Berkeley School of Information. Since 1987, he has done a language feature on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” and his commentaries have appeared in the New York Times and many other publications. He is the emeritus chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary and a winner of the Linguistic Society of America’s Language and the Public Interest Award. His previous books include Talking Right and Going Nucular. Nunberg lives in San Francisco.

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

38 of 40 people found the following review helpful By Robert I. Sutton on August 8, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I have read this book twice in the last month, once in an advanced copy sent to me by the publisher and again this week when my Amazon copy arrived. It is so much fun to read and so well researched that I couldn't put it down. As the author of a book that is also on "the A word," publishers send me books like this constantly -- on bullying, jerks, nasty talk, you name it. This is the best of all of them. I wrote a longer review on my blog Work Matters, here an excerpt (note there is a bit of censoring as Amazon doesn't allow the full A-word in reviews.. as many people who have tried to submit reviews for my book have found):

'I admired how deftly he treated "The Politics of Incivility" in the chapter on "The A**holism of Public Life." Nunberg makes a compelling argument that critics on the right and the left both use the tactic of claiming that an opponent is rude, nasty, or indecent -- that they are acting like a**holes and ought to apologize immediately. Nunberg documents "the surge of patently phony indignation for all sides," be it calling out people for "conservative incivility" or "liberal hate." He captures much of this weird and destructive game with the little joke "Mind your manners, a**hole."'

In the name of full-disclosure, I am moderating a talk at the San Francisco Commonwealth Club by Nunberg next week. But I don't know the guy, I have never met him and I only know him from him from his radio comments. My excitement for Ascent of the A-Word was generated because, after reading so much junk of this topic, I was so impressed with this book. It is so fun, so well-written, and so important because Nunberg gets at many of the root causes of what is wrong with our society and organizations.

Robert Sutton

A note to Amazon readers: If you write a review of this book, don't spell-out the A-word or they not only won't post your review, they won't let you submit a censored one!
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Kathleen Miller on September 8, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The reviewer at the Daily Beast said The Ascent of the A-Word was a theory of everything, and it's not that far off. I wouldn't have thought there could be that much to say about the A-Word, but it takes Nunberg from country music to the history of feminism to 1970's self-discovery movements to the nastiness of modern political commentary. It's a great read, a serious book but full of entertaining asides, some of which had me laughing out loud, such as "When you hear somebody proudly declaring himself an a____, the odds are he's not an a____, he's just a dick."

(I was just about to post another version of this review that had the a-word written out when I noticed the warning in the review above. Evidently Amazon will let the word appear in titles and editorial reviews but not customer reviews.)
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Mark A. Johnson on August 26, 2012
Format: Hardcover
I was browsing CITY LIGHT BOOKSTORE after a few shots at VESUVIO when I came across this little gem of a book. Both erudite and clever, this is one of the most fun reads I have had in years. Bravo!
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Format: Hardcover
Laugh out loud funny, but sometimes uncomfortably accurate in the author's appraisal of the coarsening of our everyday speech. It doesn't pull punches, not for the faint of heart! I think you will enjoy this one. Recommended.
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By Anne Mills on December 6, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Somewhat tedious and long winded, as befits a linguist discussing the A word. However, the author does have some contributions to make.
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