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Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years Hardcover – August 14, 2012
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“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
Top Customer Reviews
'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.
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!
(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.)
What fascinates me is how the mind of a linguist functions. Nunberg is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley School of Information. Why is this important? It gives you some foundation for understanding how and why he would go about collecting, collating, and codifying this large body of research related to his topic.
If you are interested in the various nuances (subtle shadings) of words--not just vulgar, insensitive, or uncivil ones--this is an excellent and entertaining exploration. I am amazed, as anyone with any interest in language usage would be, at both the depth and breadth of this investigation. It could be revealed in the nearly 20 pages of "Notes" at the end of the book, but readers only have to see it revealed on every page of this 213- page (of text) book.
It is truly a delight and pleasure to find someone as deeply immersed in literature, conscious of the various effects and influences of history, not only familiar with and responsive to popular culture, but sensitized to technology and how it is changing the face of language usage, and affected by current language manifestations, who can blend and synthesize these various elements and effects into a comfortable, easy-going, understandable, and engaging narrative. Impressive, to say the least. Nunberg's linguistic analysis is a joy to experience.
I was especially pleased with Nunberg's inclusion of the effects of technology: "Technology," he writes, "has played a big role here, as it always has in the past. Since the nineteenth century, every new form of communication has multiplied the opportunities for unwelcomed intrusions on our persons and privacy" (p. 158).Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Somewhat tedious and long winded, as befits a linguist discussing the A word. However, the author does have some contributions to make.Published on December 6, 2013 by Anne Mills
Geoff Nunberg continues to be as informative, helpful, entertaining as he was 40 years ago at Columbia. Not to be missed on public radio segments, and this book did not disappoint.Published on February 24, 2013 by Susan King
...but within a few pages I was overwhelmed by the author's obvious political biases. If I wanted to read a book about politics, I would have bought a book about politics. Read morePublished on November 11, 2012 by M. E. Blackman