As English speakers, we have a plethora of epithets at our disposal available to hurl at those whom we reproach. But linguist Geoffrey Nunberg says these days, there’s one word that has come to take center stage in the world of name-calling. In his new book, “Ascent of the A-Word,” Nunberg traces the history of the word — and the personality type.

PLEASE NOTE: if you want to know what the "A-word" is please click on the above link, but please don't use the word in your comment, since it violates our community guidelines. Thanks for your understanding! —  Forum producer

Geoffrey Nunberg on the ‘Ascent of the A-Word’ 21 August,2012forum

Geoffrey Nunberg, adjunct professor at UC Berkeley's School of Information, commentator on language for NPR's "Fresh Air" and former chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary

  • Rhet

    I’m still trying to guess which word the a-word is. Adjunct? Arbitrager? Athertonian? Art Institute of Orange County?

    By the way, maybe KQED would like to investigate why a college lecturer was fired by an real “A-Word”, for refusing to enslave students with debt:

  • Forum Producer

    PLEASE NOTE: if you want to know what the “A-word” is please click on the above link, but please don’t use the word in your comment, since it violates our community guidelines. Thanks for your understanding! —  Forum producer

    • lolly caust

       which is why the internet convention is asshat, right?

  • Bill_Woods

    The A-word, the B-word, the C-word, the D-word, the S-word …  Is there a glossary somewhere?

  • AllesK

    Can we list our favorite foreign language terms?  The Germans have a beaut!

  • David

    I know Mr. Nunberg is not a grammarian, but I noticed he just said “WMDs,” with an “s” at the end. I’ve noticed that a lot of sports commentators are making a point of saying “RBI” without the “s.” For example: “Buster Posey had 5 RBI in last night’s game.” I know this is a little off the topic, but does Mr. Nunberg have any thoughts on this one?


  • Ayn Marx 666

    Don’t let’s forget “Werner Erhard” (John Paul Rosenberg) who loved the word, claiming that it applied to everyone (and so giving licence to his many marks to act as ars-h-lish as they would).

    I’d say that there are no fewer of these (‘us’?—I can’t eliminate myself from the possible membership in this category without definitively making myself one), but from Herbert Spencer to Ayn Rand to Ronald Reagan to Gordon Gecko to Tim LaHaye to everyone on the Koch pay-roll, there have never been so many apologists for acting in a callous, aggressive, manner.

  • Jim_OHara

    Since you opened up to words with lately extended provenance, my pet peeve is “literally” used for non-literal metaphors, for emphasis only.  E.g. So-and-so is literally an a-word.

  • Jim_OHara

    Any studies done on correlation of brand of car and a-wordness of owner?  I have some brands in mind but don’t want to be called a-word.

    • Tim

      You thinking of the difference between a porcupine and a BMW owner?

  • MattS

    This reminds me of the story my friend tells about her daughter. When she was 6 they were thumbing through a Yiddish dictionary. The daughter said she knows what a “schmuck” is. The mom, surprised, asked what she thought it means. The daughter said, “that’s what you say in the car when someone cuts you off in traffic”

    I have also noticed that the word “douche” has become much more common in recent years in a similar usage. I think this may have evolved; I remember my father used to reserve that word specifically for women, usually when driving.

  • I sometimes think the A-word is used to excuse or gloss over actual personality disorders. I tend to stop myself from saying or thinking “A-hole!” and consider maybe that person is fact suffering from a mental illness. I guess we could make the same argument for lots of disparaging names we call people.

  • Paula

    Seems like we have a love-hate relationship with a-words. We hate how aggressive and In your face (ahem) they can be. But we seem to like them in public office, heads of companies, etc. Alas, my son can’t figure out why teenage girls are attracted to them instead of nice guys.

  • Libby Bowles

    When Geoffrey said that anyone who is proud of being an A-word is actually a D-word (after my 23-year-old told me what the D-word is) I just cracked up! That”s so right on and hilarious. I appreciate Geoffrey more every time I have the pleasure of listening to his ideas.

  • Noe

    I’ve had many a lively and wonderful similar debates over the character of such epithets and the appropriate people and time to use them. I’m now looking forward to reading Mr. Nunberg’s authority on the subject! Great show today.

  • Renata

    Does the use of the word fracking in the hydraulic fracturing sense really predate the expletive fraking in Battlestar Gallactica? That term appeared in the 1970s series.

  • Hella Brad

    Could you ask your guest about the origin of “Hella”?  Very commonly used in California.

    • Unclefishbits

      I think it’s a contraction of “A hell of a”, but how it got so deeply rooted here is insane.  Apparently, it is a marker of northern california dialect: I remember being punched for saying it in Colorado.

    • lolly caust

       it’s a contraction of “hell of”

  • Robin

    In America the “C” word is not really acceptable but in France the “C” word is quite common even among women. I had a gf that preferred the “C” word. I found it very difficult to use.


  • lolly caust

     is the man whole just called in touting the use of ‘douche’ as a pejorative  a classic example of an ass*ole? that is, annoying, entitled and clueless?

  • Unclefishbits

    Back in school, I took a “Sex & gender & sexuality” class, where we had one project to write down every slang or idiomatic expression for male and female genitalia.  The obvious outcome is that the gender lines for insulting, denigrating remarks is *REALLY* skewed.  There are *VERY* few slang terms for the penis, of which many aren’t that aggressive, while the slang for a vagina are powerful and loaded with negativity and vitriol, and seem endless.  It strikes me as a fairly telltale documentation of our misognysitic and patriarchal past?  Is there a different reason for that?  What do you think about the nature of so much sexism embedded into our lexicon?

    • Ludwig_von_Mieseskeit

      Yes, we are full of admiration when we call a man a ‘schmuck’, a ‘putz’, a ‘pr-ck’, a ‘d-ck’, a ‘tool’, or a tool-using ‘wanker’ or ‘tosser’.

      Yes, there is plenty of misogyny about, but misandry loves company.

  • Virgomoon311

    I’m a single women in my early forties. My circle of single friends use the d-bag word specifically to refer to a single guy luring a woman into bed with him by telling her what she wants to hear. Its mainly generalized to men in SF… an SF d-bag

  • Virgomoon311

    I enjoy the East Coast equivalent…not often used on the west coast… sc-bag.

  • Iloveelephants

    I like to tell my friends and family that they’re a bigger “A” than I am if they don’t call me out for being an “A”.

  • Shansevers

    It’s always interesting to see when a noun becomes a verb (like google). I’m hearing a-word- ISH quite a bit lately. How long before a-word becomes a -word-ING?

  • Here’s my peeve: “At the end of the day.” Please people, at the end of the day can we drop the use of the phrase “at the end of the day”? 

  • Unclefishbits

    I think my other comment used words that were against the guidelines?  I will remain vague, but it seems amazing to me the difference between male and female anatomy –  and how few slang/idiomatic words exist for men, compared to the vitriolic and fairly aggressive slang for female anatomy.  Is that just a vestige of the patriarchal culture, or is that some really embedded misogony?

    • lolly caust

       yes, i’m pretty certain that my comment was moderated away because i used the appropriate medical terms for male and female – how to phrase this –  nether region parts.
      ain’t censorship fun!!!!!

      • lolly caust

        and, to answer your question, yes, i think it’s one way that our culture reinforces misogyny.

      • Unclefishbits

        I remember when I realized the power of inflection, and intent. When I realize P**** or V***** weren’t naughty or swear words, but it was simply how they were related.  It’s like this show…. epic job not saying anything inappropriate, but the intent was there.  You say the “A” word, and darnit you are sticking that right in my freaking head.  So you seem to get away with it on the show, but you making everyone swear in their heads.  NO FAIR!!! =)

  • Ron

    Not hearing the actual words is little annoying especially when I don’t know the full words.  Perhaps the annoyance will help demonstrate how silly it is for the FCC to control which words in the dictionary can be used on the radio.

    • lolly caust

      a-word = slang for anus
      d-word slang for penis, rhymes with rick
      p-word slang for female genitalia, also means ‘cat’
      c-word – old, old word for female genitalia, rhymes with “punt”

  • Ayn Marx 666

    I’m not proud of knowing this, but anal sex has become increasingly important in American pornography in the past ten years or so…any connexion?

    • Bozo_de_niro

      I don’t know if there’s any connection, Ayn, but I’m proud of you ;-))

  • Gato_uno

    what about “tosser” ? Mike

  • Guest

    How about this and that and “what have you”

  • Bottomink

    When you find the use of these word as an annoyance in ones self, how do you stop?

  • Erin

    What about  “you suck” or “that sucks”  being tossed about?  There seems to be an underlying sexist and homophobic implication to it.

    • lolly caust

       most of our cuss words are body and sex negative.

  • Paula

    I wonder whether the rise of the a-word is an organic linguistic reaction to the fact that we can now say ass on the air. That very fact lessens that word’s force. we need a more profane expression to capture the appropriate feeling.

  • marte48

    I prefer the pejorative “jackass” because it is genderless and somewhat
    less harmful than the “a-hole” word, but still provides that emotional
    relief you spoke of. However, I do think that using foul language harms the user as much as the target, and I always feel worse, rather than better, when I use it.

  • Dale N Scott

    Speaking of the ‘B’ word, there’s another one that I didn’t hear mentioned. Both ‘bitch’ and ‘bastard’ are legitimate words outside what is considered profanity yet when used as such, they are generally gender specific. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a female referred to as a ‘bastard’ nor a male called a ‘bitch’ (except within the male homosexual community). I find this curious and wonder if there is an explanation.

    • Wendy

      I have heard ‘bitch’ used towards a male. It was in a situation where the heterosexual man was acting, well like a whiny little girl, when he did not get his way.

  • Tim

    The a-word is the commonplace of a hyper-competitive, individualistic society driven by selfishness even to the point of Randian righteous pronouncements of “the virtue of selfishness”. We use it to dismiss, to wish exclusion from society those we regard as too selfish and inconsiderate to deserve full membership and standing in society. The escalation of use occurs not only between the selfish people who want the same thing but with difference of opinion as to who’s not fit for society — the selfish who feel that selfishness is the basic organizing principle of civilization (or is at least somehow right) or those who uphold the golden rule (or have at least a sense that selfishness is wrong). Both feel virtuous in denouncing the other as the immoral source of society’s waste, if not its waste product, worthy of nothing but disposal and dismissal.

    The point, credited to George Carlin, that we use the a-word more with people far away from us points profoundly to the close relationship between the remoteness of authority and the decline of civility. While small towns have their problems, it doesn’t seem to me that their citizens are as inclined to use the a-word with each other — although in a world run by remote, urban people they may use it more with outsiders. Mamet gets at something similar in one of his plays where a character says we use the f-word in proportion to how frustrated we are. Where civilization is truly rooted in civitas, local community, we have a real sense of responsibility for the common good. Closer to and more responsible for, and the less frustrated with, the political and economic powers that govern our lives, the more civil we are to each other.

    Hence the rise of the a-word reflects a decline of civility, but more deeply the decline of civitas–the true basis of civilization.

  • Bozo_de_niro

    most important question about the “A-word” is its spelling … is it one word or two?

  • Jhallmeister

    Thank you Geoffrey Nunberg for your unequivocal comments about d-bag – much appreciated. Sure hope a few more people think it through before they toss the word around again especially the idiot who suggested it as good substitute for a-hole. Great interview, ordered the book.

  • Greg Slater

    Both these guys are pretentious a——-s….

  • AdamR

    Dennis Leary sang a relevant song in his No Cure for Cancer stand-up routine. Song was called “I’m an A-word”. Though the person he describes may be more of a D-word.

  • ChannelLincoln

    I find the guest’s readiness to insult people deplorable. Someone cuts you off in traffic. The guest says the person “merits” being called “a–hole.” This is the sort of attitude that spreads hostility like a virus—and, incidentally, makes it more likely that the insulted person will ramp up his antisocial behavior rather than tamp it down. There are far more intelligent and civilized ways to interact with others. And, by the way, everyone makes mistakes in traffic—wouldn’t it be better to give the driver the benefit of the doubt rather than resort to vile insults on a hair–trigger basis? 

  • Chrisco

    The most meaningless and annoying phrase that has recently entered the lexicon is: “It is what it is.”

    Another annoying one to me: “At the end of the day…”

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