Intersections of the American public and its academy are too rare. This is for myriad reasons. College is expensive and exclusive. The individual research of professors—especially in the humanities—is too obscure to have much traction with the small share of Americans who actually read books. And perceptions of the ivory tower/elitism owe a good deal to that expense and exclusion and obscurity.
Geoffrey Nunberg isn’t exactly a household name—no academic is. But Nunberg is known, his writings on language appearing in The New York Times and other publications, his voice heard often on NPR’s Fresh Air. Of course, The Times and public radio have very specific audiences. But with that proviso in mind, it’s clear that Nunberg’s been able to branch out of academia more than his fellow linguists.
Enter Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years, Nunberg’s charming and comprehensive study of the history, usage, and culture of the word asshole. If ever there were a word to unite Americans—academics, steelworkers, etc.—in 2012, it’d be asshole, for its common usage and what it evokes: our worries about our declining civility. But Nunberg’s work isn’t meant to sound the alarm about anonymous people being dicks in line at Cosi or pregnant women being forced to stand on public transportation. Rather, he’s more interested in its origins, rise, and definition. Continue reading