Punishment of the Panderers and Seducers and the Flatterers, Sandro Botticelli, c.1480-c.1495
by Elif Batuman
Forward-thinking readers! You don’t need me to tell you that our language is a living, growing organism. So, in an effort to stay with the times, I recently attempted to use the word “douchebags” in print. The context was an essay on Dante, which is scheduled to run in the September issue of Harper’s, albeit probably with some minor revision to the following sentence: “Dante goes to the afterworld, and everyone is there: Homer, Moses, Judas, Jesus, Brunetto Latini, Beatrice, all the thousand and one douchebags of Florence.”
This line elicited the following wonderful query from the managing editor:
“douchebags”: This feels out of place, which is sort of the point, but it feels a little too out of place. It’s a word that’s been ruined by the Internet, Kanye West, et alii, ad nauseam. You’re writing for the ages, and to me there’s something slightly stale and stroppy about using that term in such an important place. “Assholes”? Less anachronistic, and a word and concept that certainly existed in Dante’s time and tongue.
So many thoughts went racing through my mind when I read this, e.g.:
1. “They aren’t letting me say ‘douchebags.’”
2. “What a thoughtful response to ‘douchebags’!”
I realized that, familiar as Dante doubtless was with assholes, and meaningful as this consideration may be, “douchebags,” to me, better expresses both the sleazy political small-timeyness and the frenzied contemporaneity conveyed by the portrayal of Florence politicos in The Inferno.
I also realized that, maybe thanks to Kanye who made them loveable again, I have a soft spot for the douchebags—more so than for the assholes.  And although I concluded that, for Dante essay purposes, “sleazebags” will suit the purposes just as well, I begin to wonder whether the title of my next book shouldn’t really be The Douchebags. Thinking ahead to the foreign editions, I imagine it being untranslated, like Les Misérables, or Mein Kampf…
But I’m getting ahead of myself, as usual. For now, I will just raise a parting glass to the douchebags. Alla salute, gentlemen!
P.S. Another five-star Amazon review here.
 Subjective as these terms are, cursory internet research indicates, e.g. here and here, that assholes are generally understood to be worse than douchebags (thus George W. is a douchebag, Cheney an asshole). To clarify, I’m not saying Dante’s Inferno doesn’t contain a large number of assholes – just that they aren’t necessarily the same people as the douchebags.
Le Mot Juste
Concerned readers! I was deeply moved by the recent international outpouring of sentiment, both pro and con, regarding the potential use of “douchebag” in my forthcoming essay on Dante. In the past week I’ve given a lot of consideration to the different views that were expressed. Frankly, I don’t think I’ve struggled more over any single mot juste in my whole career.
At first, I was feeling pretty good about “sleazebags.” So was my editor. He said he had intended “assholes” less as an actual substitution for “douchebags,” than as “a prompt to a third way”—and we had found it!
As the days went by, though, I started to feel less confident. I was increasingly bothered by the connotation, with “sleazebags,” of criminal slickness—an issue raised by several readers. What if “the thousand and one sleazebags of Florence” was understood to play on some image of Italian corruption or, worse yet, greasiness? That was the last thing I wanted! And didn’t “sleazebags” designate a particular kind of behavior or vocation, by contrast with the more existential “douchebags” (the inevitable douchebags, regardless of class or income)?
I began casting about for an alternative. Although I did appreciate the many piquant suggestions I received from readers, none, to my ear, was quite right in context. That is, the historical moment may come when it sounds OK to refer to “Homer, Moses, Judas, Jesus, Brunetto Latini, Beatrice, all the thousand and one asswizards of Florence,” but I’m pretty sure it isn’t here yet.
One night I lay awake “brainstorming” about all the nimrods, ass-hats, jerks, jerk-offs, knuckleheads, fuckups, fuckwits, et alii, ad nauseam, but only succeeded in giving myself terrible dreams about an ex-boyfriend.
In the morning, I realized it was time to reevaluate the objections to “douchebag.” These seemed to fall into two categories:
1. Shelf-life: We should avoid fad words of recent coinage, because they might go obsolete.
2. Staleness/ annoyingness: We should not join annoying, repetitive people in overusing their favorite words.
Interestingly, Objection 2 has been around since at least 2006 when Gawker called a moratorium on “douchebags,” offering, as an reward for the reader who came up with the best alternative, a bottle of Balneol Perianal Cleansing Lotion (“it may not seem like much, but according to a commenter at drugstore.com, ‘it will last at least 6 to 8 months even in the most busy of households’”). What was the result? Choads, twatwaffles, snatches… nothing suitable. The unclaimed bottle of Balneol ended up in the Gawker lavatory.
In 2008-09, the death of “douchebag” was again announced/ called for by various publications, on revamped charges: the word was not only “completely played out,” but was now being bandied about for purposes other than its “true intention”; “the douches themselves” had sinisterly coopted it for use against less deserving candidates; its very transcendent historic-philosophical conditions had expired, along with the financial bubble that brought us the platonic douchebags; etc.
Oh readers—it’s a thankless, dreary task to separate the issues at hand. But did I go into this line of work for the yucks? Let’s start with the “shelf life” objection. Here, I think there’s been a conflation of normative and prescriptive: people say that douchebag is on the brink of extinction, because they believe it should be on the brink of extinction. Yet the very insistence that it should be extinct is proof that it’s still here. People have been trying to exterminate this word for 5+ years, and not even the massive incentive of a bottle of Balneol could elicit a viable alternative… these things mean something.
As for overuse: since when is being used a bad thing, for a word? “Asshole” is obviously used way more than “douchebag,” and nobody says it’s time to retire “asshole.” The view seems to be rather that “asshole” is time-tested—a classic.
As for misappropriation: well, a functional insult must be applicable to different people, under different circumstances. You can’t peg it to historical circumstances of its initial use. E.g. the OED dates “asshole,” qua invective, to a 1938 letter by Dylan Thomas: “The best socialists suck all they can from the jaundiced ass-hole of an anti-socialist state.” Who would want to argue that, just because they don’t make anti-socialist states like they did in 1938, there are no more assholes? Nor can one say, “Well, the first assholes were anti-socialists, and now anti-socialists go around using ‘asshole’ to describe socialists, so the word has to be retired.”
These thoughts didn’t make my sleep any easier. At one point I dreamed I was at a concert by an alternative rock group called Deathbag for Douchie. It was a terrible concert. Eventually, I put the situation to Harper’s. I said I couldn’t in conscience go with sleazebags. I said that, despite myself, I missed the douchebags. I said I was more than happy to use another word, if only I, or they, could think of one.
I was feeling pretty sad and low about the whole thing at that point. My editor did raise a rather ingenious last-ditch theological point, namely, if douchebaggery is a fundamentally un-self-aware state of being, and if the souls in the Inferno have all sinned willfully, then can there really be any douchebags in the Inferno? Well, that could have been the springboard for a lively debate on the Dantean notion of free will, but it wasn’t. I could tell his heart wasn’t in it—I, and you-know-who, had beaten him down. “It’s your party,” he said in a tone of resignation. We’re going with “douchebags.”
Mysteries of Arse
Anglophone readers! In response to recent comments regarding asshole vs. arsehole, listen – this whole thing is a mystery to me. Or rather, a series of mysteries.
1. The first OED quotation for “arse-hole” (slang) is by an American: “This place [sc. Los Angeles] is the one true and original arse-hole of creation. It is at least nine times as bad as I expected” (H. L. Mencken, 1926).
2. Dylan Thomas apparently went both ways, because in addition to the shocking “asshole” quote of 1935 (see previous post), the OED also lists the following: “This arsehole of the universe… this… fond sad Wales” (1950). What happened between 1935 and 1950? The consolidation of Stalinism?
3. As for this gem from New Zealand, “It’s absolute comfort from arse-hole to breakfast-table,” Landfall (1948)… I like it very much, but what does it mean?
4. Personally, I first learned the word “arse” from a Canadian-American(!) author, Gordon Korman, in a novel called A Semester in the Life of a Garbage Bag, which includes a humorous acronym-related misadventure: a girl creates the acronym ARSE and, not realizing what it means, puts it on posters all over the school. It is an American school. Nonetheless, one of the girl’s friends knows what “arse” means, and changes the acronym to EARS.
5. I loved A Semester in the Life of a Garbage Bag at age 12, to the extent that I recently bought a used copy and reread it. I still thought it was great. For this reason, I tried, twice, at intervals a month apart, to post a 5-star review of Semester on Amazon (part of my campaign of posting 5-star reviews of books by living authors). Well, here’s the biggest mystery of all: my review has yet to show up on the site! All the other reviews appeared immediately, so I have no idea what’s going on. Is it that hard for Amazon to accept my love of A Semester in the Life of a Garbage Bag? Maybe they’re still busy comparing the review(s) to the rest of my body of work?
6. You’re going to think I’m crazy but I just looked on Amazon right now, and the Garbage Bag review is up – but it’s the review I wrote yesterday, and it’s dated June 28. I feel like I’m reading The Moonstone or something. Seriously, does any of this make sense to any of you people? Because if so, man, you’re on your own.
Pieces originally published at My Life and Thoughts |