Happy Solstice! We’re taking advantage of the extra daylight today, on this longest day of the year, and making sure that Friday is once again answer time at the ManFAQ. It’s been a while, for reasons good and bad, but we’ve been getting actual questions – sometimes from actual women – and the start of a new season is reason enough to start answering them. Mind you, we can’t answer questions we don’t get – send yours today!
Today we turn to a question from my own father, FOBUMD, who, despite not being a women, posed a pretty good question. Thus inspired, I don my manly mantle as Sage of the Sexes, helping demystify the more malodorous gender for those of the gentler, as we add to the list of questions women have asked about men over the years. Actual questions, posed by real women (and sometimes my dad), and answered by a REAL man. Like Dad used to say, “What could go wrong?”
Question: The instructions on your MANFAQ tab clearly indicate that this section of your blog is dedicated to answering questions from women. I’m not one! In fact BUMD, it’s FOBUMD here and I have an English grammar question related to gender.
Being nearly 70 years old and having grown up on the streets of Chicago, then spending 26 years in the military including 12 months in Vietnam, I believe I’ve heard every curse word in the book. I’ve heard them used in almost every conceivable way, correctly and incorrectly I might add. In fact, I’ve probably used every curse word in the book and could give lessons on their proper use. That’s why it surprises me that I have never before pondered the question that struck me several days ago. I’m wondering if the word “asshole” is male specific. Now I’m not talking about sphincter muscles here. Both sexes surely have those. I’m asking about using the A-hole word pejoratively to describe a person that… that… that… well, you know, “is an asshole.”
I guess I started to ponder that because it dawned on me that I’ve never used that term for a woman, only for men. Now, I might have shot that term out there a few times to other drivers, not knowing the driver’s gender. That’s different, of course. So, you being both the English major and the ManFAQ person, I was hoping you could shed some light on this topic, unless this is where the sun don’t shine.
Answer: In keeping with the serious and erudite nature of this blog, and particularly the ManFAQ, we will constrain our reply to refrain from gratuitous, puerile, prurient profanity and turn to that mighty (and somewhat phallic) pillar of erudition, History. We shall start with History’s Arse.
As one of those great four-letter monosyllabic words for which English has become so famous, arse has been with us since way back in the day. As with many other words for the buttocks, tail, rump, or base of the spine, it came from the Proto-Germanic, and has cognates in Old Saxon, Old High German, Old Norse, Middle Dutch, Greek, Hittite, Armenian, and Old Irish – and of course in modern German, Arsch. (“Wenn’s Arscherl brummt, ist’s Herzerl g’sund!”) Near the start of the 1400s, someone stuck a hole on the end of it: arsehole! At the time this was pronounced arce-hoole, presumably at the top of ones lungs while shouting at someone who’s donkey had just cut in front of yours on the way to the market. It wasn’t until the early 1700s that we lost the “r” before the “s” – as we did with many other words (burst/bust, curse/cuss, barse/bass, and, in Texas, horse/hoss) – and our old arse became our ass.
Now, in addition to losing its Rs (thank you, thank you very much), English has long since lost most of the genders on its nouns, so for clarity we’ll look to a language that hasn’t suffered this loss. Specifically we shall turn our gaze on the German asshole, which, like all good German nouns, has a gender. Or does it? It turns out that das Arscherl is, in fact, neutral – presumably since, as noted in your question, everybody has one.
The donkey, on the other hand, der Esel, is masculine, as it was in Latin – asinus, from which all our asses are descended. (Also, note that unlike assholes, not everyone has a donkey.) Since English has been politely interposing “donkey” for ass since Shakespeare transmogrified Nick Bottom in 1594’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, it is not surprising that we would subconsciously bring over the sense of masculinity from the donkey.
The other reason that we tend not to use asshole when specifically referring to a woman may have to do with the plethera of richer choices of epithets that are usually specific to the feminine gender, which I will here gleefully enumerate for the sake of my
ratings on internet search engines inner George Carlin: bitch, slut, whore, Ann Coulter… Well, you get the idea. Suffice it to say that the list tends to be longer for women than it is for men. Interestingly, in researching this, I ran across a note that the term “douchebag” tends to be more often directed at men, despite its obvious association with women.
Looking briefly at pop culture, Hustler magazine has a regular column featuring people they don’t like, called the “Asshole of the month.” For the record, they’ve included women in that list over the years, so certainly Hustler believes that there’s nothing semantically incorrect with calling a woman an asshole.
Mind you, they might simply not care, either, and I hesitate to put words in their mouth lest I make the list. Not that it wouldn’t be a great honor to be Hustler’s Asshole of the Month.
A brief review of the vast literature on the topic shows that you are far from the only asshole to ponder this, and that most people concur that the sense of asshole is masculine – saying something like “Jane’s an asshole” comes out sounding wrong to most ears. At the same time, the concurrence is that intellectually, it should be gender neutral – it’s just seldom used so. As to why, I think we’re left with our residual sense of old Asinus the Donkey taking the masculine form, and transposing that gender onto its cognate, ass, within the asshole in question.
But I could just be an asshole here.
Now you know. Please, feel free to comment! Also, forward any questions you’d like answered to BUMD – at – biguglymandoll.com! As always, your anonymity is guaranteed!