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The Meaning of "Asshole" - The Philosophers' Magazine derogatory term

If you asked me what it means to call someone an "asshole" before I really thought about it, I probably would have suggested an “expressivist” analysis. The word, I might have elaborated, is just another term of abuse, a way of simply expressing one’s disapproval.
Waffle is language without meaning; blathering, babbling, droning. One might waffle throughout an essay or a presentation, when not having enough material, or needing to fill in time. The term was derived from waff, a 17th-century onomatopoeia for the sound a barking dog makes, similar to the modern woof - the inference being that waffle words have about as much meaning as the noise made by a dog barking.

Much as if one had said “Boo on you!”, one isn’t trying to say something that can be true or false, correct or incorrect. The job of foul language like “asshole” isn’t to describe the world, but simply to express one’s disapproving feelings, in an ejaculatory or cathartic burst facilitated by inherently emotive words.
For a few years, she home-schooled us, using flash cards to teach Choctaw and Cherokee words and numbers, prideful because tribal languages had long ago been beaten out of Native children forced to attend Indian Boarding Schools.

I decided this was completely wrong one day in the summer of 2008, while surfing in a crowded line up. I was watching a guy brazenly break the rules of right of way and thought “Gosh, what an asshole”.

While my father built our permanent residence, a log cabin, we lived for six months in a canvas tipi, 24-feet in diameter, with about a dozen Lodgepole Pines about 33 feet in length arranged in the cone formation, connecting at the top. It felt like camping, but it also felt right.

That wasn’t a new thought, but I then noticed, for the first time, that this thought has what philosophers call “cognitive content”. I was trying to say that the guy in question was properly classified in a certain way.
Given the power of "nigger" to wound, it is important to provide a context within which presentation of that term can be properly understood. It is also imperative, however, to permit present and future readers to see for themselves directly the full gamut of American cultural productions, the ugly as well as the beautiful, those that mirror the majestic features of American democracy and those that mirror America’s most depressing failings.

Other law-abiding surfers weren’t properly classified under that term, and so it could be true or false, correct or incorrect, to say that this guy was, in fact, an asshole.

That got me thinking about what it would be for someone to qualify as an asshole.

Harry Frankfurt partly inspired this.
The term Chinaman has been historically used in a variety of ways, including legal documents, literary works, geographic names, and in speech. Census records in 19th century North America recorded Chinese men by names such as "John Chinaman", "Jake Chinaman", or simply as "Chinaman". Chinese American historian Emma Woo Louie commented that such names in census schedules were used when census takers could not obtain any information and that they "should not be considered to be racist in intent". One census taker in El Dorado County wrote, "I found about 80 Chinese men in Spanish Canion who refused to give me their names or other information." Louie equated "John Chinaman" to "John Doe" in its usage to refer to a person whose name is not known, and added that other ethnic groups were also identified by generic terms as well, such as Spaniard and Kanaka, which refers to a Hawaiian.

I thought: Frankfurt put his finger on “bullshit”, and I am a philosopher, so I should define “asshole”. After considerable tinkering and with the help friends, I settled on this definition: the asshole is the guy who systematically allows himself special advantages in cooperative life out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunises him against the complaints of other people.
Also, consider the history of Native Americans, a race all but annihilated because of genocidal policies instituted by people like Spencer Phips. Our identity has been stripped away, lost to time, yet the most offensive word toward us still exists—where else?—but in this nation's capital.

This definition is hopefully significant simply because it prompts one to think, “Hey, I’ve met that guy”. Maybe you encountered him this morning in the coffee shop. Maybe the guy wouldn’t quiet down on his mobile phone, despite obvious sneers.

Non-Natives may never quite understand how deep the term "redskins" cuts into ancient wounds that have never quite healed, and maybe it's not reasonable to expect them to. But every time Dan Snyder refuses to change his NFL team's name, even with tribes paying for powerful ads in opposition like the one that recently aired during the NBA Finals, Snyder plunges a long, twisted blade into our hearts.

Maybe he drives as though he owns the road. He probably says, “Do you know who I am?” to the maître d’ at a restaurant when he’s not quickly seated. Although it of course matters how the definition’s details get worked out and applied, the main idea is that even those inclined to quibble in the small might agree that “asshole” doesn’t simply have expressive meaning.
Defenders of the team nickname say its origin was totally benign, and that it's not possible to know the true meaning of the word. Those defenders cite a Smithsonian article that traces an origin to skin color, before the systematic scalping. (A later Smithsonian quote disputed it.)

Its function is to classify a person, correctly or incorrectly, as having a particular kind of moral personality.

I soon discovered linguistic evidence for this “cognitivist” rather than “expressivist” treatment of the word.

It makes perfect sense to say of someone, “Yes, he is my friend, and he’s fine to me personally, but I admit he’s an asshole”.
In its original sense, Chinaman is almost entirely absent from British English, and has been since before 1965. However, chinaman (not capitalized) is still used in an alternative sense to describe a left-arm unorthodox spin bowler in cricket. Most British dictionaries see the term Chinaman as old-fashioned, and this view is backed up by data from the British National Corpus. According to Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, in American English Chinaman is most often used in a "knowing" way, either satirically or to evoke the word's historical connotations. It acknowledges, however, that there is still some usage that is completely innocent. In addition, Herbst notes in The Color of Words that despite Chinaman's negative connotations, its use is not usually intended as malicious.

You can also coherently say things like “General MacArthur was plainly an asshole, but in the end a force for good”. Now maybe those contexts don’t express all-out disapproval, because they still express disapproval in a muted form that is outweighed by other considerations.
The label pejorative (or derogatory) is sometimes used in dictionaries and glossaries to identify expressions that offend or belittle a subject. Nonetheless, a word that's regarded as pejorative in one context may have a non-pejorative function or effect in a different context.

Yet even all-out approval seems perfectly coherent. It is coherent - and indeed commonplace - for an asshole to proudly own the name. He boasts “Yes I’m an asshole - deal with it”. He taunts his subjects with this pronouncement precisely because he seems to approve wholeheartedly.
Refers to the person you are talking to or talking about. It takes the place of words like "fool,""nigga,"and "dog" when used on the streets by youth. In 2007 it is mostly used by gang members or by people refering to Mexican American gang members, but not exclusively. The word was used long before the Mexican Mafia, or surenos, existed. Pachucos, Mexican American zoot suiters of the 1940s, used the word ese in Los Angeles, Tucons, El Paso, San Jose, Albuquerque, Gilroy to name a few documented locations. It is true that todays' Mexican American gang members from northern California, aka nortenos, refrain from saying the word ese. This is because "ese" is how you pronounce the letter "S" in Spanish and they take that as referring to "S" for surenos, Mexican American gang members belonging to the 13, the Mexican Mafia that originated in southern california but is now in northern california and other U.S. states.
Sabes que ese? (You know what ese?)
Te voy a filirear! (I'm gonna stab you)

Who popped T-bone?
It was dem ese's!

An obvious worry here is that I have gone too far in a “cognitivist” direction. Surely the word “asshole” is often used to vent feelings with no concern for whether its target meets any set of necessary and sufficient conditions for its application.

In a notable 1852 letter to Governor of California John Bigler which challenges his proposed immigration policy toward the Chinese, restaurant owner Norman Asing, at the time a leader in San Francisco's Chinese community, referred to himself as a "Chinaman". Addressing the governor, he wrote, "Sir: I am a Chinaman, a republican, and a lover of free institutions." Chinaman was also often used in complimentary contexts, such as "after a very famous Chinaman in old Cassiar Rush days, (who was) known & loved by whites and natives".

If nothing else, then, the emotional charge often associated with the term is something that must be explained.

An easy move here is to follow Stephen Finlay’s idea that ethical language “pragmatically indicates” attitudes of approval or disapproval within a normal conversation.

ESE means the letter "S" which stands for SURENO or southsider. So that's why Mexicans that are surenos use it.
Yo homes most of you people are wrong. MEXICANS are the ones that use the word ESE. Some of us use it instead of saying the following:

foo,nigga,homes,leva,etc.

If you call Trump an asshole while we are talking, it will normally make sense for me to interpret you as disapproving of Trump’s conduct. But that may only be a matter of what it is reasonable for me to infer about you given our conversational context and my general knowledge of how people feel when they speak.
Obrazovanshchina (Russian: образованщина, "educationdom", "educaties", "smatterers") is a Russian ironical, derogatory term for a category of people with superficial education without higher ethics of an educated person. The term was introduced by Alexander Solzhenitsyn as a criticism of the transformation of the Russian intelligentsia, which, in his opinion had lost high ethical values, in his 1974 essay Obrazovanshchina (translated as The Smatterers). The essay and the term caused criticism from liberal intelligentsia, such as a long-time Solzhenitsyn's opponent Grigory Pomerants and Boris Shragin, and was among the reasons of the bitter contention between Solzhenitsyn and the Russian "third wave" of emigration.

The very meaning of the word “asshole”, as set by the linguistic rules that govern its use, doesn’t itself imply that you disapprove. And so “Trump is an asshole” can count as true or false in a straightforward way.
Then, when I was 8, we moved to Oklahoma, largely to re-connect us to our past. That was where Cherokee and Choctaw tribes lived after the forced removal from their homes in the Deep South. We settled in Tuskahoma, a microscopic town in the state's Southeastern corner that is also the Choctaw Capital of Oklahoma. Our wooded, four-acre plot sat one quarter-mile from the tribe's red brick capitol building. We had rejoined our roots, living in Pushmataha County, named after a legendary Choctaw chief, who was also my eighth great uncle.

Expression is, in the standard parlance, a matter of “pragmatics” rather than “semantics”.

I take great comfort in Finlay’s idea, if nothing else as a last resort. It is also interesting that, if need be, a “cognitivist” account can go even further and simply admit expressive meaning as part of the very semantic meaning of “asshole”.

My mother prepared traditional dishes, such as frybread (basically fried bread) and banaha, a protein-rich mix of cornmeal served inside of a boiled corn husk. We attended powwows and gatherings, danced, sang and beat the drums alongside elders. We learned to play a fierce, ancient Choctaw sport known as stickball, a cousin of lacrosse. And when I attended the University of Oklahoma, I took beginning, intermediate and advanced courses in Choctaw, and kept up on tribal affairs.

As David Kaplan (and David Copp, in a different way) has explained, that needn’t undermine pretentions of objective truth.

Kaplan suggests that, alongside "descriptive" terms whose meaning can be given by a definition (like "fortnight"), we can explain the meaning of "expressive" terms ( "damn", "bastard", "ouch", "oops", and "goodbye") in terms of an idea of "expressive correctness”. So suppose someone sincerely uses an expressive term.

The term pejorative language refers to words and phrases that hurt, insult, or disparage someone or something. Also called a derogatory term or a term of abuse.

This doesn't simply report certain purported facts; "ouch" doesn't just mean "I am in pain”. It does, however, purport to "display" things as being a certain way. I display the fact that I am in pain when I say "ouch", and I display the fact that I despise someone if I say "that bastard”. Use of the term is expressively correct, says Kaplan, when the supposed fact holds: I say "ouch" and I am, in fact, in pain; I say "that bastard" and I do indeed despise the person. Use of the term is expressively incorrect when the supposed fact doesn't hold - as when I'm not really in pain, but faking to get attention; or when I don't despise the person at all.
Snyder has called the term a "badge of honor." He's said, "We'll never change the name. It's that simple." But here's how simple it really is: If he has any decency, he will change it, because it is not and never was just a word.

But now consider "oops”, which, unlike "ouch”, has an element of objectivity. To say "oops”, Kaplan suggests, is (roughly) to purport to display the fact that “one has observed a minor mishap”. So saying "oops" will be (expressively) correct when one has just seen someone inadvertently break a wine glass, but incorrect when the mishap isn't minor (for example, a whole building falls down, killing hundreds, in which case "oops" could at best be a macabre and vile joke). So whereas the correctness of "ouch" depends entirely on one's state of mind, the correctness of "oops" also depends on the world, independently of one's subjective attitudes.

Now turn to foul language. For a given foul term, we can ask whether its correctness conditions are fully subjective, as with "ouch”, or at least partly objective, as with "oops”. And, when you survey many foul terms - even the foulest of the foul - they easily seem to be objective expressives: their correctness can seem to depend, at least in part, on what is going on in out in the world.

In March 2007, media mogul Ted Turner used the term in a public speech before the Bay Area Council of San Francisco, California. Community leaders and officials objected to his use of the term, and immediately called for an apology. In a statement released by his spokesman on March 13, 2007, Turner apologized for having used the term, stating that he was unaware that the term was derogatory. Vincent Pan, director of the organization Chinese for Affirmative Action, said it was "a bit suspect" for someone involved in domestic and world politics like Turner to be unaware that the term is derogatory. Yvonne Lee, a former commissioner of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, said the apology was the first step, but wanted Turner to agree to further "dialogue between different communities".

Here are several examples along with some tentative suggestions about what those “objective correctness conditions” might be.

"shit" - as when "shit!" is said after a fender bender (in contrast with something's being "shitty”, or of poor quality). This implies that an unexpected event has occurred that frustrates the speaker's aspirations (such as avoiding costly auto repairs, getting to work quickly). The aspirations are subjective, or up to the person, but the event in question has to actually occur.

Spencer Phips, a British politician and then Lieutenant Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Province, issued the call, ordering on behalf of British King George II for, "His Majesty's subjects to Embrace all opportunities of pursuing, captivating, killing and Destroying all and every of the aforesaid Indians." They paid well - 50 pounds for adult male scalps; 25 for adult female scalps; and 20 for scalps of boys and girls under age 12.

Shit happens, and has to happen, for it to be shit: shit has existence as its essence. Or, more plainly: if the fender bender or other untoward event hasn't actually occurred, it won't be expressively correct to say "shit!" (Except in fictional cases, when things are fictionally presented as actually happening - a pretty special context)

"fucking"-as in "the fucking car wouldn't start, right there in the middle of the road”. This implies major frustration of someone's plans, though not necessarily the speaker's.

The term has been put to other uses. Some blacks, for instance, use "nigger" among themselves as a term of endearment. But that is typically done with a sense of irony that is predicated upon an understanding of the term’s racist origins and a close relationship with the person to whom the term is uttered. As Clarence Major observed in his Dictionary of Afro-American Slang (1970), "used by black people among themselves, [nigger] is a racial term with undertones of warmth and goodwill - reflecting…a tragicomic sensibility that is aware of black history." Many blacks object, however, to using the term even in that context for fear that such usage will be misunderstood and imitated by persons insufficiently attuned to the volatility of this singularly complex and dangerous word.

I could be hearing the story of a woman whose car had stalled in the middle of the road and say "really, and the fucking car just wouldn't start?" Her plans would be majorly frustrated, but (unlike "oops") I wouldn't have had to observe the events myself or even myself have the frustrated plans (the event may have passed, in which case there is nothing, as regards that event, to plan for).

"fucker" - as directed at a toaster that burns one's toast or an electrical outlet that shocks one. The object is personified as having malicious intent.

Solzhenitsyn defines obrazovanshchina as the category of people who self-refer to themselves as "intelligentsia" solely on the basis of having a higher than middle education. Solzhenitsyn explains the selection of the term by reference to Vladimir Dahl's dictionary, which distinguished the terms образовать (to educate) and просвещать (to enlighten), the former concept having a superficial character, "external gloss".

The expressive correctness of the terms depends on whether the metaphor is apt, given the situation’s descriptive features. (We'd usually say this of more readily personified objects, such as toasters or computers, but perhaps not a stationary rock)

"mother fucker" - a metaphorical way of saying someone can't be trusted. You can't trust him not to have sex with your own mother if he had the chance.

As the Chinese in the American West began to encounter discrimination and hostile criticism of their culture and mannerisms, the term would begin to take on negative connotations. The slogan of the Workingman's Party was "The Chinese Must Go!", coined in the 1870s before chinaman became a common derogatory term. The term Chinaman's chance evolved as the Chinese began to take on dangerous jobs building the railroads or ventured to exploit mine claims abandoned by others, and later found themselves victims of injustice as accused murderers (of Chinese) would be acquitted if the only testimony against them was from other Chinese. Legal documents such as the Geary Act of 1892, which barred the entry of Chinese people to the United States, referred to Chinese people both as "Chinese persons" or "Chinamen".

The term is inapt if someone is completely trustworthy.

"bastard" - much as with "mother fucker”, implies treachery, that the person in question is a traitor, or would-be traitor. When we aren't thinking of its non-derogatory meaning ("one without a father"), a person doesn't count as a bastard, in the central, paradigmatic sense, unless they are treacherous or prone to betray others in relationships. It would be a mistake to call someone a bastard if he (or she?) were reliably faithful in what his relationships required.

To understand fully, however, the depths and intensities, quirks and complexities of American race relations, it is necessary to know in detail the many ways in which racist bigotry has manifested itself, been appealed to, and been resisted. The term "nigger" is in most contexts, a cultural obscenity. But, so, too are the opinions of the United States Supreme Court in Dred Scott v. Sandford, which ruled that African Americans were permanently ineligible for federal citizenship, and Plessy v. Ferguson, which ruled that state-mandated, "equal but separate" racial segregation entailed no violation of the federal constitution. These decisions embodied racial insult and oppression as national policy and are, for many, painful to read. But teachers rightly assign these opinions to hundreds of thousands of students, from elementary grades to professional schools, because, tragically, they are part of the American cultural inheritance. Cultural literacy requires detailed knowledge about the oppression of racial minorities. A clear understanding of "nigger" is part of this knowledge. To paper over that term or to constantly obscure it by euphemism is to flinch from coming to grips with racial prejudice that continues to haunt the American social landscape.

Kaplan seems to disagree about “bastard”. (He treats "That bastard X" as akin to "That damn X”) But no matter. Though "damned" or "damnable" does have an older and very rich set of meanings, especially religious ones, I think Kaplan is right about one use of "damn”, which seems to be a purely "subjective" expressive, without external correctness conditions. If I say "Damn you!" it seems pretty clear that I in some sense express my disapproval of you. The word "damn" itself carries that implication when it is sincerely used, by virtue of the linguistic conventions that set its meaning. I can't sincerely (and properly) say "That damn Trump; but I really like him!"

So traditional emotivism gets one case right. Still, this seems an exceptional case.

I was in diapers when my mom began taking us to powwows and native gatherings at the Tulalip Reservation just northwest of Everett, Wash., where we were born. We listened as elders sang and pounded hickory sticks against large deer-hide wrapped drums carved from cedar, their beat representing the tribe's heartbeat, still strong, loud and deep.

If so many foul terms seem to be “objective expressives”, then it is natural to see any expressive element in “asshole” in a similar way. My definition says when the term is descriptively correct. If we like, we can add that it will be expressively correct when, and only when, the speaker in fact disapproves, or finds disapproval appropriate, in virtue of the asshole’s acting upon entitlements that he does not in fact have.
The term "to waffle", particularly in the U.S., can also denote indecision about particular subjects; "waffling" can also mean changing one's mind frequently on a topic. Example: "Craig always waffles when he's speaking to Genevieve on the telephone". To which Genevieve usually replies "Come on Craig, come out with it!". In can be used as a derogatory term; to describe, for instance, a candidate or politician who is considered to easily switch sides on issues to curry political favor (i.e.

This kind of reasoning has led me to be pretty sceptical about expressivist analyses of foul language generally. So much so that I’ve been flirting with the idea that there are four main categories of foul language and that expressivist treatments don’t apply to any of them straightforwardly.

The categories are these:

(1) vice terms, which purport to classify a kind of moral personality, correctly or incorrectly (eg., “asshole”, jerk”, “bastard”, “motherfucker”, “schmuck”, “boor”, “cad”);

(2) pejorative terms, which assume false normative or moral claims about certain independently identifiable groups of people (eg., "honkey”, "wop”, "kike”, “limey”, "chink”, "n----r");

(3) slurs, which invoke a metaphor (“four-eyes”, "pig”, "dickhead”, "cocksucker") that is often literally false and yet may be “true”, metaphorically speaking.

(4) objective expressives (eg., “shit” and “fucking”), which are expressively correct or incorrect depending on what is going on in the world.

My conjecture is that these categories cover a lot if not most of foul language, and that each requires an appropriate “cognitivist” treatment.

In 2001, the Chicago Sun-Times was chastised by William Yashino, Midwest director of the Japanese American Citizens League, for using the term Chinaman in two of its columns. Yashino wrote, in a letter to the editor on May 16, 2001, that the term is derogatory and demeaning to Chinese Americans and Asian Americans, and that it marginalizes these communities and inflames public sentiment.

That is only a conjecture at this point, but it is not hard to appreciate its potential significance. If my hunch pans out, then expressivism is wrong even about most foul language. That is, it is wrong about the area of language where it has the best, fighting chance of being right.
As a term of address, this term was popularized in Spanish-speaking regions of the United States. The word on the street is that it came about as a shorthand way for speakers of Mexican Spanish to say ese vato or ese güey (that dude).

I might add that this is presumably a further count against expressivism about ethical language generally. The case for a cognitivist “constructivism” about ethics of the kind I favour gets even better.

To be sure, everything then depends on how the different categories of foul language get developed.

But "redskins" is not just a twisted compliment, like "Savages," "Warriors," "Braves" or "Red Men." It represents a trophy of war—the bloody scalp of a murdered Native American, slaughtered for money, the amount dependent on whether it was a man, woman or child.

So here are few thoughts about “asshole” in relation to pejorative terms and slurs, taking each in turn.

Consider racist pejorative terms. In contrast with “asshole”, I’m inclined to see these terms quite differently, as systematically wrong.

The team has had the Redskins name since 1933, when it was based in Boston, so it's easy to say, "We've always done it this way." But if America "always did it this way," then terms like "Wetback," "Negro," and its much uglier cousin would still be a part of our lexicon. We learn.

Here I mean the class of pejorative terms that get directed toward a particular group of people (“Yankee” or “honkey” and whites; "wop" and Italians; "kike" and Jews; "chink" and Chinese people; “limey” and English people; "n----r" and African-Americans). If we follow recent work by Chris Hom and Robert May, as I do, then the very meaning of these terms assumes certain normative beliefs or assumptions about the group in question.
The use of the term Chinaman in public platforms and as names of geographical locations has been the occasion of several public controversies in recent times.

“Wop”, for instance, assumes that Italians are the appropriate object of contempt and discrimination, simply because they are Italian.

Now suppose the assumed judgements of appropriateness are radically mistaken. From a moral perspective, no one is the appropriate object of contempt or discrimination simply because they happen to belong to a racial group.

For these reasons, I have advised the management of HarpWeek to present the offensive text, cartoons, caricatures and illustrations from the pages of Harper's Weekly, as well as other politically sensitive nineteenth-century material, as they appeared in their historical context. This same advice holds for slurs relating to Irish, Chinese, Germans, Native Americans, Catholics, Jews, Mormons and other ethnic and religious groups.

In that case, the racist judgement that Berlusconi is a wop will lay claim to truth and yet fall into error by virtue of resting on a false presupposition. Since “wop” has a false presupposition, the claim that Berlusconi is a wop is neither true nor false.

We presumably won’t want to say that about “asshole”. We can surely be mistaken about what someone is or is not entitled to. Yet it is a pretty radical form of scepticism to hold that the moral presuppositions of an asshole judgement are systematically wrong. In that case, there are no kikes, no chinks, and certainly no “n-----rs”.

The term Chinaman is described as being offensive in most modern dictionaries and studies of usage. It is not, however, as offensive as chink. The New Fowler's Modern English Usage considers Chinaman to have a "derogatory edge", The Cambridge Guide to English Usage describes it as having "derogatory overtones", and Philip Herbst's reference work The Color of Words notes that it may be "taken as patronizing". This distinguishes it from similar ethnic names such as Englishman and Irishman, which are not used pejoratively.

And Berlusconi is not a wop - even if he is an asshole.

Now consider the different category of slurs, like “four eyes” and “dickhead”, understood as metaphors. “Asshole” probably initially got its meaning as a metaphorical slur.

Calling someone an asshole is of course literally false in the non-moral sense of “asshole” that refers to a physical body part, just as it is literally false to say of someone that he is his own left arm. To say either thing is at best some kind of metaphor. Yet, if I am right that “he’s an asshole” can be a literally true or false, from a moral perspective. This raises an interesting question: how could “asshole” come to have acquired a literal moral meaning? The real, full story is presumably complicated.

The word "nigger" is a key term in American culture. It is a profoundly hurtful racial slur meant to stigmatize African Americans; on occasion, it also has been used against members of other racial or ethnic groups, including Chinese, other Asians, East Indians, Arabs and darker-skinned people. It has been an important feature of many of the worst episodes of bigotry in American history. It has accompanied innumerable lynchings, beatings, acts of arson, and other racially motivated attacks upon blacks. It has also been featured in countless jokes and cartoons that both reflect and encourage the disparagement of blacks. It is the signature phrase of racial prejudice.

Still, it is helpful, or at least interesting, to speculate with something like the following conjectural history.

In the beginning was the word, used as a mere metaphor. Geoffrey Nunberg tells us that “asshole” caught on in recent times among World War II soldiers.

In 2010, the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre was forced to release a statement explaining their decision to produce a play by Lauren Yee titled Ching Chong Chinaman, a term which has at times been used in doggerel verse with racist overtones. Artistic Producing Director Tisa Chang explained that "Ching Chong Chinaman takes its controversial title from the late 19th century pejorative jingle and uses irony and satire to reverse prejudicial attitudes towards Asians and other outsiders.

Imagine its first non-literal use: a solider called his superior officer - let’s call him Sargent Pug - "an asshole”, thereby inviting his fellow soldiers to imaginatively engage Pug in a certain unflattering light.

Although it is literally false that Pug is a body part, likening him to a foul and hidden part of his own body called attention to his arrogant disposition and repugnant personality.

The story in my family goes that the term dates back to the institutionalized genocide of Native Americans, most notably when the Massachusetts colonial government placed a bounty on their heads. The grisly particulars of that genocide are listed in a 1755 document called the Phips Proclamation, which zeroed in on the Penobscot Indians, a tribe today based in Maine.

As with any good metaphor, at least as Richard Moran explains it, the point was to see or experience Pug as an asshole, to interpret him and his actions from an imaginative frame of reference that treats a man as the physical embodiment of a body part that behaves much as that body part might. They were to feel and almost believe that Pug is as problematic and as foul and yet shamefully exposing himself in public.

The more literal minded of soldiers might have objected: "Look, it’s not strictly speaking, literally true that Pug is an asshole any more than it can be literally true that Pug is his own left arm”. In reply, the soldiers would have laughed off the objection as beside the point.

The mascot of the Washington Redskins, if the team desired accuracy, would be a gory, bloodied crown from the head of a butchered Native American.

Sure, they'll say, the statement "Pug is an asshole" is literally false; "asshole" is just a metaphor. The point is that it is especially apt. Or as we might elaborate the idea, the use of the word by the soldiers says things about Pug that could not have been literally said of him up to this point. Perhaps some of those things can be put as literal truth-claims, such as the claim that Pug isn't worthy of respect, or that he abuses his office, or that he is contemptible. But those truths aren't the whole point of the metaphor, which is mainly to see Pug in an unflattering light that cannot be fully expressed in so many truths.

Because the metaphor was apt, it quickly caught on as a way of speaking. Use of the term became popular among the other soldiers on the base, in the wider army, and then in further reaches of society.

While in elementary school, some white children saw how proud my brothers and I were of our heritage and occasionally called us "injuns." Some laughed and hopped around, mimicking our dance. I never retaliated, even if I wanted to repay them with violence ancient and awful, like what their ancestors did to mine. I took the high ground then and I take it now, even as Snyder dithers.

The term was especially useful as communication. People found calling someone an asshole an especially handy way of conveying and perhaps even venting their contempt for abusive authority figures who are not, for them, worthy of respect.
A similar criticism of Russian intelligentsia came from Nikolai Berdyaev, who coined the ironic word intelligentshchina for the part of intelligentia locked in their own world, isolated from the rest of the Russian society.

Those who heard the metaphor invoked found it especially easy to grasp what the speaker meant: they meant not simply to vent feelings of contempt, but to invite an interpretation of their target that would make those feelings of contempt fully appropriate. That’s because, when someone calls someone an asshole, you could easily tell that he or she has a certain moral view of things: the view that person called an asshole is not worthy of respect, because of how he treats those around him.
While not commonly used in Mexico, you're quite likely to hear it in California, for example. But, ¡aguas! (be careful!) In some parts of California ese is used by members of certain gangs to self-identify. Most of the time, though, it just means dude or bro.

Soon enough, when someone used the word, you could readily land upon this interpretation of the user's meaning, without knowing very much about his or her context of utterance. The metaphor thus came into a different kind of meaning: calling someone an asshole moved away from mere metaphorical communication and became a literal, more routine claim to truth, a claim to the truth of a moral judgement: that the person in question is not worthy of respect because of the way he treats others.

Even now few were especially careful or aware about exactly what kind of unsavoury people they were calling an asshole. Still, there was a rough but remarkable convergence. The invited perspective would be appropriate for certain kinds of people and not for others. Knowing or not, people began to grasp the rules of normal usage, which called for one type of person to be called an asshole and left other types for better names.

Eventually, the rules settled. They became well enough established that a competent speaker of the language could entertain asshole judgements without meaning to express contemptuous attitudes. The curious user of the language would wonder whether this person is the right kind of person to qualify as unworthy of respect, even without feeling at all exercised about this, let alone speaking out about it. The curious person would ask questions that don't express negative attitudes, such as "Is Trump an asshole?" And people could reason with hypotheticals, such as, "If Trump is an asshole, I probably shouldn't watch his show; Trump does seem to be an asshole: so I probably shouldn't watch his show”.

Beyond private reflections, all of this could be discussed in a mode of cool-headed argument among friends. Over coffee, friends might agree that, yes, Trump indeed qualifies as an asshole, literally speaking. They might conclude on that basis that they probably shouldn't go out of their way to listen to him or watch his show, having reasoned together and reached agreement upon what they all regard as an objective matter of moral fact: Trump is, in fact, an asshole.

Now when a less agreeable fellow in the coffee shop says it isn't literally true that Trump is an asshole, the friends don't say what the soldiers said to their literal-minded fellow solider.

On July 7, 1998, Canada's province of Alberta renamed a peak in the Rocky Mountains from "Chinaman's Peak" to "Ha Ling Peak" due to pressure from the province's large Chinese community. The new name was chosen in honour of the railroad labourer who scaled the peak's 2,408-metre (7,900 ft)-high summit in 1896 to win a $50 bet to commemorate all his fellow Chinese railway labourers. Ha Ling himself had named it "Chinaman's Peak" on behalf of all his fellow Chinese railway workers.

They don’t agree and say that this is beside the point. They beg to differ. They reply: "no, that's wrong; Trump definitely qualifies; he's literally an asshole; you've made a mistake”. At that point, the journey of “asshole” from metaphorical slur to vice term was complete.
I understand, to a degree, the complex connection between a team and its offensive mascot, because the mascot for Tuskahoma's elementary school is "Savages." I wore that word on my chest when I played for its basketball team, even if that word disgraced my ancestors.

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  • 2. www.spanishdict.com/guide/what-does-ese-mean
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  • 3. www.civilwarliterature.com/01Introduction/TheNWord.htm
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  • 5. en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waffle_(speech)
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