Teaching with Nunberg’s Ascent of the A-Word

Ascent of the A-Word Cover

In my writing class last week, students read a section from Geoffrey Nunberg’s Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years, which came out just in time to be included on the syllabus. In an earlier themed writing class on Comedy and Culture, my students had been interested in discussions of humor and bad language (George Carlin’s Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television works well as a text for that discussion), a conversation distinct in some ways from our discussions of slurs, offensive gendered language, etc.

Ascent of the A-Word gives students a language with which to discuss some of their intuitions about swear words/curse words/vulgarities/obscenities. I like it a lot as a teaching text, both because it models the style of academic argument we teach at UVA well and because it introduces students to a surprisingly wide variety of linguistic and cultural concepts through an exploration of a word most students would knee-jerkingly assume is merely “dirty.”

Notably, Nunberg’s book avoids the word asshole in its title—“A-Word” and “assholism” are deemed acceptable for bookstore shelves, apparently (although the choice is more complicated, as Nunberg explains in a Fresh Air interview). I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read of the book, and I assigned my students a section from the second chapter, “The Uses of Vulgarity.”

Some of the “big ideas” that Nunberg’s book introduced my students to through its exploration of one “bad” word:

  • Language is not fixed, but changes over time: Nunberg’s book offered occasion for me to pull up the OED on the screen in our classroom. Students shared their childhood experiences of looking up dirty words in the dictionary as children, and they marveled at the vast amounts of information contained in the OED. They were astounded when I told them how long it took to make the first edition. Of course, looking up bad words in the dictionary isn’t the most sophisticated form of scholarship—but it did foster the students’ awareness of a really remarkable reference work that’s available to them. And they were truly fascinated by the idea that certain bad words have been around for a really, really long time (but not, of course, asshole, which Nunberg mostly dates to World War II).
  • Denotation alone does not constitute the meaning of language: Nunberg speaks eloquently of the ways in which the connotations and force of a word impact its meaning. Nunberg elegantly shows how a word like asshole can carry a similar denotative meaning to words like lout, bastard, and jerk but have its own distinctive meanings.
  • The words that name concepts can also create and/or shape those concepts: One section in Nunberg, “How to Do Things With Bad Words,” refers to J.L. Austin’s How to Do Things With Words and its understanding of the performative utterance. In the context of Nunberg, this means that the concept of “assholism” couldn’t exist quite in the way it does until after the word asshole had become commonplace.
  • We take complicated cultural assumptions  for granted when we use language: Here, I mostly mean that Nunberg does a great job of showing and describing how we can instinctively identify situations in which asshole would do better than any other alternative, even if we can’t quite describe why. One example is that someone who cheats on a test, exam, or paper isn’t by nature an “asshole,” but someone who cheats on a spouse or partner is. Students liked thinking about the built-in instincts they possessed about the applicability of certain curse words to certain people and situations.

It’s a good book, and it has more interesting things to say about language than its ostensibly degraded topic might suggest. And the book proved useful for introducing some first-year students to a casual awareness of some big ideas about language in a way that struck them as intuitively fun and interesting.

DigiWriMo Scorecard: this post, 684 words; month-to-date 7,100.

2 thoughts on “Teaching with Nunberg’s Ascent of the A-Word”

  1. Thanks for the discussion of the book Eric; I’d heard the _Fresh Air_ interview and wondered how this might work in the undergrad classroom.

    Apologies for now offering what amounts to a citation dump, but when I was doing an ENWR on obscenity I did a bit on swearing. Steven Pinker has a chapter on swearing in _The Stuff of Thought_ that is just right for ENWR I think. I also found Geoffery Hughes’s _Swearing: a social history of foul language, oaths and profanity in English_ is more academic but quite good as well. I wish I could remember the other stuff.

    There is quite a bit to say about gender and swearing; the tendency for the female term in male/female pairs to acquire derogatory or obscene meanings. Sir/madam, master/mistress, king/queen, etc. This discussion goes well with enwr students in my experience (I also did a bit on obscenity in a feminism themed enwr that I thought went well…).

    (Impressive job on DigWriMo. I wish I were so on top of things.)

    1. Thanks for the references and ideas, Chris… the Pinker sounds especially promising. The class has gone fairly well, so far, though I’ve gone even more workshop- (as opposed to reading-) intensive than I’ve sometimes done in the past. Anyway, great to hear from you, and thanks again.

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