Monday, June 10, 2013

Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years

By Geoffrey Nunberg

Book review by Richard L. Weaver II, Ph.D.

What fascinates me is how the mind of a linguist functions. Nunberg is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley School of Information. Why is this important? It gives you some foundation for understanding how and why he would go about collecting, collating, and codifying this large body of research related to his topic.

If you are interested in the various nuances (subtle shadings) of words—not just vulgar, insensitive, or uncivil ones—this is an excellent and entertaining exploration. I am amazed, as anyone with any interest in language usage would be, at both the depth and breadth of this investigation. It could be revealed in the nearly 20 pages of "Notes" at the end of the book, but readers only have to see it revealed on every page of this 213- page (of text) book.

It is truly a delight and pleasure to find someone as deeply immersed in literature, conscious of the various effects and influences of history, not only familiar with and responsive to popular culture, but sensitized to technology and how it is changing the face of language usage, and affected by current language manifestations, who can blend and synthesize these various elements and effects into a comfortable, easy-going, understandable, and engaging narrative. Impressive, to say the least. Nunberg’s linguistic analysis is a joy to experience.

I was especially pleased with Nunberg’s inclusion of the effects of technology: "Technology," he writes, "has played a big role here, as it always has in the past. Since the nineteenth century, every new form of communication has multiplied the opportunities for unwelcomed intrusions on our persons and privacy" (p. 158).

Incidentally, in addition to the "Notes" at the back of the book (referred to above), I loved Nunberg’s footnotes, set off by an asterisk at the bottom of pages throughout the book. They were often personal insights, interesting additional knowledge, a study, statistic, or poll, further explanation or clarification, or a definition. They were always informative, and I appreciated having them located right in front of readers (at the bottom of pages), not hidden, not located at the back of the book, and not "available online."

Nunberg tells great stories, offers interesting anecdotes, cites wonderful examples, provides great statistics, and supplies readers with such a large offering of varied and engaging supporting material, that it makes this book one you’ll have a hard time putting down once you start reading it. (I loved the examples he used as you begin reading the book. Absolutely perfect!)

Readers, too, will love Nunberg’s final two pages in which he offers readers a roadmap for respect for each other, restraint in the use of public discourse (especially in response to the public discourse of others who have chosen to take the low road), "forbearance in the face of other people’s assholism in public life," and "the predilection for provocative rhetoric."

This truly is an outstanding book that readers will appreciate on many different levels. It is challenging and yet informative, entertaining and yet comprehensive, and erudite and yet accessible. Read it for the history, read it for the numerous examples, read it for the excellent narrative, or just read it for the titillation. It satisfies on all levels.

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