Our Bastard Tongue

We don’t have a lot of snow where I live, so we’ve got hundreds of words for something else. Warning: contains profanity.

Last night I caught myself calling a cartoon character a douchebag, and it suddenly occurred to me I could be over-using the word. I’ve been using it an awful lot lately, and I don’t remember even hearing it before a few years ago. It got me a little worried I was slipping into another Internet meme: I might as well be one of those faux hipsters shouting “the cake is a lie” and “I like me some…”

But then I realized, “Oh hell to the no, this is just how I roll.” Douchebag is just a great word. It perfectly describes a certain type of person, and none of the other options quite come close:

Asshole is just too broad, and it doesn’t have the same sense of permanence. The guy who’s been making racist comments non-stop for the past ten years is an asshole, but so’s the guy who just cut me off in traffic.

Prick is too soft; a prick is just a minor irritant, not the prolongued obnoxiousness of a bonafide douche.

Asswipe and its variant, Shitstain, convey the same sense of uselessness as douchebag, but without the same sense of oblivious arrogance.

Dipshit and its TV-friendly Dukes of Hazzard-era version dipstick only cover the stupidity, but again, not the arrogance.

Assclown is pretty great, but it’s from Office Space. It’s always going to be from Office Space.

Asshat captures the incompetence, but none of the smarminess of a genuine douchebag.

Jack-off and the pathetically underpowered jag-off are just kind of vulgar and stupid. And even if they weren’t, they kind of capture the self-absorption of the true douchebag, but none of his unctiousness.

Twat is awfully close, but it’s a lot more vulgar, right on the edge of what’s too vulgar for me to be using in casual conversation. I don’t like typing it, much less making it bold and italic.

And all the fuck- variations — -wit, -wad, -head, -brain, -ing jackass — might as well just be less PG-13-friendly versions of asshole.

Clearly, douchebag is an immensely powerful and unique word. How else to describe Jeremy Piven and that guy from The Mentalist? It’s a word whose time has come.

Which got me wondering: what prompted the douchebag explosion? I don’t remember using it at all before 2006, and since I’m usually late to catch on, that means it must’ve entered wide usage around 2000. Office Space came out in 1999, with Gary Cole’s pivotal role of Nordberg providing the personification of the modern douchebag. (I don’t mean to diminish young Robert Downey Jr.’s pioneering work in douchebaggery in the 80s, or the great work that Dennis Miller has done in the field consistently over the past 25 years, but it hadn’t yet become a phenomenon).

But surely douchebags existed before then. OR DID THEY?!

There are various studies done by actual, professional linguists on various isolated communities that suggest a correlation between a society’s understanding of certain concepts and whether that society has a word for that concept. This goes way deeper than that “1000 words for snow” business: this is freaky reality-bending stuff.

For instance: one society didn’t use specific numbers for counting, but more general terms like “none,” “a few,” “more than a few,” or “a lot.” When shown two different amounts of something — both within the “a few” cut-off — they simply didn’t recognize a distinction between the two amounts.

Another study took people who didn’t have separate words for different shades of a color — not just guys, who either can’t or refuse to acknowledge the distinction between “salmon” and “pink,” but more like societies who didn’t have a word for “purple.” As I understand it, even in tests where language was removed, the people couldn’t distinguish colors they didn’t have a word for.

So there’s the question: has there always been a constant supply of douchebags, and we’ve just gotten better at identifying and describing them? Or are we actually creating douchebags, summoning them from the ether like Bloody Mary or Beetlejuice? Maybe some kind of combination, where we’ve so effectively described the douchebag that the guys (not being sexist, just accurate: they’re always guys) who were formerly just vaguely described as “pretentious twits” or “smarmy pricks” or “Christian Bale” now had something concrete to aspire to.

So I guess what I’m saying is: words have power. And I like making fun of people who never really did me any harm.

3 thoughts on “Our Bastard Tongue”

  1. “Douchebag” was a fairly popular insult at my schools when I was a teenager in the early 80s. I didn’t realize it had fallen out of favor; I thought the reason I didn’t hear it as much was that my friends and I had matured. I had assumed it’s recent resurgence on TV was due to relaxing standards (like with “bitch”). I’m so unhip, however, that I say “hip.” So what do I know…

  2. Well, I thought that Boston’s always been kind of a testing area for new lingo, so it wouldn’t be that weird for “douchebag” to take hold there before spreading out to the rest of the country. In fact, it’d be downright wicked.

    For me, I heard “douchebag” on that Saturday Night Live sketch with Lord & Lady Douchebag, but then didn’t hear it much at all until around the mid 2000’s. Maybe it was a regional thing?

  3. ‘Douche’ and ‘douchebag’ were in high rotation in my Cleveland-area elementary school in the early-mid 90s. At the time, it didn’t have the smarmy connotations it has now, probably because the kids using it were most likely smarmy, self-assured douchebags themselves.

    As a kid, I just kind of assumed it (along with all the other mysterious puzzling-at-the-time vulgar words the stupid mean kids used, like ‘fag’, etc.) must have come from Beavis & Butthead. But in retrospect that word probably wouldn’t have been allowed on cable TV at the time. Who knows how it got around.

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