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Extended Interview: Geoff Nunberg chronicles the ascent of the 'A-word'

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This interview contains explicit language

The hated boss, the driver that cuts you off on the freeway, an adulterous spouse  — according to linguist Geoff Nunberg, we are now living in the age of a-wordism. But how did a body part turn into a wholly American insult?

From soldiers on the World War II battlefield to Neil Simon plays and Woody Allen movies, Nunberg explains how American fame and values has only exacerbated the a-wordism of society. 

While Geoff was here, he gave us his own insight of a few notable figures and whether they pass the a-word test:

Donald Trump: "He's the a-word's a-word. He's distinguished himself in this way in his personal life, in the drama he creates in reality television. You get to see being a person like this, to people who are encouraged behave this way themselves to stay on the show. It's kind of a theatre of a-wordism, as are a lot of reality shows. And in his political life also, he's managed to be an a-word. And for a while because of that, to rise to the top of the Republican polls in early 2011, [which is] extraordinary, because people who were for him weren't denying that, 'he's the a-word we need to take on that other a-word.'"

Adolf Hitler: "No, the thing about this word is that it refers to someone who's contemptable, and contempt implies familiarity, it implies a member of our own tribe. People like Hitler and Osama bin Laden, aren't diminished ... this is a diminishing word, you want the enormity of their deeds stand for itself."

John Edwards: "John Edwards proved himself to be an a-word of another type, not so much the Newt Gingrich type, that is to say in political discourse, but certainly in his personal life he stood in for a type that behaves badly towards women. And was narcissitic about it, and did everything you could do to earn that label."

An Excerpt From Geoffrey Nunberg



Geoffrey Nunberg, adjunct full professor at UC Berkeley's School of Information, a linguist, and former chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary.