An a-hole is not a psychopath, but he does feel a right to do what he does — cut to the head of the line, weave in and out of traffic, hijack the conversation — and is surprised by, or simply disregards, others’ objections to his behavior. Also, there is a pettiness to the a-hole’s deeds. And a-holism presupposes a level of intimacy and familiarity.
We don’t refer to criminals, terrorists or even people who sneak across the border as a-holes; Hitler was a monster, not an a-hole. Yet a-hole behavior is so egregious that it spurs us to vulgarity; “jerk” is too mild an epithet for the likes of Donald Trump, Simon Cowell, Nancy Pelosi, Joe “You Lie!” Wilson, Kanye West, Naomi Campbell, Michael Moore, Mel Gibson, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Anthony Weiner and Charlie Sheen. These are a few of the A-holes flagged in Geoffrey Nunberg in his new book, “Ascent of the A-Word: A-holism, The First Sixty Years” (PublicAffairs).
“Every age,” Nunberg writes, “creates a particular social offender that it makes a collective preoccupation — the cad in Anthony Trollope’s day, the phony that Holden Caulfield was fixated on in the postwar years — and the a–hole is ours . . . It signals indignation, with an undercurrent of contempt.”