Forward-thinking readers! You don’t need me to tell you that our language is a living, growing organism. So, in an effort to stay with the times, I recently attempted to use the word “douchebags” in print. The context was an essay on Dante, which is scheduled to run in the September issue of Harper’s, albeit probably with some minor revision to the following sentence: “Dante goes to the afterworld, and everyone is there: Homer, Moses, Judas, Jesus, Brunetto Latini, Beatrice, all the thousand and one douchebags of Florence.”
This line elicited the following wonderful query from the managing editor:
“douchebags”: This feels out of place, which is sort of the point, but it feels a little too out of place. It’s a word that’s been ruined by the Internet, Kanye West, et alii, ad nauseam. You’re writing for the ages, and to me there’s something slightly stale and stroppy about using that term in such an important place. “Assholes”? Less anachronistic, and a word and concept that certainly existed in Dante’s time and tongue.
So many thoughts went racing through my mind when I read this, e.g.:
- “They aren’t letting me say ‘douchebags.’”
- “What a thoughtful response to ‘douchebags’!”
I realized that, familiar as Dante doubtless was with assholes, and meaningful as this consideration may be, “douchebags,” to me, better expresses both the sleazy political small-timeyness and the frenzied contemporaneity conveyed by the portrayal of Florence politicos in The Inferno.
I also realized that, maybe thanks to Kanye who made them loveable again, I have a soft spot for the douchebags—more so than for the assholes.1 And although I concluded that, for Dante essay purposes, “sleazebags” will suit the purposes just as well, I begin to wonder whether the title of my next book shouldn’t really be The Douchebags. Thinking ahead to the foreign editions, I imagine it being untranslated, like Les Misérables, or Mein Kampf…
But I’m getting ahead of myself, as usual. For now, I will just raise a parting glass to the douchebags. Alla salute, gentlemen!
P.S. Another five-star Amazon review here.
- Subjective as these terms are, cursory internet research indicates, e.g. here and here, that assholes are generally understood to be worse than douchebags (thus George W. is a douchebag, Cheney an asshole). To clarify, I’m not saying Dante’s Inferno doesn’t contain a large number of assholes – just that they aren’t necessarily the same people as the douchebags. ↩