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.:

  1. “They aren’t letting me say ‘douchebags.’”
  2. “What a thoughtful response to ‘douchebags’!”
  3. “Assholes?”

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.

  1. 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.

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17 Responses to “AUX DOUCHEBAGS”

  1. Darryl Says:

    Elif, what about a slight re-categorization (or re-titling, anyway) of the whole Inferno? Obviously we could change the Malebolge to “Douchebag Central,” but what about renaming the Suicides to the “Sob Sisters” and the circle of Greed the “Corporate Malfeasance Area”?

  2. S. Tremaine Nelson Says:

    Douchebags, even as a contemporary insult, has perhaps peaked in its prevalence and utility. Though we can immediately call to mind a visual image of the ur-douchebag (think popped collar, pastels, general obnoxious WASPY-ness), it’s probably a phrase that’s on its way out.

    Likening Kanye to great literary figures of the past is, however, only more likely to continue as his music becomes weirder and more brilliant. A recent post on the book blog The Literary Man recently ran an article comparing many of Kanye’s lyrics to some of Joyce’s methods in ULYSSES. Probably absurd, but nevertheless intereseting. Here’s the link:

  3. SW Foska Says:

    I remember learning (or not learning, since I’ve forgotten it) some peculiarly florentine word for an idiot which derives from the family name of someone who sold cheaply the land on which the Duomo was built. But it was a word for a twerp, rather than for someone vicious or malevolent.
    I wish I could share your ishigurophilia, but I can’t. just not my thing.

  4. Damion Says:

    And yet “sleazy” in the sense of sordid dates only from 1941! and is probably German (Silesia), not Florentine! (see comment 2 here) What oh what is an historically scrupulous wit to do?

    For what it’s worth, I think “douchebags” and “sleazebags” are pretty different in meaning (dim arrogant smug bastards acting badly vs. unscrupulous shady bastards acting badly). Not that I would ever advocate going against Harper’s’s editors!

  5. SW Foska Says:

    tracing usages, the OED has douchebag (in its metaphorical sense) as early as 1967; scumbag in the 1970s (i didn’t realise this also meant condom); and sleazebag not till the 1980s. Sleazeball also 1980s.

  6. Georgia Duan Says:

    I sure hope it makes the cut, just for the novelty of seeing it in print in a literary magazine. Looking forward to reading about your dantesque adventure!

  7. sean carman Says:

    “Sleazebags” is perfect.

  8. David Says:

    Listen to Rafil. He’s right.

  9. Dave Lull Says:

    The douchebags of hell

    14 July 2011
    In an essay on his website, the ever-delightful Elif Batuman (The Possessed) discusses how, in an essay on Dante for Harper’s Magazine, he “attempted to use the word ‘douchebags’ in print.”

    [. . .]

    Posted by Nathan Ihara

    Showing 2 comments

    John 1 comment
    Some gender trouble here: Elif Batuman is a female
    John 1 comment
    Also, “all the thousand and one douchebags of Florence” is a lovely phrase.

  10. Mary Elizabeth Williams Says:

    Oh God. Dante and douchebags, together at last. Please run away with me.

  11. SW Foska Says:

    If the douchebag/asshole differend cannot be resolved any other way, maybe a new portmanteau word is required. But which will receive more votes – doucheholes or assbags?

  12. Dave Lull Says:

    A divine comedy: among the Danteans of Florence
    By Elif Batuman

  13. Dave Lull Says:

    Elif Batuman in Hell and Paradise
    [by Cynthia Haven]

    OK. I surrender. Now I’m a hopeless fan. I’ve just finished Elif Batuman‘s “A Divine Comedy: Among the Danteans of Florence” in the September Harper’s Magazine.

    [, , ,]

  14. Sister Wolf Says:

    But isn’t Cheney a douchebag??

  15. Dave Lull Says:

    Dante’s Divine Comedy ‘offensive and should be banned’

  16. Last Man Standing Says:

    Sister Wolf: I told one of my friends about the douchebag/asshole distinction as it related to Bush/Cheney and he made an interesting point: it’s possible that Bush is actually a bro, and Cheney a douchebag. (My friend was maybe thinking a bit more of a West Coast bro than an East Coast bro.)

  17. Dave Lull Says:

    #Douchebag: from useless contraceptive to universal putdown
    It has become this year’s catch-all insult, powered by social media and broadcasters keen to avoid more sweary options. But where did it come from – and who really deserves the epithet?

    Stuart Heritage
    The Guardian, Wednesday 22 October 2014 13.32 EDT

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