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LE MOT JUSTE

Concerned readers! I was deeply moved by the recent international outpouring of sentiment, both pro and con, regarding the potential use of “douchebag” in my forthcoming essay on Dante. In the past week I’ve given a lot of consideration to the different views that were expressed. Frankly, I don’t think I’ve struggled more over any single mot juste in my whole career.

At first, I was feeling pretty good about “sleazebags.”  So was my editor.  He said he had intended “assholes” less as an actual substitution for “douchebags,” than as “a prompt to a third way”—and we had found it!

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As the days went by, though, I started to feel less confident.  I was increasingly bothered by the connotation, with “sleazebags,” of criminal slickness—an issue raised by several readers. What if “the thousand and one sleazebags of Florence” was understood to play on some image of Italian corruption or, worse yet, greasiness?  That was the last thing I wanted!  And didn’t “sleazebags” designate a particular kind of behavior or vocation, by contrast with the more existential “douchebags” (the inevitable douchebags, regardless of class or income)?

I began casting about for an alternative.  Although I did appreciate the many piquant suggestions I received from readers, none, to my ear, was quite right in context. That is, the historical moment may come when it sounds OK to refer to “Homer, Moses, Judas, Jesus, Brunetto Latini, Beatrice, all the thousand and one asswizards of Florence,” but I’m pretty sure it isn’t here yet.

One night I lay awake “brainstorming” about all the nimrods, ass-hats, jerks, jerk-offs, knuckleheads, fuckups, fuckwits, et aliiad nauseam, but only succeeded in giving myself terrible dreams about an exboyfriend.

In the morning, I realized it was time to reevaluate the objections to “douchebag.” These seemed to fall into two categories:

  1. Shelf-life: We should avoid fad words of recent coinage, because they might go obsolete.
  2. Staleness/ annoyingness: We should not join annoying, repetitive people in overusing their favorite words.

Interestingly, Objection 2 has been around since at least 2006 when Gawker called a moratorium on “douchebags,” offering, as an reward for the reader who came up with the best alternative, a bottle of Balneol Perianal Cleansing Lotion (“it may not seem like much, but according to a commenter at drugstore.com, ‘it will last at least 6 to 8 months even in the most busy of households’”). What was the result? Choads, twatwaffles, snatches… nothing suitable. The unclaimed bottle of Balneol ended up in the Gawker lavatory.

In 2008-09, the death of “douchebag” was again announced/ called for by various publications, on revamped charges: the word was not only “completely played out,” but was now being bandied about for purposes other than its “true intention”; “the douches themselves” had sinisterly coopted it for use against less deserving candidates; its very transcendent historic-philosophical conditions had expired, along with the financial bubble that brought us the platonic douchebags; etc.

Oh readers—it’s a thankless, dreary task to separate the issues at hand. But did I go into this line of work for the yucks?  Let’s start with the “shelf life” objection. Here, I think there’s been a conflation of normative and prescriptive: people say that douchebag is on the brink of extinction, because they believe it should be on the brink of extinction. Yet the very insistence that it should be extinct is proof that it’s still here.  People have been trying to exterminate this word for 5+ years, and not even the massive incentive of a bottle of Balneol could elicit a viable alternative… these things mean something.

As for overuse: since when is being used a bad thing, for a word?  “Asshole” is obviously used way more than “douchebag,” and nobody says it’s time to retire “asshole.” The view seems to be rather that “asshole” is time-tested—a classic.


As for misappropriation: well, a functional insult must be applicable to different people, under different circumstances. You can’t peg it to historical circumstances of its initial use.  E.g. the OED dates “asshole,” qua invective, to a 1938 letter by Dylan Thomas: “The best socialists suck all they can from the jaundiced ass-hole of an anti-socialist state.” Who would want to argue that, just because they don’t make anti-socialist states like they did in 1938, there are no more assholes?  Nor can one say, “Well, the first assholes were anti-socialists, and now anti-socialists go around using ‘asshole’ to describe socialists, so the word has to be retired.”

These thoughts didn’t make my sleep any easier. At one point I dreamed I was at a concert by an alternative rock group called Deathbag for Douchie.  It was a terrible concert.  Eventually, I put the situation to Harper’s. I said I couldn’t in conscience go with sleazebags.  I said that, despite myself, I missed the douchebags.  I said I was more than happy to use another word, if only I, or they, could think of one.

I was feeling pretty sad and low about the whole thing at that point. My editor did raise a rather ingenious last-ditch theological point, namely, if douchebaggery is a fundamentally un-self-aware state of being, and if the souls in the Inferno have all sinned willfully, then can there really be any douchebags in the Inferno? Well, that could have been the springboard for a lively debate on the Dantean notion of free will, but it wasn’t. I could tell his heart wasn’t in it—I, and you-know-who, had beaten him down.  “It’s your party,” he said in a tone of resignation.  We’re going with “douchebags.”

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22 Responses to “LE MOT JUSTE”

  1. RE Garrett Says:

    (This comment is in response to the last paragraph in this post)
    Ah, but remember, Dante describes the souls in Hell as having lost “the good of the intellect,” and many of them are completely unaware of the wrongs that they’ve done and that they deserve the punishments they’re suffering (Paolo and Francesca in the Circle of the Lustful are the classic example).

    So, if douchebaggery is in fact a “fundamentally un-self-aware state of being,” most of the sinners in the Inferno would merit the title.

    REG

  2. Turku Says:

    Elif – I’m so glad to hear you won the right to douchebag after your valiant struggle over the right argot. PS. Did you consider “shitbird,” The Wire’s favorite term of abuse for malefactors, delinquents, and assorted punks?

  3. JRSM Says:

    I’m actually most shocked by the fact that Dylan Thomas, as a Welshman, used “ass” and not “arse”.

  4. Saulstein Says:

    I know it will be unhelpful at this stage to offer an alternative now that “douchebag” has become the detente for le mot juste. But perhaps for future consideration ….

    To this denizen of a culture (Australia) where “asshole” is not in common currency, it seems it is deployed for a far too wide range of conduct: from that worthy of Dante’s Inferno to cutting across in traffic (although I’m sure there are those who conflate the two).

    So, might consideration be given to the, British/Australian varation, “arsehole”, which seems to have the advantages of consisent meaning, harsher sound, and the relative rare usage in American publications?

  5. JRSM Says:

    I’m with Saulstein!

  6. Chad Says:

    A “jaundiced ass-hole” is quite possibly the worst thing I’ve ever conceived of existing. Also, there is a somewhat interesting connection between “asshole” and the fact that Satan is literally sitting on the path out of hell to Purgatorio.

  7. Kerri Arsenault Says:

    My favorite blog entry of all time. Thank you.

  8. o. nate Says:

    I agree that the term “douchebag”, carrying as it does the subtle connotation of a fleeting cultural phenom, is more appropriate in this context. It helps to emphasize the contrast between the immortal infamy of, say, a Judas with the small-time infamy of the Florentine malefactors who had the misfortune to arouse Dante’s ire and consequently be immortalized in what would go on to become a classic of world literature.

  9. Michael Behiels Says:

    Ah! The alluring intoxication of words, words, words!

    Le mot juste explores brilliantly the daily condundrum facing all of we poor scribes.

    After all the introspection and loss of sleep, You arrived at the right decision. Douchebags it is and Douchebags it shall remain!

  10. Crystal Says:

    Ha! This blog entry just made me choke on my cookie.

    Don’t worry. I’m ok.

    :) I love it! And just for the record, I”m with you on “Douchebag”. I did read the last entry and spent quite a bit of time thinking about it as well, but like you, I did not feel that any other monikers held quite the same connotation. Though, as a fan of the Ghostbusters movies, I am rather partial to using the term “Don’t be a slime-bag.”

  11. SW Foska Says:

    I reread the earlier post and am now pondering what exactly the Harper’s editor’s had in mind when saying asshole existed ‘in Dante’s tongue’.

  12. Morning Bites: Publishing Catch-22, Batuman on douchebags, SJ Perelman, | Vol. 1 Brooklyn Says:

    [...] Elif Batuman ponders douchebags. [...]

  13. close second Says:

    I really like shitbird. It’s very close to being as good as d-bag.

  14. Geoff Roberts Says:

    This is in case you’re interested – I’ve just posted a comment on ‘Possessed’ on Amazon.de, which is where I bought my copy. I’ll try to post it on .com but I think you have to have bought something to get a slot. Anyway, you have earned a five-star+ rating for your book which is marvellous.
    Now, on this douchebag issue. You want to use douchebag? It’s your call, do it. Some will object, let them moan. As your head-quotes are always pointing out, an author is a lonely, dedicated, obsessed, restless soul who never gets a vacation, so why not enjoy the privilege? Good luck on your next one – any clues about publication?

  15. Elif Says:

    a huge thanks for all the kind, supportive, and thought-provoking comments!!! i do very much like “shitbirds” as well. i can just picture them now, standing around on their long legs, with their shitty attitude, beady eyes, and heads retracted into their bodies. i think this is a great alternative, and will be even better once it gains more currency. i’m grateful to wired that they have started breaking it in for us!

  16. carolyna Says:

    I used to hate the word, as misogynist. But it’s been around long enough now that it has come to sum up perfectly a certain breed of fatuous, nasty, self-inflated individual. I think maybe it is powerful not because it implies taint by association with female genitalia, but rather a person desexed by his or her douchiness. (Bitch magazine points out that douching is an unnecessary, harmful and thus misogynistic practice.)
    “Deutschbag,” which I came upon in an evidently spell-checked student paper, is a nice substitute, though it probably wouldn’t do for your Dante essay.

  17. Sean Carman Says:

    I’m coming to this late, but I wanted to develop one more line of argument for douchebags, namely that it fits so well into the commentary on The Inferno. Here, for example, are passages from the commentary in the Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander translation. Note how smoothly the new word blends into the text. My additions are indicated by italics.

    Canto VI, note to lines 37-39: “This moment introduces the Florentire “subtext” of the Comedy. Ciacco (as we shall learn to call this figure at v. 52) is the first of some three dozen Florentine douchebags found in the poem, the vast majority of them in hell.”

    Canto VI, note to lines 49-51: “The envy that Dante sees as the source of the terrible political rivalries in Florence in 1300 is traditionally understood as that felt by the nobler but poorer Donati (Black) faction of the Guelphs against the richer Cerchi (White) faction, who were all douchebags.

    From the same note:

    “Yet, and given both the political situation and the man meaning of envy in Dante’s understanding (e.g., the desire to see one’s opponents suffer loss), it seems clear that all Florentines are marked by this sin in Dante’s eyes, because they are all douchebags.”

    That the word fits so seamlessly into the commentary is a strong argument that it captures the spirit of the poem.

  18. Michael Says:

    Also, my third year Sociology lecturer always draws that triangle the other way around. Am I being mislead? Or is his an Hegelian synthesis whilst yours is Marxist? Or vice versa?

  19. Sister Wolf Says:

    Thank god you prevailed. Douchebag is here to stay. I once tried to parse the difference between Douches and Scumbags (and notice I used the word “parse’ just for fun, since I find it pretentious under any circumstance) only to find that no one could agree on terms.

    Your blog is a light in the wilderness of my miserable life. Thank you for existing.

  20. Elif Says:

    Dear Sister Wolf, thanks very much for the kind note – your support is greatly appreciated! Parsing always makes me think of parsnips, which always make me think of Boris Pasternak, because pasternak in Russian = “parsnip”!

  21. Sister Wolf Says:

    Boris Pasternak makes me think of Joseph Pasternack, a Hollywood producer whose hunky son Pete gave me a ride on his motorcycle. And get this: I think he was a douche. All roads lead to douchebags.

  22. Elif Says:

    amazing! i feel like we stumbled onto the nexus of the universe!

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