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The word arse in English derives from the Germanic root *arsaz, which originated from the Proto-Indo-European root *ors — meaning buttocks or backside. The combined form arsehole is first attested from 1500 in its literal use to refer to the anus. The metaphorical use of the word to refer to the worst place in a region, e.g., "the arsehole of the world") is first attested in print in 1865; the use to refer to a contemptible person is first attested in 1933. In the ninth chapter of his 1945 autobiography, Black Boy, Richard Wright quotes a snippet of verse that uses the term: "All these white folks dressed so fine / Their ass-holes smell just like mine ...". Its first appearance as an insult term in a newspaper indexed by Google News is in 1965. As with other vulgarities, these uses of the word may have been common in oral speech for some time before their first print appearances. By the 1970s, Hustler magazine featured people they did not like as "Asshole of the Month." In 1972, Jonathan Richman's Modern Lovers recorded his song "Pablo Picasso," which includes the line "Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole."
Until the early 1990s, the word was considered one of a number of words that could not be uttered on commercial television in the United States. Comedian Andrew Dice Clay caused a major shock when he uttered the word during a televised MTV awards show in 1989. However, there were PG-13 and R rated films in the 1980s that featured use of the word, such as the R-rated The Terminator (1984), the PG-13-rated National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989), and the PG-rated Back to the Future (1985). By 1994, however, vulgarity had become more acceptable, and the word was featured in dialog on the long-running television series NYPD Blue, though it has yet to become anything close to commonplace on network TV. In some broadcast edits (such as the syndication airings of South Park), the word is partially bleeped out — ironically, as "assh—", with the profane half of the word intact.
This word or its literal translation is found in colloquial speech in a number of cultures (in both English and other languages). This is because it describes an organ of elimination that is considered a taboo region (since it belongs to the intimate parts) of the body in many societies.
The English word ass (meaning donkey, a cognate of its zoological name Equus asinus) may also be used as a term of contempt, referring to a silly or stupid person. In the United States, and, to a lesser degree, in Canada, the words arse and ass have become synonymous; however, in the rest of the English-speaking world, ass still only refers to the donkey, rather than the arse (buttocks). It is worth noting that speakers of some varieties of English "drop their Rs" before consonants, leading to a pronunciation of arse that is quite similar to ass.
In 2000, during a Labor Day event, then candidate George W. Bush made an off-hand remark to his running mate, Dick Cheney, that New York Times reporter Adam Clymer was a "major league asshole." The gaffe was caught on microphone and led to a political advertisement chiding Bush for "using expletives ... in front of a crowd of families," produced for Democratic opponent Al Gore.
In February 2004, American media reported that during a rally of supporters, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez called Bush "an asshole" for believing his aides in supporting a coup against Chavez in 2002. The word in the original Spanish was "pendejo", and in news coverage the word was widely, though incorrectly, translated as "asshole"; the meaning of the word varies substantially in Latin America, and in Venezuela its meaning is closer to "fool". The following year, in September, Nightline host Ted Koppel said to Chavez on national television, "I'm going to perhaps shock you a little, but these are your words. You called President Bush an asshole," to which Chavez replied, "I've said various things about him. I don't know if I actually used that word."
- Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years
- The No Asshole Rule
- Sexual slang
- Calvert Watkins, American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots revised second edition, p. 60
- Lighter, J.: Historical Dictionary of American Slang, Random House, 1994.
- "A refreshing radicalism." Lerner, Michael, The Harvard Crimson, May 28, 1965. Google Search done August 6, 2008.
- "Out like Flynt." Time, April 9, 1979. Retrieved August 6, 2008.
- MTV Video Music Awards | 1989
- "Asshole". Webster's Online Dictionary. Retrieved 2011-05-30.
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- Napoli, Donna Jo; Hoeksema, Jack. "The grammatical versatility of taboo terms". Studies in Linguistics 33.
- Ass/Arse Online Encyclopedia
- "A "major league asshole"". Salon.com. 09-04-2000.
- "Chavez Calls Bush 'Asshole' as Foes Fight Troops". Washington Post. February 29, 2004.
- Venezuelanalysis.com, 2 August 2005, Memo to Time and Reuters: Chávez Did Not Call Bush an "Asshole"
- "Transcript: Hugo Chavez Interview". Nightline. 09-16-2005.