Anyone with cable television or an Internet hookup knows all too well that this is the dawning of the age of the douchebag. While the term for a feminine hygiene implement traces its history back to 1685, its slang incarnation now proliferates on the airwaves and the Web. Face it: We're surrounded by douchebags.
This comes as no surprise to the nation's linguists. They even have a term for this sort of thing: pejoration. That's when a neutral word takes on a negative meaning. The Oxford English Dictionary traces this process back to 1967, when "douchebag" was a popular epithet for "an unattractive coed"; it has since morphed into "a general term of disparagement, esp. for an unattractive or boring person."
James Matisoff, an emeritus professor in UC Berkeley's linguistics department, concurs that douchebag's pejoration has snowballed in recent years. The culprits: Jon Stewart and his comedic brethren. "On cable, you can use a word which has a perfectly innocent meaning — like 'balls' or 'nuts,'" he says. "Jon Stewart can use it freely. If he were to say 'fuck,' 'shit,' or 'cunt,' that gets bleeped." (Incidentally, Stewart does, and they are.) The words "douche" and "douchebag" seem to be mentioned daily on The Daily Show, whether it's John Oliver reporting on George Washington ("a quintessential American douche"), Jason Jones explaining how Mitt Romney was stumping for "the douchebag vote," or Stewart himself awarding Robert Novak the Huge Douchebag award.
Yet among those who study profanity for a living, the douchebag is kid stuff. Reinhold Aman of Cotati publishes Maledicta, "the international journal of verbal aggression." He rattles off a series of curses that knock the vinegar out of douchebag: "I shit in the beard of your father" (Persia); "Your mother's milk is camel's piss" (the Arab world); "Your parents have diseased genitals" (Ghana); and "I fuck the soul of your dead mother" (Serbian Gypsies). He hesitates before revealing the most vile, horrific curse he's ever come across, a lament from Hungary's peasantry: "Oh God, stop slapping me in the face with your cock all covered with shit from fucking Jesus."
Aman pauses to let that one settle in. "Douchebag is nothing! It's harmless, like an enema, you know?"