For the past few years, I've been watching the steady progress of the insult douchebag
, the latest reminder that our collective choice of language taboos is nothing if not arbitrary. Still, I was surprised when a good friend told me the other day that her 12-year-old son had declared it "the second-worst swear I know."*
If his judgment is general, then douchebag
is making a (bad) name for itself with unusual speed. Less than two years ago, the Baltimore Sun Media Group's free paper, b, printed the headline "DOUCHEBAG." (Yes, there was controversy -- John McIntyre blogged about it here
.) But last week, the New York Daily News
(online) wouldn't even use the word in a direct quote. The headline read "Creme brawlee! Anthony Bourdain gripes Alan Richman is a 'd-----bag' in new book." (The chapter title is, indeed, "Alan Richman is a Douchebag.")**
And a Globe interview
with Bourdain today was even more discreet, quoting the title as "Alan Richman is a [Tool]."
(The New York Times, cautious as always, wrote
about the word's popularity last fall, but outside of a quote, it would not let the two parts of the compound word touch: In the '90s, the Times delicately noted, "it [the word douche
] was invoked, usually with the suffix 'bag,'" on the TV show "NYPD Blue.")
The OED dates the insult to 1967, citing American Speech: "Douche bag
, n. phr., an unattractive co-ed. By extension, any individual whom the speaker desires to deprecate." Oddly, though, as the slang word is taking off, the literal douche
is already in decline. In fact, when douchebag
made its pop-culture move, I was among those who wondered if anyone under 50 knew what a douche bag was. (When I wrote about scumbag
, a dozen years ago, I heard from several surprised adults who had never associated the word with condoms.)
If my faint and fallible memory serves, the douche was then already a relic of the bad old days before the Pill. Surely, by the '70s, "Our Bodies, Ourselves" was denouncing the feminine hygiene fetish as another corporate scam? But apparently there were mothers (and marketers) who kept the tradition alive. The Globe's teen advice column, Ask Beth/Sense about Sex, was still fielding douche questions from 1988 to 1994. ("It means using a douche bag or syringe to rinse out the vagina with a solution containing a cleansing agent. It is seldom necessary since a healthy vagina constantly cleanses itself. It can even be harmful.")
Even during the '90s, the rude slang usage was not widespread enough to set off alarms among Globe editors. The literal douche bag made a comic appearance in a 1991 Diane White column on collectibles: "Another enthusiast is seeking 'enema and douche bags and bulbs, rubber and hot water bottles, accessories, catalogues and advertising.'" The first insulting douchebag
in the Globe, in 1999, snuck in under cover of curmudgeonhood, when Joan Vennochi quoted the infamous Boston city councilor Dapper O'Neil greeting a bag lady with, "Good morning, my douche bag." But in the mouth of an aging crank, no doubt the term sounded old-fashioned rather than taboo-busting.
I still suspect most users of douchebag
are clueless about its denotation, though John McIntyre reported that his copy-editing students "[knew] the origin of the term as well as its contemporary use." (Really? I'll bet he didn't give them a quiz.) The bag
part, after all, was familiar -- as the OED notes, it was a disparaging term for a woman by 1924, a variant of the Shakespeare-era baggage
. My guess is that douchebag
sounded weird, maybe (only maybe) with some feminine-secret weirdness; it echoed scumbag
; and it wasn't actually obscene, so it could be instantly adopted by movies and TV. What's not to like?
So here we are, with douchebag, douche, d-bag, douchebaggery
, all causing head-scratching at the classier print media, all based on an innocuous and semi-obsolete contraption. Just think: Had linguistic events taken a slightly different course, the latest insult might be truss
. Of course, it's not too late; maybe their turn will come.
*Yes, the worst was the C-word.
**Richman, who earned the appellation with a negative review of a restaurant connected with Bourdain, seemed unfazed. In a response in the Village Voice, he asked: "Is it possible to deal somebody like Bourdain a 'low blow'? He is a living, breathing, low blow. That's all he does."