Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The pejoration of "douchebag"

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 and 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 dirtbag; 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 or enema or tampon or mouthwash. 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."


tudza said...

Penny Arcade weighed in on the subject a couple comics ago:

Jan said...

Thanks, that's excellent -- I love it that we both thought of "mouthwash."

Jack Lynch said...

Do you know Nicholson Baker's review of The Historical Dictionary of American Slang in The Size of Thoughts? It includes a lovely table with his speculations about legitimate compound pejoratives -- which nouns take -bag, which take -ball, and so on.

Harry Campbell said...

You could add the Scottish "ballbag" (or in broader Scots, "bawbag") to the list. I wonder if everyone knows the literal meaning of "scrotum".

Jan said...

I don't know it, Jack, but I'll look it up -- it's funny already! Thanks for the tip.

Mark Allen said...

I've been puzzled that the term would be taken for an obscenity, given its literal meaning. We may just be uncomfortable, as you say, with its "feminine-secret weirdness."'s tracking shows the term taking off in popularity in the early 1980s. Saturday Night Live's popular "Lord Douchebag" sketch appeared in 1979.

For those not at work:

Kaitlyn Bolyard said...

The commentary on "scumbag" made me laugh. But really, "douchebag" as an insult does upset me because it is a gender-specific word used more often than not to describe men. It is similar to "pussy" in that respect. Is it such a bad thing to be woman?

Anonymous said...

Apropos of your last paragraph, I have long advocated for "clyster-pipe" as a vaguely-obscene, somewhat-arbitrary insult, and coincidentally recently wrote about it (warning: lots of offensive language in my post), making a comparison to "douchebag."

I suppose with millions of monkeys blogging away it's nearly impossible not to find this sort of spontaneous echo of everything you write.

Jillian said...

As a 28-year-old proponent of the term "douchebag" (no really, it's commonplace in my oddball workplace), I can say that I did indeed know the origin of the term, from early days of reading "Seventeen" and "Cosmo."

What surprises me is your failure to mention the slightly more nausea-inducing, but ever-more-common "douchenozzle." Hang around Harvard for 25 minutes and I guarantee you'll hear it.

Anonymous said...

Could douchebag be falling into greater disrepute because it is so similar to scumbag that people who don't know what "douche" means believe it means about the same thing? There's ample history of taboo words affecting the use of words that have similarities.

Or maybe as more people learn what "douche" actually means, they feel that they have TMI and don't like the mental image they get when the word is used.

-- Barbara Phillips Long

Anonymous said...

Intertesting to me too is that omnipresent sports talking head Michael Felger has embraced the nickname. Not sure when or who first gave him the moniker, but is well cemented in Boston sports media fandom.

C R Krieger said...

I recall the term being used, sparingly, in the second half of the 1960s in all male environments.  It was a putdown, a way of pointing out that one was inept and fumbling.

It was not quite the same as some words, like the F-word in those days, but still not fit for mixed company in the 1960s.  I am sorry to see it go public.

Regards  —  Cliff

mighty red pen said...

I remember hearing the word douchebag when I was a kid in the 70s/early 80s. It was the kind of word that kids' older brothers knew, and its power as an insult came because we didn't know what it meant (sort of like when someone would say to you "I see your epidermis!!"). Its resurgence kind of surprised me for that reason, as does its new status as a word-we-shall-barely-speak.

Kelle said...

I and plenty of other women have taken to using "douchebag" or "douchehound" and the like as insults without finding that useage misogynistic. The reason is that douching is not actually good for women, it causes irritation and infection of a system which has no need for it and they have traditionally been used to make women feel that their natural bodies were something to be ashamed of. Therefore, douche-based insults are perfectly appropriate to apply to jackasses who are displaying their misogyny.

Geckomayhem said...

And thus, dirtbag takes on an all new meaning. :/

Well, I had no idea what the term actually meant. I simply thought it was just an insult, much like any insult thrown at someone.

Slang words like that tend to lose their original meaning, though. It's like the word "gay". Throughout the 70s and 80s it meant homosexual, but these days it is used in a different way altogether.

When people are not informed as to the original meaning of a slang word, how does that change its use? Urban dictionary often has multiple explanations and meanings for slang words. What denotes something as retaining its original meaning; what's to stop people using a word simply as a slang word that means something to them other than its original, intended meaning?

rovinsky said...

A delightful discussion of what once was a rather powerful pejorative. It might interest the OED to know that it was in use far earlier than 1967, however. I can attest its appearance a good ten years earlier when, as a teenager in New York, I heard it being used -- not least of all, alas, by the person writing this note -- in the most disparate contexts.