I’m waiting for a friend at a wine bar and I see that the guy a couple of stools down from me keeps ostentatiously checking the late-model smartphone that lies before him on the granite countertop. He has the all-black Samsung BlackJack, which happens to be the coolest-looking smartphone there is—at least until the iPhone comes out—and he’s wearing jeans that look like they cost $400, and his haircut was probably half that. I also notice that he’s got an expensive- looking European leather briefcase at his feet that he no doubt calls an attaché.
I’m thinking, what a douchebag.
And then I think, wait a second. I’m here, at this wine bar, just as he is. And frankly, when the iPhone does come out, I intend to get it (even though it’s slated to cost more than $500) to replace the Treo I’m currently carrying. (Also: I really should check my e-mail right now.) And I’m due for a (quasi-expensive) haircut, in fact. And where’s the freaking bartender already? And . . . and . . . and . . . am I a douchebag? I have met the enemy, and he is . . . me?
There’s a fine line—a harrowingly fine one—between being the guy who sneeringly points out That Guy in public and actually being That Guy yourself. I am not, of course, suggesting that I’m anywhere near being a douchebag on the order of, say, bad-boy heir Brandon “Firecrotch“ Davis. But a run-of-the-mill, everyday douchebag? Maybe sometimes. Possibly semi-often. The point is, the burgeoning class of people constantly calling other people douchebags are almost certainly members of the doucheoisie themselves. It’s the perfect insult for our times, because the insulter can congratulate himself for being provocative, slightly outré, a little extra nasty. But when it comes to wielding a word that originated on the playground, playground logic reigns: It takes one to know one.
The surprising thing about douchebag, which has become the current default term of disparagement—deployed with relish by everyone from Jon Stewart to every other blogger—is that most likely your grandfather used it too. “It was very popular among my generation in my teens and twenties,“ says Dennis Preston, a professor of English at Michigan State University who is an expert on American slang. Preston is, by his own description, “pushing 70.“
Over time, the word has come to denote “somebody who can’t help but to be an asshole,“ says Grant Barrett, a co-host of the radio show “A Way With Words“ at KPBS in San Diego and the editor of the Double-Tongued Dictionary website (doubletongued.org). “Somebody who’s blithely in your way, in your face, or in your parking space.“ Only thing is, if someone’s in your way, you’re probably in his way. If a douchebag is getting—demanding—something and that’s bothering you, it’s probably bothering you because you think you are entitled to it.
When you think about it, douchey entitlement has surely been aided and abetted by economic forces bigger than all of us—the real-estate bubble and the latest dot-com boom—creating grassroots-level douchebags everywhere. Call it trickle-down doucheonomics. These days you needn’t point to Mark Cuban to illustrate an Internet-enabled douchebag, or Donald Trump to cite a real-estate-enabled douchebag (an elder statesman of douches). Chances are, certifiable douchebags of both varieties reside right next door. Or right in your own home.
For Barrett, douchebag comes in handy particularly for describing certain hyper-self-entitled residents of his obnoxiously gentrified neighborhood in New York. “I often couple it with fucktard, as in, We live on the edge of Park Slope, far enough from the douchebags and fucktards so as to not be annoyed, but close enough to the shops and restaurants for convenience.’“ I feel his pain, but then I’m also part of his pain. Because he and I are both part of the same continuum of strivers, of consumers desiring comfort and convenience. Mind you, I’m fully aware that because Barrett is a thoughtful public-radio linguist and I’m a guy who writes for a scent-strip-laden glossy magazine, I am the douchebag, or at least the bigger douchebag.
I don’t live in Park Slope, but I do live in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in New York. I also happen to live in an apartment (in a warehouse building that used to be full of artists’ studios) equipped with a Sub-Zero refrigerator. I didn’t order the Sub-Zero—it came with the place—but until recently, I’m pretty sure, I thought of anyone with a Sub-Zero as a douchebag. Now that I’ve got one, well, I’m sorry, but I love it. It’s douchey of me to say this, but I love my really excellent refrigerator. I’m at the point in my life where it’s really nice to have a really excellent refrigerator.
I am douchebag, hear me roar!
The alternative is . . . what? Remaining a grubby quasi-slacker all my life? Eventually you just get tired of being uncomfortable (I did my time in a crumbling fourth-floor walk-up with water-stained ceilings and floors so warped that I’d trip on them in the dark). As you grow up, hopefully your financial situation improves too, and you can start to realize that you’ve taken on certain trappings of douchedom, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Because you don’t want to do anything about it.
Twenty years ago, a guy settling into a privileged lifestyle would have been labeled a yuppie. But now the culture demands a word—the revival of a word—that’s more pointed, more evocative, more suggestive of a certain dickishness. Which is ironic because, of course, the word started out as a technical term for a vagina-cleaning device (and still means exactly that).
Jesse Sheidlower, an editor-at-large at the Oxford English Dictionary, notes that in its early days as an insult, douchebag applied to women as well as men. “An example of that usage,“ he says, “is from a 1950 dictionary of underworld language: a term of utmost contempt for a woman.’“ Peter Novobatzky, a co-author of Depraved and Insulting English, points out that even though usage has transferred pretty much exclusively to males, the feminine factor still plays into its power as an insult. “We all first started using it on the playground, when girls were icky,“ he says.
In the second season of The Sopranos, Tony Soprano self-deprecatingly whined to Dr. Melfi about all the “douchebags“—like himself!—who seek therapy because “fuckin’ Americans nowadays, they’re just pussies—crying, complaining, confessing—fuck ’em!“ There you have it. Tony Soprano called it. Quite a few of us have gotten a little soft, a little girlie, rather needy, and a lot entitled. We’ve turned into douchebags.
Did I mention that I really love my refrigerator?