Posts Tagged ‘social commentary’

When you hear about a linguist writing a book on a distasteful word, you might think it’s going to be a certain kind of book. Geoffrey Nunberg’s Ascent of the A-word (2012) is as much about crude language, as it about the concept, or the modern phenomenon it stands for, and the values it expresses. Nunberg has been coy about using the word on the cover of his book (he is a lot more forward in the text), and I am going to take his lead and not use the word in question (we all know what it is).

Nunberg says, that far from being a vague vulgarity, the A-word has a very precise meaning, albeit one that has shifted in past few decades. The word first gained popularity during World War II, GI-speak for pompous superiors, and later became part of working-class vernacular to represent its contempt for middle-class pretentiousness. In the late 60s and throughout the 70s, the word was appropriated by the feminists to represent a man, a self-involved man who expertly exploited women. Today, it is…

a basic category of our everyday existence, our reflexive remonstrance for people who behave thoughtlessly or arrogantly on the job, in personal relationships, or just circulating in public.

The common denominator in its various shades of meanings is the notion of self-importance, a deluded sense of entitlement, and obtuseness. Such a person is by definition inconsiderate and insensitive. You might encounter him (or her) in the parking lot, while in line waiting for coffee (or a restroom cubicle), or in that thoughtless birder who steps in front of your binoculars to get his (or her) view. You might vocalize your feelings, sometimes by using sanitized versions of the A-word, or not. You might never have used the word yourself. But, as Nunberg puts it, “it’s one thing to refuse to let a word pass by your lips and another to exclude the concept it stands for from your mental life”. We know the concept, alright.

And what a useful concept it is.

“It sometimes seems as if every corner of our public discourse is riddled with people depicting one another as a******* and treating them accordingly, whether or not they actually use the word.”

So you’re either one of them or not. And if we ever encounter one, it is often the word of choice used to call them out. Ironic, that the very word we use to censure inconsiderate behavior is an indecent word with a vulgar meaning. Hardly considerate and well-mannered. Society imposes on each of us certain obligations to extend basic courtesy to most others. Does society give us the right to respond discourteously to people who disregard these obligations? Do we…

“have a right to treat a****** as a******* because the a******* have it coming”?

With shifts in lifestyle, unwritten social rules about using profanities, obscenities and vulgarities (in adult company) change every few years, as do the words themselves. Reading Nunberg has certainly conditioned me to be more aware of their usage – recently, while watching Foyle’s War, I was just a little bit shaken when DCS Foyle uttered the word ‘Goddamn’. To be clear, he was repeating another character in his characteristic deadpan manner. But, I wondered, were there any social sanctions imposed on users of profanities in the 1940s? Did ‘Goddamn’ figure in popular vocabulary? ‘Damn’ certainly wasn’t acceptable just a few years earlier.Officially, that is. Nunberg reports that David Selznick paid a $5,000 fine to include that memorable closing line in Gone with the Wind (1939), “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”.

Nunberg is a fine writer, and I enjoyed this book more than I expected to. Ascent of the A-word has a lot of political and cultural references, some from half a century ago, and while I won’t pretend that I got every single one of them, I’ll say that I found this book on insults rather educational.


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In the antithesis of common notions of diplomatic style and sophistications, Hashemi-Samareh [senior advisor to the president] believed that Iranian diplomats’ trousers could not sport sharp creases, for if they did, it was surely a sign that the diplomats were neglecting their thrice-daily obligatory prayers, which comprise repetitive standing, kneeling, and bowing gestures.

– The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran (2008) by Hooman Majd

Although I have ventured into Iran through books, my explorations so far have always been through the eyes of Iranian (or Iranian-American) women, touching upon what it means to be female in Iran, and sometimes about what it means to be a part of the minority (Jewish or Christian), and always in the context of Iran’s post-revolutionary climate. While these books, which I’ve enjoyed reading…

Honeymoon in Tehran: Two Years of Love and Danger in Iran

Prisoner of Tehran: One Woman’s Story of Survival Inside an Iranian Prison

Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran


Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books

…mostly dealt with the struggles of Iranians, The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran (2008) by Hooman Majd, attempts to capture the character of Iran and Iranians. He hopes that his book…

…through a combination of stories, history, and personal reflections, will provide the reader a glimpse of Iran and Iranians, often secretive and suspicious of revealing themselves, that he or she may not ordinarily have the opportunity to see.

Majd, a non-resident Iranian, at the very offset, tries to establish credibility about his understanding of all things Iranian – he was born into a family of Iranian diplomats, living and studying abroad. When he says…

In 2004 and 2005 I spent several weeks in Iran as a journalist, and in 2007 I spent almost two months living in Tehran, working on what was to become the manuscript.

…I have to take his word for it and assume that this book was not the result of these several weeks and two months the author spent in Iran, but informed by his inherent knowledge of contemporary (and historical) life in Iran. I also hope that his status as a privileged Iranian-American did not impact his interactions with Iranians, who “viewed the Iranian-Americans as a privileged lot – Iranians who lived abroad in luxury and who suffered none of the travails of living and struggling day to day under a difficult system, as domestic dissidents and political activists do, but who nonetheless felt they had a right to opinions on the future of Iran” (although Majd does grow to a beard to disguise his living in the secular West).

Majd’s writing, though heavy with long-winded sentences, is descriptive, and he uses many examples to discuss the subtleties of social concepts that would be quite difficult for a foreigner to understand. The unique Shia Islam atmosphere, together with a sense of historical persecution, by Arab invaders, followers of Sunni Islam, to imperial oppression, and more recent antagonism with the United States, colors much of the fundamental beliefs and feelings of Iranians. I did appreciate Majd’s efforts to illustrate, with many vivid examples, the uniquely Persian social ritual of ta’arouf – a “great national trait…the exaggerated politesse, modesty, and self-deprecation” that involves endless back and forth niceties, in an unusual game of one-upmanship. Majd also offers his perspective on Iran’s political landscape and ponders the possibility of a uniquely Islamic version of democracy.

While discussing race consciousness in multi-ethnic Iran, which is home to Kurds, Arabs, Turks, Armenians, Zoroastrians, Jews, Christians and Muslims, Majd brings up a point that is especially interesting to me:

But some secular Persian intellectuals will not only exhibit racism towards Arabs or other minorities but reserve a special hatred for Ayatollah Khomeini, not just because he founded the Islamic Republic, but because to them he wasn’t even Persian. Since his paternal grandfather was an Indian who immigrated to Iran in the early nineteenth century, some Iranians feel that his “tainted” blood means that a true Persian was not at the helm of the revolution, the most momentous event in their country’s modern history, good or bad. And soon after the revolution, when the time came to change the symbol of Iran on its flag from the lion and the sub, Khomeini himself chose a symbol among those submitted by artists – a stylized “Allah” – which his opponents, at least the more race-conscious ones, continue to insist bears a remarkable similarity to the symbol of the Sikhs.

…today when Iranian exiles and even some inside Iran want to disparage him, they sometimes refer to him as Hindi (which happened to be his grandfather’s surname but it is also Persian for “Indian”).

Naturally, being Indian, this intrigues me, as does the fact that Hindi and Farsi have so many common words, but sound completely different.

Majd’s work is certainly illuminating, and in reading about social and cultural mores that constitute Iranian life, I certainly learned something new. Utterly fascinating, overused as it is, describes this book well. I would, however, also like an Iranian’s perspective on the picture that Majd paints

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