Send in the assclowns

Have those creepy clowns been terrorizing your neighborhood this autumn? Kick ‘em in the seat of their oversized, particolored pants with this choice insult: assclown. To be sure, I’m certain we can all conjure up some far stronger words for those evil motherfuckers, but let’s have a closer look at this jester jibe.   

Assclown rose to prominence in Mike Judge’s 1999 Office Space (which also features a memorable example of fucking A). In this clip, cubicle drone Michael Bolton vents his spleen about sharing his name with the musician, whom he smears as a “no-talent assclown”:

The now-classic phrase is the gros mot juste, at least for Bolton’s many haters: how could he, or anyone, think his schmaltzy music is actually any good?

As a swear, assclown is a newer member of that noble ass- family, sibling to assbag, assbucket, asshat, asshole, asswipe and any number of other ass + NOUN compounds. These formations variously ridicule someone as laughably and contemptibly idiotic, dickish, or worthless. Assclown, however, is a pejorative pie thrown especially in the face of someone who, wrongly, thinks their actions are clever, funny, or worthwhile. A 2009 Gawker headline illustrates the particular sense well: “Ass Clown Defaces Rothko Mural, Says He Did the Work a Favor.” (The late Gawker was particularly fond of the epithet.)

Assclown has produced some offspring, too: the delightful derivative assclownery, the more intensive varietal fuckclown, and clownbag, a doubled-down recombination of assclown and douchebag. Its constituent parts, ass and clown, meanwhile, have their own sweary, slangy stories to tell, which you should probe further on Jonathon Green’s Dictionary of Slang, now available online.

Since Office Space, assclown has cameoed in other swear-studded, puerile comedies in the early 2000s, notably Bad Santa (2003), Scary Movie 4 (2006), and Accepted (2006). But some writers have seen more lexical potential in assclown. In 2010, on her popular relationship advice blog Baggage Reclaim, Natalie Lue helped make sure her readers weren’t involved with the assclown. As she defined it: “An assclown is someone that mistreats you and more often than not eventually proves to be a waste of time and space.” Her article goes on to identify the telltale signs of this dating species, heading each item with: “You know he’s an assclown when…” And Jen Doll, writing for The Village Voice that same year, urged in a title: “Why You Should Absolutely Despise That Ass-Clown You Dated in a Moment of Rare Weakness.” The reason? Strong negative feelings following a breakup may help stave off depression. Swearing: It’s good for you.

Assclown has also been at the center of political controversy. In 2015, Minnesota sports producer Kevin Cusick had to apologize after suggesting President Obama was an assclown. Cusick put together a slideshow for The St. Paul Pioneer Press online that featured President Obama wielding a selfie stick. He captioned the image, used for larger social commentary on taking selfies as such: “A fool-proof way to make yourself look like a self-absorbed assclown.” Thinking you’re clever when you’re really not? I think we have a word for that, Mr. Cusick.

And thanks to this presidential election, philosopher Aaron James released Assholes: A Theory of Donald Trump, a timely update to his 2012 Assholes: A Theory. As he poses his central question: “What is it for someone to be an asshole?” And, “What precisely is the difference between the asshole and the mere jerk, prick, dick, twit, wanker, prat, schmuck, cad, boor, bastard, ass, ass-clown or douchebag?”

According to James:

A person counts as an asshole, when and only when, he systematically allows himself to enjoy special advantages in interpersonal relations out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people.

(He uses he because, he argues, assholes are by and large men.) James proceeds to develop an exacting – and serious – typology of the asshole, distinguishing between the likes of the Smug Asshole, the Boorish Asshole, the Royal Royal Asshole, the Corporate Asshole, and yes, the Presidential Asshole. (For more on Asshole Studies, see Geoffrey Nunberg’s Ascent of the A-Word.)

Where does Trump fit in? His type is the Assclown Showman Asshole, with a bit of the Bullshitter and Winner mixed in. And for James, the assclown is specifically “someone who seeks an audience’s enjoyment while being slow to understand how it views him.” When it comes to Trump, that sounds pretty accurate, but I’m certain we can all conjure up some far stronger words.

12 thoughts on “Send in the assclowns

  1. jiisand October 20, 2016 / 10:23 am

    Don’t you find it rather childish to mess with silly names? The problems now besieging the world are far more dangerous and difficult dealing with real murderous powers than names. Clinton is whipping up a nuclear confrontation with Russia which can easily totally devastate the planet while Trump is too damned dumb to recognize the global destruction of the atmosphere which is equally as catastrophic. Is it really a democracy if the only choice is how to die?


    • Stan Carey October 20, 2016 / 4:25 pm

      You may not have noticed, but Strong Language is a blog about strong language: swears, insults, and assorted profanity. We discuss rude and taboo language here. Regardless of our worries about the state of the planet, this isn’t the place for them, so your apocalyptic whataboutery is misdirected.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Patrick Collins October 21, 2016 / 6:31 am

      What have you done to save the world today, Dickogenes?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. EarthGround October 20, 2016 / 11:38 am

    As clowns, and humans, we will perish in the circus of evolution regardless of blogging, you assclowns! Make some music? No, make fun of Michael Bolton.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. omermerken October 20, 2016 / 12:04 pm

    Sod off jiisand.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Todd Duffey Writes on Things October 20, 2016 / 4:47 pm

    I was Brian, the annoying waiter with flair, in that movie! “Get a room, you two!” was as close to swearing as I got (though I did throw a nasty F/U middle finger). But when this line came up at the premier, I knew something in the universe had shifted. It didn’t ring right in the brain as things said back-to-back, but it made the audience roar with delight. Thank you for acknowledging it! And giving it the etymology it so rightfully deserves!

    Liked by 1 person

    • John Kelly October 21, 2016 / 8:26 am

      No way! I’m so glad you enjoyed the piece. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment and sharing some memories from the film. Swear-wise, humor-wise, Office Space was quite formative for my teenaged self. I can vividly recall, like the audience you mention at the film’s premier, absolutely splitting my sides with laughter when I first heard the line in the theater. It’s not often that a specific word or phrase gets so branded in our consciousness thanks to a movie, but Office Space no doubt achieved that with “no-talent assclown.” And you were fantastic as Brian, so perfectly nailing that strange cultural moment of performed earnestness at the likes of Fridays. “Sounds like a case of the Mondays.” Thanks again, Todd!


  5. Cori Casner October 23, 2016 / 1:06 am

    This was a fantastic analysis, though I am partial to using asshat!


    • John Kelly October 27, 2016 / 7:58 am

      Thanks! Yes, it’s hard to top “asshat.” Its such a vivid insult, hard for me not to imagine someone taking the time to put on some ass-shaped headwear whenever I use it.


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