Back in January 2016, a Montana businessman named Greg Gianforte tweeted a photo of himself standing next to the window of a small-town shop called Kickin’ Ass Hat Company.
— Greg Gianforte (@gianforte) January 31, 2016
(Thanks to Dan Hon for the retweet yesterday.)
At the time, Gianforte, a Republican who’d made his fortune in California, was a candidate for governor of Montana. He lost that election in November, but immediately began running for the state’s single Congressional seat. The election is being held today.
Yesterday, however, Gianforte aggressively confronted Ben Jacobs, a reporter for The Guardian who’d been asking the candidate about health-care policy — and who’d written a story about Gianforte’s Russian investments.
Greg Gianforte just body slammed me and broke my glasses
— Ben Jacobs (@Bencjacobs) May 24, 2017
Audio from the incident, and a witness’s report, suggest that Gianforte wasn’t kidding about his admiration for Kickin’ Ass. You might also speculate, reasonably enough, that he identifies strongly with the Ass Hat portion of the shop’s name.
Let’s take a look at the short Merriam-Webster definition of asshat:
: a stupid, annoying, or detestable person : asshole
So an asshat is, more or less, an asshole. How, though, did we get from the anatomical asshole to the quasi-sartorial, sillier-sounding asshat?
The entry in Merriam-Webster’s online unabridged edition traces the “seemingly nonsensical linking of ass and hat” to “a curious earlier history as a sort of cultural meme.” You’ll need a subscription to access the unabridged content, but you can read the asshat entry in a 2015 article about the dictionary written by Stephen Fatsis for Slate. Here it is, unabridged:
Examples of the linkage can be found in dialogue lines from recent films: “Anyone found bipedal in five wears his ass for a hat!” (addressed to the employees of a bank as the robbers leave, Raising Arizona, 1987, script by Ethan and Joel Coen); “I like your ass. Can I wear it as a hat?” (a character’s parody of a flirtatious advance, City Slickers, 1991, script by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel). Of more immediate etymological relevance may be this dialogue sequence from the television series That ’70’s Show: “RED: Eric, if you don’t want to wear your ass for a hat, you’ll get up here, pronto! DONNA: You better go. You know how that ass-hat screws up your hair” (“Red Fired Up,” Episode 24 of Season 2, script by Dave Schiff, first aired May 8, 2000). The current meaning of asshat may be a reanalysis, perhaps in part based on the expression “have one’s head up one’s ass” (meaning “to be obtuse, be insufficiently conscious of one’s surroundings”), perhaps in part due to simple phonetic similarity to asshole. A more precise history will depend on the location of further attestations.
In 2004, a Craigslist user from the Boston area supplied his or her definitions of asshat. The list is long enough and splenetic enough to have qualified the post for “Best of Craigslist” status. Here’s a taste:
-You go through my garbage looking for cans and spread the non-can contents of the bag all over the street.
-You are unfriendly and strut around like you are “all that,” and then complain about being lonely on the weekend. Why do you think that is, asshat?
-You wear one of those pseudo-vintage shirts from Urban Outfitters that says something like “Everybody Loves an Italian Girl,” or “Gettin’ Lucky In Kentucky.” Way to be different, asshat. Those shirts are now as common as street lamps.
-You pronounce names of ethnic restaurants as you think they should sound in their native tongue. Very worldly of you, asshat.
-You refer to women around your age as “ladies”
-You refer to guys around your age as “boys”
Thirteen years on, we might update the list to add: You are a billionaire candidate for public office who believes the Earth is 6,000 years old and that we should be modeling retirement policy on Old Testament Noah: “How old was Noah when he built the ark? Six hundred. He wasn’t like, cashing Social Security checks, he wasn’t hanging out, he was working.” And you think it’s OK to body-slam a reporter.
Sir, I have just the chapeau for you.
More ass compounds: