Answering the questions you purposefully didn’t ask!
By Sam Linton
Every so often, the language-using community gets itself up in a snit over some new issue in our beloved English language making waves in the pools of those who actually take all this seriously. Remember truthiness? That was a good example of what I’m talking about. Anyways, since the English language lacks an “Academie Français”-style central regulating body, these things usually just get tossed around from columnist to columnist until some basic consensus is found. So what’s the hot-button word that has the armchair linguistic community up in a tizzy now? Douchebag! Or, at least, it was several months ago. I tend to be a bit slow on the uptake when it comes to covering these things. But, as the world keeps spinning, I eventually find my way to writing, and the problem with douchebag has not gone away. So what’s the issue? Well, that’s a bit tricky, but it basically boils down to the fact that, while it’s one of the most commonly used insults flying off the tongues today, it has no real “definition,” per se. Ask any average person what constitutes a douchebag, and you’ll get a different response. Go to Urbandictionary.com, and you’ll be swamped with seven pages of differing defs. Even Wikipedia can only offer that douchebag is definitely pejorative, and somewhat associated with arrogance and/or malice. But we can do better! Can’t we?
So what is it that makes a douchebag douchey? I would argue that the best way to properly define this relatively new term is to compare it with a related, older term: “dirtbag.” Basically, while both terms are used to represent people you (the speaker) actively dislike, everything the dirtbag is, the douchebag isn’t, taken to a negative extreme. Indeed, the two terms, while not often joined together, are in this light almost codependent in how seamlessly they get along. Like the Odd Couple. While the dirtbag is hated for his shabby appearance, the douchebag is despised for thinking that his wardrobe somehow elevates him above the rest of us common rabble. While the dirtbag is scorned for his atrocious taste in music, television, movies, etc., that worthless douchebag acts like his opinion on said media is the only one that matters. Basically, we dislike dirtbags because, deep down, we think they’re worse than us. But we fucking despise the douchebags who think they’re our betters. If you think that you’re in a position to call someone a dirtbag, they may well see you as some kind of douche, and if someone has the gall to look down on your own opinions, it’s a fair bet that you can tell just what variety of bag they are.
In the service of a working definition for a douchebag then, we can look at the Wikipedia entry on dirtbags, where we have a much more unambiguous definition than their DB entry:
“Dirtbag is a general term for an uncouth person who lacks class. A dirtbag is one who continually disregards others and humanity in general.”
From this, we can base our new unambiguous definition of a douchebag as its binary opposite. For example:
“Douchebag is a specific term for a couth person with class. A douchebag has a constant regard for others and humanity in general.”
Wait, that doesn’t seem right, does it? The trouble with reversing the definition of dirtbag here is that the negative connotations become positive. So let’s just take this working definition we’ve created right here and take it on the train to negative spin town! Couth and classy? Isn’t that just another way of saying “elitist”? I think it is! Constant regard for others? Yeah, maybe for the opinions of others. For making sure that everyone, everyone else knows just how much more “couth and classy” they are than the rest of us. Now this definition is starting to take shape! Now that we’ve spun the complimentary into the derogatory, let’s take a look at what we’ve got:
“Douchebag is a specific term for a person who is in some way an elitist, and preoccupied with their status as such in the eyes of others. ”
That seems about right, doesn’t it? Just add whatever descriptor is appropriate to the type of douchebag you’re dealing with onto the front of your invective, and you’re set! Hipster douchebags, corporate douchebags, eco-douchebags; this definition encapsulates ‘em all! Hell, I’m pretty sure that under this very definition we’ve just come up with that I myself qualify as a “lexicographical douchebag,” but such is the price one pays in policing language. Best of all, this still fits in with the original Wikipedia definition of “arrogance and malice,” because after all, what’s more hateful and haughty than an elitist?
So there. Hopefully, within the week, this “douchebag” business will be settled. You’re welcome, Culture. Now that this is all settled, it’s simply time to kick up our feet and wait for the next problem that this oh so living language throws at us.
Because it is a living language,
Let’s keep it that way.
(By rigidly classifying and taxonomizing it, as we do all living things.)