The rise of douche

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The Taboo Desk here at Language Log Plaza is piled high with reports about taboo language and offensive language — about the classification of particular expressions as obscene/profane or otherwise offensive, about the open use of such expressions, about ways people avoid them, and so on. Now, on the front page of the New York Times on November 14, a story ("It Turns Out You Can Say That On Television, Over and Over", by Edward Wyatt) about expressions that don't reach the level of obscenity or profanity but are offensive to many people — and have now been appearing with increasing frequency on television (in prime-time network series), where they can serve as approximations to even stronger stuff.

The Times is famously modest in the vocabulary it allows in its pages (though it sometimes slips up), an editorial position that can make some stories hard to report on; see Ben Zimmer's entertaining posting "Times bowdlerizes column on Times bowdlerization", which includes a link to a Slate piece by Jesse Sheidlower on the time SCUMBAG slipped into a Times crossword puzzle.

Wyatt's story mentions the insult douche but skirts douchebag, saying:

Users of the recently popular word "douche" defend its use, noting that it was invoked, usually with the suffix "bag," [not actually a suffix, of course] in the 1990s by the character Andy Sipowicz on "NYPD Blue," an ABC series that frequently pushed the boundaries of network acceptability.

But then in a quote from cursing scholar Timothy Jay, we get the full word: "I would bet most kids today couldn't tell you what a douche bag is."

Besides douche, the article reports on the use of bitch, jackass, and sucks on prime-time network television. Those are things you can print in the Times (though I think the paper is still averse to scumbag).


  1. Mark Liberman said,

    November 15, 2009 @ 3:24 pm

    At least according to the NYT online index, the term "douche bag" has only graced the Gray Lady's pages once before, in a 1988 article by Joan Gould, "Bringing My Mother Into My House", where it was used literally:

    She was married at 19 to a man 11 years her senior, who had to write her high school term paper for her. "What did I know about sex?" she accused me once, not long before she died. "When I went on my honeymoon, my mother packed a douche bag with a set of instructions in my suitcase. That's how much I knew."

    There are 35 examples of douche since 1981, but none of them in regular print articles are figurative. However, the NYT's blogs and reader responses have been using these words for a while, e.g. "THAT'S NOT HOW CONTRACTS WORK YOU GOOGLE DOUCHE!" (reader comment on 9/4/2008), "But a bunch of douche bag Zionists play us like a violin." (comment on 7/15/2008), "when a person calls another individual an idiot, a moron, a superficial douche, it all depends on perspective" (comment 12/24/2007), "Of course the State is run by douche-o-crats." (comment on 8/4/2009), "I will laugh my ass off and scream at Bush, whenever his chimp-like face appears on the tv, that he's an enormous failure and a douche" (comment on 12/4/2007), etc.

    In any case, this topic shouldn't pass by without a link to Mike Litzenberg & Bridge Stuart's "We are Douchebags" video, linked here recently by Rubrick:

  2. John Lawler said,

    November 15, 2009 @ 3:55 pm

    The suggestions that Google pops up for "douchebags" iinclude
    and many more of that ilk.

    I can personally attest that douchebag was in wide use in 1960 as a term of opprobrium among young males (mostly about other young males) from New York at least, like my college roommate. I'd never heard it before, and I have heard it since, occasionally. Though not on US broadcast TV, yet.

  3. Mark Liberman said,

    November 15, 2009 @ 4:05 pm

    The OED glosses the figurative sense as "U.S. slang, a general term of disparagement, esp. for an unattractive or boring person", and gives as its earliest citation "1967 Amer. Speech XLII. 228 Douche bag, n. phr., an unattractive co-ed. By extension, any individual whom the speaker desires to deprecate."

    The "Douchebag Pride" video cited above suggests that the meaning has drifted and narrowed since 1967; but my memory from the mid-1960s more or less agrees with John Lawler's, that the term was mainly applied to males who were aggressively obnoxious, rather than to anyone "whom the speaker desires to deprecate".

  4. Simon Cauchi said,

    November 15, 2009 @ 4:14 pm

    When I used the French word "douche" in the sense of "shower" in New Caledonia in the early 1960s, my hostess flinched. I quickly grasped that it was not a good idea to continue using that word, despite the lack of any warning about it in my pocket dictionary.

  5. Dan said,

    November 15, 2009 @ 4:44 pm

    OK, I just looked up "scumbag" in urbandictionary, and… um, ok, wow…

    It's funny all the words you pick up like "scumbag" and "dork" that you think of as being merely insulting, and then later discover that they are, at least theoretically, actually obscene. (Of course, if it wasn't for all those Summer's Eve commercials in the 80s/90s, I probably wouldn't realize that "douchebag" had a non-insult meaning either.)

  6. mike said,

    November 15, 2009 @ 5:33 pm

    Have we seen the NYT use the verb "pimp" in the sense of "enhance"? ("Pimp my ride")

    [(myl) Sure.]

  7. Lazar said,

    November 15, 2009 @ 5:48 pm

    @Mark Liberman: Re: that video, I've gotten the impression that "douche(bag)", as well as being a general insult, can also serve as a sociocultural stereotype. For example, I've seen sites where douchebags are identified just by means of their clothing and hairstyles.

  8. Buzz79 said,

    November 15, 2009 @ 6:07 pm

    That ship actually sailed in the seventies. There was an SNL skit about Lord and Lady Douchebag with Buck Henry and Gilda Radner playing the characters –

  9. Mark P said,

    November 15, 2009 @ 6:43 pm

    Another example that used to grate on me is SNAFU. In journalism school, one of my instructors, a WW II vet, warned us against using it, but it came into widespread use and by now might have passed its peak.

  10. tablogloid said,

    November 15, 2009 @ 6:58 pm

    1967? I heard "douche bag" in the 1950s and I am sure it has been used as a slight since the actual device has existed.

  11. Dan T. said,

    November 15, 2009 @ 9:25 pm

    I remember seeing ads for douches in my mom's Woman's Day and Family Circle magazines in the '70s, but that is of course the ordinary non-pejorative use of the term.

  12. webula said,

    November 15, 2009 @ 10:00 pm

    I don't understand how douche can be promoted as "a more potent way to call somebody a jerk". Isn't being called a jerk more offensive than being called a hygiene utensil? etymonline says it's "perhaps from jerkwater town", but for me the associations "spastic" and (BE) "wanker" are much more present. English isn't my first language though.

  13. Acilius said,

    November 15, 2009 @ 10:25 pm

    @webula: To me "jerk" suggests a spasm rather than a spastic.

  14. M. Packman said,

    November 16, 2009 @ 7:42 am

    It's used as an insult on a lot of feminist blogs, too, for reasons which may or may not be obvious.

  15. Ginger Yellow said,

    November 16, 2009 @ 8:09 am

    Can someone explain why "pissed off" or "pissed" doesn't seem to be censored in the US when far milder words are?

  16. Carrie S. said,

    November 16, 2009 @ 9:59 am

    Can someone explain why "pissed off" or "pissed" doesn't seem to be censored in the US when far milder words are?

    In theory, because they are being used in a metaphorical sense. On TV, one may say "I am pissed (off)" but not "I got up in the morning and pissed."

    I think it may also have something to do with the fact that "pissed" is not blasphemy; the censors tend to be far more picky about anything that might bug the Jesus-freaks*.

    * Not a term synonymous with "Christians", just in case.

  17. Ginger Yellow said,

    November 16, 2009 @ 10:51 am

    I thought it might be that, but most swearing is metaphorical (or emphatic), and it's still censored. It struck me as particularly odd in that, while UK radio is much more liberal about swearing than US radio (esp. Radio 4), in those contexts where "shit", say, would be censored in the UK, so would "pissed" (ie "drunk") or "pissed off".

  18. Chud said,

    November 16, 2009 @ 12:12 pm

    Will no one come forward to argue that John Edward is not the biggest douche in the universe? Of course not, because we've all learned that if you want to know what words mean, South Park will tell you. [Of course, limit that to US English amongst 40-ish smart alecks if you must.]

  19. Robert Coren said,

    November 16, 2009 @ 12:13 pm

    @Carrie S.: Indeed. I think that for quite a while, TV networks that would cheerfully broadcast the word "asshole" multiple times per show would avoid "God", and absolutely ban "goddam". Also, although you could call a person an asshole, you couldn't use the term to refer to an actual anus.

    @Mark P: Not to mention FUBAR, which has been alive and well in the computer industry for lo these many decades.

  20. Tom O'Brien said,

    November 16, 2009 @ 12:37 pm

    A member of Congress, I forget who, once referred to President Clinton as a scumbag. The Times sanitized this expression, saying that he had referred to the president as a used condom. Up to that point, I hadn't known what a scumbag was.

  21. Lazar said,

    November 16, 2009 @ 5:21 pm

    @Robert Coren: One of the most absurd things is that when "goddamn" is censored, they very often will put the beep over "god" while leaving "damn" audible.

  22. Forrest said,

    November 16, 2009 @ 7:28 pm

    @Lazar: There was an episode of Family Guy, where some actor ( I forget which one ) asked his mirror what he could do to look more like a douche bag. Peter, playing the role of "mirror mirror on the wall," answered that the actor should wear the jeans and stained armless tee-shirt he had on, to not comb his hair, to make sure his breath smelled of pizza and beer, and, lastly, to look like he'd just rolled out of bed.

  23. mollymooly said,

    November 16, 2009 @ 10:51 pm

    "referred to the president as a used condom." A condom only becomes a scumbag after use?! Therefore, the insult "old bag" referred to an unused but dangerously antique condom.

    When I learnt "douche" in school as the French for "shower", nobody in the class giggled or had cause to. The douchebag is a peculiarly American device; perhaps the corresponding insult elsewhere might be "bidet".

  24. M. Packman said,

    November 17, 2009 @ 10:03 am

    Aha. Here's a vigorous debate on the feminist credibility of the term.

  25. What i liked this week: Media, tech and science news | Good, Bad, and Bogus said,

    November 19, 2009 @ 1:01 am

    […] The rise of douche | Language Log: Zwicky Arnold, a linguist, discusses the rise and use of taboo words. I like this […]

  26. Frank said,

    November 19, 2009 @ 11:11 am

    WIth regard to "pissed off," I remember one time that George Carlin was a guest on Late Night with Conan O'Brien, and that very subject came up. He said as an example,

    "'Why are you so pissed off at me?'

    'Because you pissed on me!'"

    Funny thing was, just as he had predicted, "pissed off" wasn't bleeped out, but the "pissed" in "pissed on me" was.

    I remember a controversy along those same lines when Bono used the word "fuck" at an awards show, but it was deemed relatively less offensive because he only used it as an exclamation, and not with a sexual connotation. We tend to be more forgiving (at least in the US) of swears when they're used outside of the realm of their literal meaning, or some shit.

  27. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    November 19, 2009 @ 12:06 pm

    Frank: Language Log has covered the Bono "fleeting expletive" brouhaha from the beginning. You might start with Chris Potts' post from last year, "The connotations of the F-word."

  28. Jess S said,

    November 22, 2009 @ 1:05 am

    From my knowledge as a radio DJ, the FCC definition of obscene and indecent material includes anything that describes sexual or excretory activities. "Pissed off" is idiomatic and means angry, while "pissed on" is literal in regards to bodily fluid, so the latter is censored and the former is not. This definition also explains why "ass" is uncensored, yet "asshole" is censored… sort of… However, the FCC only regulates what goes over public airwaves, so I suppose this is why the NYT can print more flowery language (although it's still "modest").

    In regards to "douche" and "douche-bag", I find "d-bag" much more comical nowadays, and bonus, I can say it on the air!

  29. uberVU - social comments said,

    January 4, 2010 @ 2:06 pm

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

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