Lexicon Valley

In Honor of the GOP Nominee: What Exactly Is an Assclown?

This post originally appeared on Strong Language, a sweary blog about swearing.

Real clowns who may or may not also be assclowns.

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

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 gibe.

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 his 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 ofassclown 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 to mid-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 headline: “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.