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The Rise of the Term 'Glasshole,' Explained by Linguists

The Atlantic
The Rise of the Term 'Glasshole,' Explained by Linguists
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The Rise of the Term 'Glasshole,' Explained by Linguists

With all the lucky first Google Glass owners now starting to receive their wearable face computers in the mail, we are already seeing a rise in the "glasshole"—an endearing term used to describe people who do not use the gadgets in socially acceptable ways. Even before there were so many Glass wearers out in the wild, "glasshole" had started to catch-on beyond the tech-set. After first appearing in TechCrunch in January, it was selected as the Urban Dictionary word of the day in March. Then, just the other day Business Insider sanctioned it as the "new word to describe inconsiderate Google Glass users." Or, in the words of Bruce Schneier the legendary computer security expert: "We're seeing the birth of a new epithet, 'glasshole.'" But, how did "glasshole" get the honor of representing all the terrible Glass wearing humans out there, why not glasswipe or glasshat or, something completely different, like Google Jerkbots?

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"There's a reason 'glasshole' came first — it's more intuitively obvious," linguist Ben Zimmer told The Atlantic Wire. Asshole is a much more common term than asswipe, asshat, or assface. Even as I type, the little red typo line appears under those other terms, but even my spellchecker is familiar with the a-word. Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg chronicled the rise of the term above the rest in his book Ascent of the A-Word. "Within a generation the asshole had become a basic notion of our everyday moral life, replacing older reproaches like phonylout and heel with a single inclusive moral category," he writes on his site. First used as GI slang during World War II, the term became ubiquitous in just a few decades. "By 1970 it was found across the culture, in country and western songs, the movies of Clint Eastwood and Woody Allen,  the plays of Neil Simon, and the essays of Tom Wolfe," writes Nunburg. 

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Asswipe, on the other hand, didn't appear until 1953 in the Saul Bellow novel The Adventures of Augie March. "You little asswipe hoodlum!" wrote Bellow. And it still doesn't quite have the pervasiveness of asshole, despite being the punchline of an Saturday Night Live skit about people who have it as their unfortunate last name. ("Uh.. listen.. that's 'Os-wee-pay,'" Nicholas Cage says at the end of the skit.) That's perhaps because it's a wussy version of the word. "The endings '-wipe' and '-hat'  are just alternate ways of pronouncing 'asshole' when you can't say it," Nunberg, who teaches at the UC Berkeley School of Information. That also explains why glasshole and not glasshat took off.  "You can say 'glasshole' without violating the taboo on saying 'asshole,' so why go to '-hat' or '-wipe?'" he added. "Why be coy about it?" (Nunberg also points out that the same phenomenon happened with devotees of the cultish EST seminars. People used to describe them as estholes—not estwipes.)

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Further, there is a linguistic reason to chose glasshole: all the glass + ass profanity mixtures are what linguists call satisfying blends because they derive from two words whose sounds overlap, as another linguist explained back when we pondered the hatred toward the word "phablet," which is an unsatisfying blend. All the Glass + wipe, hat, hole, etc work as these blends. But glasshole is more obvious than the others because it has been used in other blend compinations before. "'Asshole' has already generated other similar blends, notably 'Masshole' as an epithet for an inconsiderate Massachusetts driver," Zimmer explained.

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But, this most recent linguistic phenomenon isn't just about familiarity: Asshole so perfectly encapsulates what it means to be a Glass wearing freak. The a-hole term denotes a certain inauthenticity, as Nunberg explains in his book:

Inauthenticity is implicit whenever we speak of a 'sense of entitlement,' another phrase that entered the American idiom around the time asshole did. ... The connection is intrinsic to the idea of the asshole, who imagines that his role or status gives him privileges that aren’t really his to claim  

Glasshole fits right into that: There is nothing less "authentic" than someone with the cyborg-looking things on their faces.  (Trust me, I saw a guy with them sitting outside at a cafe: He looked different in a not-human kind of way.)

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But even more than that, the glasses bestow "status" and "privileges that aren't really to his claim." First of all, the technology is a status symbol in and of itself, since only a limited number of people "won" the the opportunity to buy the $1,500 devices. The first person to use the term loosely defined a glasshole as "that know-it-all guy you've always hated, only now he's got 4G and Google+ connected to his face." In other words, the type of person who would want to wear Glass is a know-it-all—who probably does not know it all—and now he or she has access to the Internet, thus making an otherwise entitled person that much more entitled. In another example, Schneier invoked the term to describe someone using the glasses to cheat in Scattergories. Glass specifically gave this person "privileges" (ie. a database for cheating) that he did not deserve.  

There seems to be another reason, though, that people want to call Glass users a dirty name: the device is designed to allow even more of the kind of online interaction that has already reduced actual human social interaction. That's why Ryan Lawler employed the term over at TechCrunch earlier this year—he suggested glassholes would watch YouTubes while pretending to have conversations, which would clearly be rude. It turns out, however, that's not exactly what has happened. Rather, people  just zone out while wearing glass. There's even a name for it, as The New York Times's Jenna Wortham explained on her Tumblr. "People in the Valley have coined a term for the weird, half-conscious expression that Google Glass wearers get on their faces when they are concentrating on doing things with the tiny little screen inside their glasses," she writes. "They call it glassed out," she continues.

That behavior doesn't sound evil or anything. But it's potentially rude and mostly just distasteful because having a computer attached to our faces differs so much from social norms, as explained here and here. Because of the need to explain the general weirdness that will emerge with the Glass wearing culture, I suspect, the glasshole derivatives, such as glasswipe and glasshat and glassface et. al might start to catch on, too. Plus, writers are going to need synonyms for all the jerks running around with Glass on their heads. 

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