Sheila Parks, author of While We Still Have Time and an ardent feminist friend of mine, called me on my use of the word douchebag today.
I’m not always a polite guy. I cuss. In my online and meatspace communication, I express myself bluntly when passionate. This word is popular among both men and women I know.
At the same time, I want to get my point across clearly, i.e. insulting only the people I intend. I try to avoid language which comes from kyriarchy — power over others — and have done my best to expunge my language of words which are racist, sexist, homphobic, ableist, classist etc. while still maintaining my ability to rant or cuss a blue streak when the need arises. On Facebook, I called out ‘racist douchebags’ who put me in the uncomfortable position of defending the winner of an already sexist institution — that is, the new Indian-American Miss America.
Which is when I heard from Sheila: douchebag, she told me, represents what the douche goes into not what it comes out of and therefore is always representative of women’s bodies. My use of this word was “misogynist to the max” she said. I edited my Facebook comment to remove the word, but continued thinking about how this language is used. I raised the issue on Twitter, sparking a lively discussion.
Some people agreed with my friend:
@KitOConnell My mom made a similar argument once when I used the word.
— Jamie Boschan (@jboschan) September 16, 2013
@KitOConnell Thank you for saying that. I agree with her.
— L'Etat C'est Moi (@letat_lechat) September 16, 2013
While others defended a usage of the word closer to what I’d intended:
@KitOConnell Wow, that's a ridiculous stretch. Douche is perfect insult against a misogynist, claims 2 b good 4 women but is terrible 4 them
— Charlotte (@GrooveGrl4) September 16, 2013
@KitOConnell My take has been that "douche" represents a useless, harmful, unpleasant practice that is largely antiquated. Worth examining.
— Peter Hentges (@theJBRU) September 16, 2013
My friend Kate Sheehan, the Loose Cannon Librarian, expressed her discomfort with the word then found this great article about the evolving meaning of “douchebag” from Dialect Blog. According to Ben Trawick-Smith, the use of the word as an insult goes back to WWII, but only rarely, and its use has increased dramatically in recent decades:
So douchebag seems to have been used in a vulgar context as far back as World War II or thereabouts. It’s worth noting, however, that this is the ONLY usage of the type found in 1950′s literature: all other examples of douchebag/douche bag refer to medicine or hygiene. I doubt the term was in popular currency at the time.
But it’s really the 2000s where we see ‘douchebag’ take off. Google books records the word being used 868 times, the overwhelming majority of which appear to be non-medical. This was truly the decade of the ‘douchebag.’ … So let’s put the pieces together. In 1960, when douching was a much more common practice and perhaps more prominent in the public imagination, douchebag would have had a much more disgusting connotation, and likely would have been avoided for this reason. But in the 21st-Century, at a time when many people barely remember what douching was to begin with, it might be taken as a less offensive insult.
Both Trawick-Smith and a Twitter comment agreed that part of douchebag’s appeal is how it sounds:
’[D]ouche’ follows the pattern of many other English profanities by being a monosyllable containing a plosive and a fricative or affricate.
The comments on the post provide an illuminating portrait of the word’s evolution in action. Susan commented,