Epithet of the Moment

I appear before you today to consider the inescapable epithet of the moment, at least in the realm of the youthful demotic. You cannot read the Internet, turn on Comedy Central, or eavesdrop in the student union without hearing it.

I refer, of course, to douchey, as well as to the nouns from which it sprang, douchebag and douche.

The “douchey boyfriend” meme


Last year saw the publication of The Rogers & Littleton Guide to America’s Douchiest Colleges. (Winner: Cornell.) A comparatively venerable Web site, Hot Chicks With Douchebags, has yielded its own book and MTV series. On the sitcom New Girl, the character Schmidt is  required to to put money in a Douchebag Jar every time he says or does something, well, douchey. In a monologue on his TBS show, Conan O’Brien, noting that Barack Obama had declared he’d been “too polite” in his first debate with Mitt Romney, predicted that, in the second debate, the president would refer to his rival as “Douchey L. Moneybags.”

Going back a few years, Rolling Stone magazine, in a joint interview with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert in 2006, reported this exchange:

STEWART: We rarely do ad hominem attacks. There’s the occasional one—Cheney, I guess we do a little bit. But in general it’s based in frustration over reality. We almost never do the, you know, Bush is dumb.

COLBERT: Ashcroft is a douche bag.

STEWART: I think Novak is a douche bag.

COLBERT: I’m sorry. I apologize. It’s Robert Novak who’s a douche bag. That’s just fact. I think it’s his confirmation name.

STEWART: When he joined Opus Dei.

COLBERT: “You shall be Saint Douche Bag.”

Where does douchey come from and what does it mean? The OED defines douche-bag as “a sterile receptacle for the fluid when administering a douche; freq. applied to the whole apparatus used for douching, including rubber tubing, nozzles, etc.” and cites a first use in 1917. Green’s Dictionary of Slang calls douchebag “a term of general abuse” dating from no later than 1950 and says it is “directed esp. at women.”  That connotation seems to have been lost at least by 1974, when Richard Price had this exchange in The Wanderers: “‘You know that guy?’ ‘He’s a real douchebag.’”

Neither reference book mentions the shortened form douche or the adjective douchey, much less such fanciful current forms as douchebaggery or douchenozzle. (“Facebook Is ‘Like’-Able, but Not Very Likeable. Douchbaggery at Burson-Marsteller, Too”—headline in Advertising Age, 2011.)

A sentence from a 2001 article in Bitch magazine is helpful in terms of dating and definition: “Like legwarmers and Members Only jackets, ‘douchebag’ (and its derivatives ‘douche’ and ‘douchey’) seems to be enjoying its part in the ubiquitous ’80s revival.” The wardrobe references suggest a change, specifically a softening, in the meaning of the root. Once a harsh insult, it has turned into a variant of clueless, with specific reference to (usually) male self-centeredness, pretentiousness and/or bad fashion sense. “Kai from Palo Alto” posted this definition on Urban Dictionary in 2006: “Unimaginative, uninteresting, stale, preppy, mainstream, especially in a self-promoting way.” As a sample sentence, he offered, “We could go out for free drinks with my douchey i-banker friends.”  In February of this year, Paul Rudd said this about his fellow actor Justin Theroux: “He’s such a smart guy and he can play these kind of douchey characters, these clueless guys who aren’t self-aware in any way but think they are.”

I’d venture that douchey is so popular for at least two reasons. First, the vowels and consonants it contains make it comical, and fun to say. Second, it brings with it a suggestion of  naughty (and harsher) words like scumbag and dick (vogue adjective: dickish) without being truly transgressive. This quality is especially appealing for cable comedians like O’Brien and Stewart.

However, it’s still a little bit edgy. The New York Times has allowed douchey into its domain only twice, both in the form of a reader’s online comment. The longer form has appeared a few more times, mainly because the newspaper reviewed a 2010 movie called Douchebag and, a year earlier, ran an article about how words like douchebag were increasingly permitted on TV. The piece quoted Dan Harmon, creator of the sitcom Community: “As a writer, you’re always reaching for a more potent way to call somebody a jerk. This is a word that has evolved in the last couple of years—a thing that sounds like a thing you can’t say.”

Not all networks are equally permissive, however. A network executive I asked about the word e-mailed me that his employer, CBS, has allowed douche and douchey for roughly the last two years. But he went on:

Interestingly, and for reasons I can’t explain, we don’t brook “douche bag.”  (BTW, we do allow “scumbag,” which literally denotes a spent, semen-filled condom; we began allowing it at about the turn of the 21st century.  I know ABC, specifically NYPD BLUE, trafficked in the word for years before we did.) So resolute is our opposition to “douche bag” that we won’t approve it for Letterman or Craig Ferguson, both of whom are in the “safe harbor” period (between 10 PM and 6 AM) that is exempt from the FCC’s indecency rules.

Let’s give Urban Dictionary the last word, specifically (part of) “JLTJ”‘s definition of douche.

Sometimes makes jokes in a loud voice to draw attention to themselves. Talks loudly and in a different tone to assert that he knows a lot about a specific topic. Occasionally they will sing along to songs on the radio and look at others riding with them to make sure they are paying attention to the fact that they are singing. They are often white males and are stereotyped for wearing ‘popped collars’ but this fashion is rarely seen. They most often wear a hat in an unconventional way (Such as: backwards, to one side, slightly to one side, or obnoxiously worn on one side of the head, appearing to be barely stable)

That suggests another reason why this word isn’t going away any time soon. There are a whole lot of douchey persons out there, and the number shows no sign of diminishing.

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