Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Dickheads, Buttheads, and Assholes

Posted by Neal on July 23, 2010

In his “On Language” column this Sunday (available online already) Ben Zimmer talks about the language used in Mad Men, and at one point has to use the circumlocution “a scatological slur for a person’s head”. In a companion post at Language Log, where he can write more candidly, he reveals that the actual word was shithead. He adds:

On further reflection, I’m not terribly fond of the phrase “a scatological slur for a person’s head.” After all, shithead is a slur for a person, through a metonymic reference to that person’s head (or the contents thereof).

OK, that’s it. It’s time for me to dust off my post from Sept. 17, 2004, the post that my brother was kind enough to call “Best. Linguistics. Post. Ever.” At the time I called it “Endocentric and Exocentric Insults,” and gave only a disclaimer followed by a link (which I later removed) to the actual post elsewhere. The post stored elsewhere had the title you see here, with a handful of images illustrating possible interpretations of the insult dickhead. It was primarily the pictures that persuaded me to keep the main post off the blog, but now I’m putting it on, minus the pictures, and slightly edited for clarity.

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Years ago, someone called a close friend of mine a dickhead. It just so happened I was there when he did it, and I was reminded of a question I’d had about this word. So I asked the guy, did he mean to say that this good friend of mine was:

    someone whose entire being consisted of the head of a dick?
    someone who had a dick for a head?

I received the pitifully uninsightful (and patently false) answer: “It doesn’t mean either! It’s just an insult!”

It doesn’t mean either? Of course it does! The fact that it has one of the above meanings, figuratively applied to a person, is what gives the insult its sting. That’s why it’s more cutting than, say, nerd. When you call someone a dickhead, you’re saying that you find this person as offensive as a walking, talking head of a penis! Well, either that or a creature that looks like a human being from the neck down, and like a penis from the neck up.

Perhaps comparing dickhead to a few other model insults would shed some light on its meaning. If dickhead the insult means “head of a dick”, then it is an example of an endocentric compound noun — that is, a noun made up of words X and Y, where Y is a noun, and XY denotes a kind of Y. Y is said to be, no pun intended, the head of the compound. For example, in doghouse, X = dog, Y = house, and a doghouse is a kind of house. Similarly, in dickhead, X = dick, Y = head, and a dickhead is a kind of head, specifically the kind you find at the end of a dick. (The end without a man attached, that is.)

Are there other insults that are endocentric compound nouns? Asshole comes to mind. In its literal sense, asshole is a compound noun, with hole as its head: An asshole is a kind of hole. Figuratively, an asshole is someone offensive and obstinate enough to be compared to an anal sphincter. (And just to reiterate that asshole is not “just an insult,” the expression tear [someone] a new asshole is proof that the literal meaning is still there, to be enjoyed by those who take the time to experience the word as if for the first time. I’ll never forget hearing Igor Iskhakov burst out laughing when he first heard this strange new English word and parsed it out.)

On the other hand, if dickhead the insult means “having a dick for a head,” it is an example of an exocentric, or headless, compound noun. In this kind of compound, it is not true that X is a kind of Y (or for that matter, that Y is a kind of X). In other words, neither X nor Y is the head of the compound. So if dickhead means “having a dick for a head,” then a dickhead is not a kind of head. It’s a kind of person.

Are there other insults that are exocentric compound nouns? Yes again: butthead. Since butts, unlike dicks, don’t have heads, the ambiguity seen in dickhead doesn’t arise here. A butthead is not a kind of head; it’s a kind of person: someone who (figuratively) has a butt for a head.

Since both readings of dickhead have precedents, the analysis so far hasn’t given a definitive answer. It’s time for some empirical evidence. Now I could have surveyed 100 people on what dickhead means to them, but I imagine most would have said it’s an insult, just like the guy who put the label on that good friend of mine. So instead, I did a Google image search, and got 400-some hits for the word. Many of them were just pictures of ordinary people who evidently were dickheads in someone’s opinion. But 18 of them provided clear evidence. For the endocentric reading (parallel to asshole), I found no images at all. For the exocentric meaning (parallel to butthead), I found six images of people whose heads consisted of a penis or penises.

So the exocentric meaning clearly more prevalent than the endocentric one. But wait, there’s more! The other 12 images I collected illustrated meanings for dickhead that I hadn’t thought about.

Four of them were pictures of people with penises on top of their heads. This meaning looks to be almost as prevalent as the “dick for a head” meaning, but I was surprised by it. It really had never occurred to me. It’s a little tricky deciding if this is an endocentric or an exocentric meaning. It’s true that dickhead as an endocentric compound doesn’t have to mean “head of a dick”; it just has to denote a head that has something or other to do with a dick, and a head with a dick on top of it would certainly qualify. But referring to an entire person as a dickhead because they have a dick on their head seemed a bit strange to me at first. However, that’s starting with the word and imagining a referent. If you start off with a referent, the word comes naturally. If you want to talk about someone standing right there with a dick on their head, what other word would you use? There is precedent for this meaning, too: Google image searches for butthead, shithead, and meathead all returned more images of heads with butts, shit, or meat on them than of heads consisting of a butt, shit, or meat. And of course there are also cheeseheads. I’m calling this as an exocentric meaning, since these dickheads are still a kind of people, not a kind of head. To capture both meanings — someone who has a dick (or dicks) for a head and someone who has a dick (or dicks) on their head — we have to think of the exocentric compound as having a more general meaning: “someone whose head has something to do with a dick,” whether by being one or possessing one. (Or more.)

This “for a head” vs. “on a head” dichotomy appears in the last eight of the images I found. Two of them pictured people with dickheads for a head, and one of these two went further in having not only the person’s head as the head of a penis, but also the body as the shaft of the penis. The other six images pictured people with dickheads on their (regular) head. I have to tell you, I don’t think dickhead should have this “someone whose head has something to do with a dickHEAD” meaning. I think the word that is called for here would be dickhead-head, but probably nobody who hits upon that word likes having the two heads in a row.

So to conclude, dickheads are more like buttheads than assholes, and there are more kinds of dickhead than you’d probably care to imagine.

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3 Responses to “Dickheads, Buttheads, and Assholes”

  1. Chris said

    The best paper I ever read on insults was Laurel Sutton’s Bitches and skankly hobags: The place of women in contemporary slang(yes, this is this actual title) in Gender Articulated: Language and the Socially Constructed Self. Funny thing is, I think Sutton is now in the branding and marketing business helping companies make up new names for products.

  2. kip said

    So how would you categorized “jerkface”?

  3. H. R. Freckenhorst said

    Is it possible that the dick-on-a-head illustrations have more to do with the difficulties of Photoshopping an image to scale? On my infrequent attempts to place one face over another, I’ve usually decided that whatever point I was trying to make wasn’t worth the time and effort involved in matching two images together. And how much more difficult would it be to match something not shaped like a head onto a neck?

    I’m not denying that the dick-on-a-head meaning may have become more common than the dick-for-a-head one, but I wonder if a non-linguistic (or non-conceptual) cause might be behind it.

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