My husband and I were hanging out with friends the other day when, somehow, the question arose as to the correct translation, from French into English, of the word con. My husband is French and I grew up speaking French in Haiti; but I came to the States as a young child, so conversations like this one are not unusual in our house.
“How do you say, ‘an affair’ in French?” I said. “As in, ‘to have an affair.'”
“Une affaire,” he said.
“No, I don’t think so,” I said.
“Yes, that’s how you would say it,” he insisted.
“Um, I don’t think so.”
Eventually we ended up calling a Frenchie with better interpretation skills to mediate. In fact, an affair translates to une aventure. The French think having an affair is like going on an adventure! But, I’m wandering…back to the debate with our friends about the word con. My husband immediately started expounding on the derivation of the word and its original usage—the dreadful word, “cu_t,” often used to label a woman you really, really hate—but I had to stop him because no French person uses it in that way anymore.
“They use it to refer to someone they think is an asshole,” I said.
A Francophile in the group said, “No, I think it’s more like a prick.”
“I disagree,” I said. “A prick is someone with a mean, nasty streak, while an asshole is more of a jerk.”
However, a jerk isn’t an asshole, either. In the dictionary, a jerk is defined as a stupid or insignificant person. But you can’t look up asshole or prick in the dictionary, so this led to a fairly lengthy and often funny discussion, with everyone throwing in their take on the difference between an asshole and a prick. As my editor once said to me, Contrary to what Mr. Roget says, each word has its own raison d’être!
The funny thing about language is that meanings often change depending on the era, common usage, one’s culture or age, and a host of other considerations. When I use the word “jerk,” I don’t think of someone stupid and insignificant—somewhat stupid, yes; but with a dose of deliberately annoying and uncaring in an offensive way. You know, like an asshole. And to my mind, a prick is a malicious guy who rubs his hands with glee and snickers while contemplating the sorry fate of his fellow human beings. That condescending sonofa… Oops! I’m getting carried away.
So, in the interest of distilling the polysemous “asshole” or “prick” classification, I’ve come up with an exercise that should help. Here are a few descriptions of people and circumstances followed by my own (obviously) judgmental verdict on the category they belong to. Feel free to disagree.
1. A guy pursues you until you agree to go out to dinner with him. You have a great time together, maybe smooch a little, and he says he’ll call you, but he never does.
2. You’re going out with a guy who makes a lot more money than you, but he expects you to go Dutch whenever you go out to eat or go away on vacations together.
3. The men who run Big Banks, Big Pharma, Big Insurance and Big Oil–enough said.
4. The parking violations person who waits by your car until the meter expires, then writes you a ticket even though he sees you running toward him while waving frantically.
5. Bill Maher,* when he goes on a rant about government-funded arts programs. (Didn’t anyone ever tell him that art = commerce, among other things?)
6. Bill Maher, when he treats members of his audience like they’re idiots for not laughing at one of his jokes, or for clapping at something he disagrees with.
*I actually like Bill Maher. Real Time with Bill Maher is the only show I ever watch or take the time to record. But hey, got to call a spade a spade.
7. Gordon Gekko from the movie, Wall Street.
8. Mel Gibson in real life.
9. Barack Obama rails against Wall Street during the 2008 campaign, then, even after its Big Boys help orchestrate the biggest financial meltdown since The Great Depression, in 2012 he opens his pockets wide to receive their tainted donations.**
**I know he can’t win without Big Money. Still, Mr. President, a deal with the devil is a deal with the devil. (This is why we all need to give $2.00/month to Fix Our America.org, a dynamic non-partisan organization dedicated to taking money out of politics.)
10. Mitt Romney proudly designs an efficient and popular universal healthcare system, which covers 98% of Massachusetts residents.*** Then, in an effort to kiss ass, he not only disavows his plan but is now firmly against universal healthcare and swears to repeal Obamacare.
Verdict: asshole and prick
***Last available statistics are from 2010.
Notice how there are no women included in my scenarios? That’s because no one ever refers to women as assholes or pricks. Because if they did, I could think of a few! I’m sure someone out there believes I’ve behaved like an asshole at some point in time. Haven’t we all, even if unintentionally? But I’m sure I’ve never been a prick. At least I hope not! And what of the final verdict on con? The conclusion I came to is that it can officially be used to describe both—asshole and prick. I like that in a word. So, if all else fails and you cannot choose, just call ‘em a con. And if it’s a woman, they have the perfect word for her too: conne!