Carine Fabius

Asshole Or Prick–You Decide

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.

Verdict: asshole

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.

Verdict: prick

3. The men who run Big Banks, Big Pharma, Big Insurance and Big Oil–enough said.

Verdict: pricks

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.

Verdict: asshole

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?)

Verdict: asshole

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.

Verdict: prick

*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.

Verdict: prick

8. Mel Gibson in real life.

Verdict: asshole

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.**

Verdict: asshole

**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, 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!

10 responses to “Asshole Or Prick–You Decide”

  1. Connie Stetson says:

    Okay, Carine–funny, but my name is Connie and I don’t care for the implication. Aside from that, we know that someone can be an asshole and a prick at the same time, so clearly they are ugly twin cousins. I think I’ll settle on a combo-pak of the two pejoratives and start using the word “prick-hole.”

    • Love it. Someone apparently coined a new term: askhole–someone who asks your opinion and then ignores it! In any case, Connie, you are so far away from the French word con that I don’t believe anyone would ever make that association, no matter how far they stretch.

  2. I object to the toned-down description of Mitt Romney in point #10. Surely there is a more powerful French word for someone who pretends to be a patriotic American, but who keeps 99% of his personal wealth–billions, in fact–in offshore banks, including the notorious “Swiss bank account.”

    Surely there is a more dynamic description for someone who proclaims he quit his job as CEO of Bain Capital in 1999, but continued to pull a six-figure salary through 2002 from the corporation that specializes in exporting American manufacturing jobs overseas.

    Surely there is a more robust way to describe someone who puts his dog in a wind-tunnel atop his car and drives hundreds of miles, who lies about not knowing what he both knows and what he has done, and who claims to be a self-made man when he was born to wealth and continues to shelter his own five sons from both having to work and having to serve the country in any other way than working for their dad, who is, yes, both a prick and an asshole and, if you can please find the mot necessaire, a heckuva lot worse.

  3. alain says:

    That’s very funny Carine. You are being too nice. Some of your
    examples deserve a much harsher name. Words are like toothbrushes. The more you use them, less efficient they are.The word “con/conne” is so much used that they became harmless ( still not OK ), it’s better to use “connasse”, It’s a much more offensive term for a woman, and a killer when directed to a man, and it sound better …

  4. Leah says:

    What a great read. I agree. I had not previously considered the intricacies of the two very descriptive nouns. I like the way you have taken charge of this and given us a starting point.
    I agree with you on all the examples except President Obama. I don’t like that the game is rigged but it is rigged. The supreme court handed the country over to the corporate giants. This is the first presidential election effected by that decision.
    What he does with that money is what I care about. He is a man of character making decisions he believes better the chances for the middle -class while trying not to strangle the elite. Engage them, make them pay their share of the tax burden. Help clean up the mess the elite made of the pension plans of the middle class. Expand healthcare and help take care of the mentally challenged so we don’t have so many mass killings by men with automatic weapons dressed in superhero costumes.
    President Obama does not belong on this list. Bill Maher, yes. Romney, yes. In both cases for just what you site. I am happy to see it aired here.
    I am not happy with all of what President Obama has done. I have also not forgotten what he inherited.
    When the Republicans knew they were loosing the last Presidential election, they raided the treasury. They gave away trillions of dollars with a memo and no plan for repayment. If that isn’t robbing the treasury I don’t know what is. There were people, Greenspan among them, who knew the meltdown was imminent. They made a lot of money based on that knowledge. They are the ones who need extra consideration for a noun that fully describes what they did to us. I’m suggesting that what President Obama is doing is an honorable job. It will not be quick. It will take planning and commitment to repaire the damage. He has to do this while re-boosting the economy. I say Bravo to use for President Obama.
    Love your work. That’s just my position.

  5. xcd says:

    lol! Very nice. To the best of my knowledge, “prick” and “asshole” have consistently maintained their level of intensity, whereas “con” seems to have lost its punch with a younger generation.

    So when I was a college grad in Paris, “qu’est-ce que t’es con” would have translated as a mild, irritated “Gee, that was dumb of you” or “you fool”

    On the other hand, the full, formal version still stands strong in the realm of insult, ie., “Connard!” “Connasse!”

    And then of course there is “P**tasse”, which maintained its potency over the centuries, possibly reflecting the power of the world’s oldest profession?

  6. David Warren Gibson says:

    You are neither a prick or asshole Carine. What you “are” is an Angel.

  7. Cathy says:

    Carine, you are brilliant! You could stand along side my word nerd crush Geoff Nunberg, the linguist contributor on NPR’s Fresh Air….Asshole, prick, schmuck — there are so many words for the idiots that hit below the belt. I hear, ahem, that there has been a movement afloat, a feminist movement of sorts, to redefine the term pussy. This blog post is so pussy; strong, fierce and fantastic!.

  8. deborah says:

    I like the idea of your blog…

  9. Linda says:

    I am a woman that has been VERY proud to be called an asshole, absolutely honored to be called a prick – and my all time favorite “a prick with feet”. Obviously, I learned my skills from some very worthy opponents. I also do not mind the “c” word one bit. I don’t speak French, but am sure that I could get under someones skin in any language.

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