Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg has written a scholarly study of the A-word, saying its rise in culture impacted feminism, self-discovery movements and conceptions of social class.
"I'd meet people when I was working on the book, and even academics—they'd say, 'What are you working on?' and they'd giggle. Or they'd say, 'You must have a lot of time on your hands,'" Nunberg told NPR's "Fresh Air" host Terry Gross.
"[T]hey reflect our genuine attitudes, rather than what we think our attitudes should be."
Nunberg says the word's use as slang first rose to prominence during World War II, when soldiers used it when referring to an officer who took advantage of his rank, believing it gave him authority, "to either abuse his men, or makes him more important than he really is."
According to the Historical Dictionary of American Slang, the A-word was originally used in England and Germany as "arsehole" both as an anatomical and insulting term. The first known use of the word in print came in 1865, when it was used to describe a particularly unpopular tourist destination as "the arsehole of the world."
The first known printed version of the American usage occurred almost exactly 100 years later, on May 28, 1965, in a Harvard Crimson article by Michael Lerner titled, "A Refreshing Radicalism."
But Nunberg says it wasn't until 1970 that the word had spread to common usage in the U.S. population.
"The feminists use it to replace 'heel' as a word for a guy who mistreats women, and to cover all forms of entitlement," he told NPR. And he credits—or perhaps more specifically, blames—the Internet for the word becoming even more popular today.
"We have more opportunities both to behave this way to other people and to use this kind of language," he says.