Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Jerk means "idiot" or "mean person"?

The terms "jerk" and "a--hole" have meant "mean person" to me as far back as I can remember. Those were the earliest playground definitions. But watching older movies (sometime in the 80s and earlier), I've noticed that they both used to mean "idiot." Steve Martin's The Jerk is an obvious example. I always thought that movie was about a guy who was, well, a jerk. A person who was unkind for selfish and douche-y reasons. It wasn't until I finally saw it that I realized it meant The Idiot.

Watching Spaceballs as a younger kid was similarly confusing. (I shouldn't have been watching it at that age in the first place, of course, but that's what friends' houses are for.) There's a whole bit when Dark Helmet discovers that a large portion of his crew is made up of cross-eyed morons, all of whom possess the surname "A--hole." I didn't get why these dumb guys were called that. They weren't mean, they were stupid!

I don't know when the transition from "idiot" to "mean person" took place, but I don't know anyone that still uses those terms in the earlier sense anymore, so it seems to have been a universal shift. Anyone else notice this? When did the change occur?


BrendoMan said...

Another example of the idiot use from Home Alone - "Look what you did you little jerk!"

Not quite sure, maybe it was a gradual thing. I never even thought about it until you brought it up.

Ryan said...

Home Alone, good one! And from 1990, too. The context in Home Alone makes the term almost transitional; you could see how Frank might mean both "idiot" and "kid who doesn't care what happens to other people."

jeri said...

Yes, that's a good one, but I also remember it seemed harsh to me to call a little kid a jerk. It is an interesting shift.

On a side note, I have a thing about the word jerk. I never think it sounds right when someone is using it to describe a girl. It's just weird. To me, all jerks are guys. If a girl is an equivalent of a jerk, then I'd find another derogatory word to describe her. I know.. I'm probably crazy.

Ryan said...

Jeri, that actually lines up with my experience exactly! Guys are jerks. Guys are a-holes. Calling a girl a jerk or an a-hole sounds wrong.

What is the "jerk" equivalent for describing girls? I can think of the equivalent for "a-hole" (b---h), but not a "clean" one for everyday use. "Mean girl" I guess. "Witch" maybe? Sounds dumb. My friends and I used to call them "sandwiches" at Biola.

jeri said...

Ryan, I agree that (b--ch) is probably equivalent to (a--hole).

For every day use, I think I end up doing a few different things.

1. Instead of a direct insult, I use adjectives to describe the girl. "She's really mean", "She's not too smart", etc. Maybe since girls are just more wordy in general, this just makes sense. They like to be descriptive, so we're descriptive when insulting them.

2. If forced to use a direct insult, it's usually witch, just because it rhymes with what we're all thinking.

3. Very occasionally I will say a girl is "acting like a jerk". Somehow qualifying it with "acting like a" makes it less harsh.

Nobody said...

Interesting, I've never noticed this but the OED confirms your definitions: "5. slang (orig. U.S.). Someone of little or no account; a fool, a stupid person."

So I thought "jerk" might have meant idiot in the sense of a spas or spastic: someone who jerks or twitches.

But some of the quotations cited by the OED which are supposedly its earliest uses, still have some shades of "mean" to them (for example the 1958 quotation):

1935 A. J. POLLOCK Underworld Speaks 63/2 Jerk, a boob; chump; a sucker.

1938 New Republic 7 Sept. 129/1 A jerk not only bores you but pats you on the shoulder as he does so.

1945 Daily Express 11 Sept. 2/4 See this lighter? A dying Jerry gave it to me. I gave the jerk a smoke from my last cigarette.

1950 [see brown-noser s.v. BROWN a. 7].

1956 L. MCINTOSH Oxford Folly 85 Julian sounds a dismal little jerk when you sum him up like that.

1958 Listener 15 May 802/1 If..the sponsors get eight letters saying that their comedian is an idiot, or a foul-mouthed jerk, they're terrified.

1971 J. BALL First Team (1972) xxiv. 382 ‘I say you're a n-----!’..‘And I say that you're a goddamned jerk.’