On the Evolution of “Douchebag”

Profanity

Cartoon by Polylerus

I don’t much discuss profanity here, which is unfortunate. Swear words are an indelible part of any dialect, and no discussion of spoken English would be complete without their mention. Which brings us to today’s topic, the meteoric rise of the American English epithet “douchebag.”

31st Century-anthropologists, bereft of the electronic media now at our disposal, might be flummoxed as to how douche, a word meaning “shower” in French, came to mean something along the lines of “pompous jerk.” So it helps to look at the origins of douchebag (or douche), from this Wikipedia entry:

A douche ( /ˈduːʃ/) is a device used to introduce a stream of water into the body for medical or hygienic reasons, or the stream of water itself.

To make this more explicit, a douchebag is part of an apparatus  used to clean certain bodily orifices. A douche bag, technically speaking, is what contains the refuse created as a by-product of this cleansing process. Ick.

I must admit that douchebag (as an insult applied to people) didn’t enter my lexicon until the 2000’s. For many years, in fact, I assumed that the term was a 21st-Century coinage. After doing several searches using Google Books, however, it’s clear this isn’t the case. The first usage of douchebag/douche bag that I could find in the pejorative sense dates back to at least 1951, in the classic novel From Here to Eternity (here an adjective):

“The trouble with you, Pete,” the voice that did not seem to come with him but from that cigaret said savagely, “is that you can’t see further than that douchebag nose of yours.”

So douchebag seems to have been used in a vulgar context as far back as World War II or thereabouts. It’s worth noting, however, that this is the ONLY usage of the type found in 1950’s literature: all other examples of douchebag/douche bag refer to medicine or hygiene. I doubt the term was in popular currency at the time.

The next such usage doesn’t appear until 1964, in a stream-of-consciousness passage of another famous novel, Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn:

“…and she yelled to Jack to comeon and she/d f***in blind not like that f***in douchebag he was with and someone yelled we/re coming and she was dragged down the steps …”

Still, examples of the pejorative douchebag in the 1960s are few and far between. And seeing as that decade was famed for its relaxation of literary puritanism, I’d hazard to guess it was still uncommon.

It was only in the following three decades that douchebag seemed to make some headway. There are about a dozen examples of the word being used pejoratively in literature between 1970-1980. In the 80s, this increases to several dozen.* And by the 1990s, this skyrockets to somewhere between 100-200.

But it’s really the 2000s where we see “douchebag” take off. Google books records the word being used 868 times, the overwhelming majority of which appear to be non-medical. This was truly the decade of the “douchebag.”

If douchebag appeared to be an epithet dating back to at least the 1950s, why did it not become as popular until the 21st Century?  My personal theory relates to the fact that douching (the act of cleaning bodily orifices with a stream of water) has become steadily less popular as a hygienic technique over the past fifty years. This is likely a result of medical warnings such as this (from the 2005 health book What Women Need to Know):

At one time, doctors routinely instructed their female patients to douche; however, that is no longer the case. Studies have shown that there is a higher rate of infection of the reproductive tract among women who douche that among women who do not.

So let’s put the pieces together. In 1960, when douching was a much more common practice and perhaps more prominent in the public imagination, douchebag would have had a much more disgusting connotation, and likely would have been avoided for this reason. But in the 21st-Century, at a time when many people barely remember what douching was to begin with, it might be taken as a less offensive insult.

I could say a lot more about this word, but I’ll stop before I start to ramble.**  I’m curious what everyone else’s experience with douchebag is. And a related question: Is “douchebag” making headway outside of the United States?

*One interesting pop cultural example is that it appears in the novelization of “ET: The Extra-terrestrial.” I can’t recall if the word is used in the film or not.

**Two examples, if anybody wants to pick up the conversation:  (1.) the rapid evolution of “douchebag” to “douche” in the past decade, and on a related note (2.) that “douche” follows the pattern of many other English profanities by being a monosyllable containing a plosive and a fricative or affricate.

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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42 Responses to On the Evolution of “Douchebag”

  1. D S Onosson says:

    I’m fairly certain I recall “douche” being used pejoratively in the 1980s when I was in public school in Canada. If “douchebag” was also used, it was much, much less common.

    • trawicks says:

      Interesting. I’ve always thought of “douche” as being an offshoot of “douche bag.” Although given that “douche” seems more common than “douchebag” these days (the latter actually sounds slightly passe to my ears), it seems to evolve very quickly from one to the other.

    • Laura says:

      I recall both “douche” and “douchebag” being relatively popular in junior high if not elementary school (early nineties or late eighties). I’m pretty sure it was used in teen flicks of the day. It has, however, had a remarkable, widespread resurgence in recent memory.

  2. Maud says:

    I’ve said it before, but when the usage record is compiled, I believe the rapid rise of “douchebag” in the early 2000s will be traced to The Awl’s Alex Balk (a friend of mine), circa The Minor Fall, The Major Lift.

  3. Angela Smith says:

    A douche bag, technically speaking, is what contains the refuse created as a by-product of this cleansing process.

    No, sorry, this is entirely incorrect. A douche bag is like a cross between a hot water bottle and an IV bag: typically made of rubber, it is filled with warm water and hung from a level somewhat higher than the orifice being douched. Gravity causes the water to flow through a narrow tube attached to the bag when a clip is released, and the used douche water flows out into either the toilet or bathtub, depending on where the douchee has positioned him- or herself (anal douching can be performed by either sex). Douches/enemas are commonly sold in disposable plastic bottles currently, and that fact combined with the falling popularity of regular douches/enemas means that many people using the slang have never seen an actual “douche bag”.

    I suspect the first quote above may have been referring to the physical characteristics of the subject’s nose (red, drooping, perhaps dripping) in addition to the taboo term.

    Personally, I find the secondary implications of douche-related insults to be humorous. Calling a man a “douche” works well if you intend to mean that he is, at best, useless, or at worst, harmful to women. I’ve been known to use the terms “douchenozzle” (implying small and perhaps leaky?) and “douchebucket” (a more accurate potential receptacle for fouled douche water).

    • AL says:

      “A douche bag, technically speaking, is what contains the refuse created as a by-product of this cleansing process.”

      I am not disputing your description, but I have often heard the above quoted statement being used as the reason why douchebag became a slur. I think it’s a very common misconception, at least among my generation (millenials).

      • lammy says:

        Misconception, indeed. I think as well the intent and undertone of the insult – along with the misogynist bent- has been blurred as well over time. There is no bag that gets filled with dirty water. Think about the mechanics of a vagina – how would you even make that happen? Tape it to your thighs? No. A douchebag is indeed pretty much what a hot water bottle looks like, hung up just like an IV bag often with a long bit of tubing to reach where ever it is you are intending to douche. The root of the insult is that a woman’s vagina s dirty, somehow, in need of cleaning (via a douche) and so anything associated with that is emasculating and terribly insulting. Saying ‘you are the bag that holds the water intended to clean an orifice’ doesn’t sound all that insulting, but, it is part and parcel of a canon of insults that use femininity, aspects of femininity, or feminine attributes to slander or emasculate men. Kind of sad! (for the record, I’m a millenial as well – just happen to be well-read and curious!)

  4. Susan says:

    It is an insult more because a douche bag is used by a woman to clean her vagina. To call a man (you never call a woman a douche bag) a douche is the lowest insult. Our society is very male centered right now so it makes sense that anything having to do with the lowly woman would be a great insult to a male in this macho culture. It is the same as being called a tampon or a pussy. If it is female is it derogatory. This futhers the misconception of women as “unclean” or dirty, especially where menstruation is concerned. Vaginal douches are often used after menstruation. Douches are never used on any other part of the anatomy except the vagina. To cleanse the colon you use an enema not a douche.

    • Angela Smith says:

      My understanding is that, in modern usage, anal douching refers to the use of plain water, while enema refers to various types of medicinal solutions, including laxatives or nutrients.

      I agree that the use of the word as a popular perjorative is likely related to sexism.

    • Emma says:

      It’s used amongst some women (myself included) to describe a man who’s useless, patriarchal, obnoxious, misogynist, and unnecessary. Like a douche itself. In that context, it has nothing to do with the feminine being inferior or unclean; it’s not like calling someone a “pussy”.

      • trawicks says:

        I do find it interesting that misogyny seems an inextricable part of “douchebaggery.” I’m curious as to why the term evolved so as to categorize such a specific type of male: deluded, brash, and sexist.

        • Austin says:

          In my region of the country, it has an even more specific meaning. People only seem to apply the term to males who wear pink polo shirts with popped collars. I still don’t really get it, to be honest 🙂

    • Sky says:

      Susan, the term douchebag was first used against women, by women in the 50s. It was derogatory to them because it means that they needed ‘cleaning’ to be attractive to the opposite sex.
      Douches can be use in other body cavity such as the anus and also the nasal cavity. Do a simple search on google or your local pharmacy and you’ll see that there is such a product as nasal douche. Afterall, douche just means ‘to clean’!

    • Luke says:

      Never heard anybody call anybody a ‘cock’, ‘penis’, ‘bellend’, ‘dick’, ‘dickhead’ or a ‘cockmuncher’ then?

  5. trawicks says:

    @Maud,

    I wouldn’t be surprised if one person was responsible for the spread of the word. I find that bloggers can have a surprising impact on spoken language, even on the language of those who never actually read blogs.

    @Angela,

    Thanks for schooling me on that point. As you can tell, I have very little knowledge about what the actual process of douching entails!

    • Maud says:

      Yes, what matters is who’s reading the blogger, and from 2003-2004, everyone in New York media was reading The Minor Fall, The Major Lift and trying to figure out who was behind it.

  6. Marc L says:

    To the best of my recollection, the term has been common since the seventies. It’s regular meaning? “You’re a real douchebag!” equals “You’re a real jerk!” And I’ve only heard it referenced to males (that doesn’t mean everyone – just me). On a similar subject, one of my least favorite expletives is “scumbag,” which has also been current since the seventies. The original meaning referred to a used condom. It started cropping up everywhere, including comic strips. Over the course of the last four decades, it mainly lost its original force to the extent that most of the people who use it don’t even think of the original meaning. Most expletives in English, as they become more and more common, tend to lose their force, as well as their original meaning. I guess we’ll have to come up with more disgusting replacements if we really want to put people down.

  7. Lauren says:

    Not only can you have douche in isolation from bag but now that it’s come adrift from semantic origins you can modify douche with range of things. I wrote about this back on my old blog when my sister started using douche canoe in her regular speech – and I’m sure she has never known what a medical douche bag was for:

    http://lozguistics.blogspot.com/2010/04/he-is-total-douche.html

    So far I’ve collected douche canoe, douche bango and douche cleric – but I’m always on the lookout for more to add to my list!

  8. Marie says:

    I can tell you that “douche” and “douchebag” are very popular insults here in the UK. They are particularly popular with students and young adults apparently, and I find them hilarious.
    Actually, there are several types of douche bags and you are quite right in saying that the bag contains the refuse because that is what happens with certain types we used in Europe in the 60’s and the 70’s. Yuk.
    As an insult, it seems to be used equally against men and women and seems to mean exactly what you said, some pompous jerk.
    I find it incredibly satisfying!

    • trawicks says:

      Interesting. I’ve heard it used quite a bit by Brits and Australians in the states, but I’ve never known if its now native to those specific countries or an attempt to sound more “American.”

  9. Chris says:

    I remember this skit from an early SNL? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H61agOWWNE0&feature=related

    This could be what popularized the usage.

    • trawicks says:

      I almost included that! I can’t quite tell if that sketch was playing off the perjorative sense of douchebag, or it was simply a joke about “douche bags” in general.

  10. AL says:

    They way I hear people use douche/douchebag (and I have not noticed a distinction here) is, as you say, a pompous, brash, or deluded jerk. But it’s not restricted to men who are misogynistic or chauvinist. (I do agree that there is a certain sexism going on with the term, since somehow it is only applied to men.) It’s often applied to any man who holds an opinion that is deemed indefensible, obnoxious, or outdated, or puts forth such opinions in a self-important manner, or simply carries himself in a self-aggrandizing way.

  11. pamela says:

    I was a teen in the 80s, and this discussion brings two things to mind: the hilariously awful Massengill and Summer’s Eve douche commercials of that time, and Pat Conroy’s _The Lords of Discipline_, published in 1980 and concerning events of the early 60s.

  12. Tom V says:

    Douchebag was military slang for a duffel bag in the mid-1950’s (according to a college instructor of mine). So “douchebag nose” might just have meant a really big nose.

  13. François says:

    It’s always a funny exercise to try and trace back the origins of a slang word that probably grew somewhat like a virus. And this, across cultural divides.

    Hose-bag
    My two-cents’ worth is from an expression in the 80’s where someone (a woman) was called a “hose-bag”. Intrigued by this expression, I asked for an explanation and was told it was synonymous to “slut”. No relationship to the expression douchebag but with the same derogative tone.

    Today’s douchebag is probably closer to meaning “asshole” in tone.

    You can draw your own conclusion from this…

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  15. Drew says:

    I am amazed by all of the comments and discussions the word “Douchebag” has produced. All of them very interesting.

    “So douchebag seems to have been used in a vulgar context as far back as World War II or thereabouts.”

    I didn’t start using this word until my buddy returned home for the ARMY and I guess they use it a lot because he called everybody and everything that ticked him off a Douchebag. He is like my brother, so of course in our many hours of hanging out I started to use this word as well.

    “I must admit that douchebag (as an insult applied to people) didn’t enter my lexicon until the 2000′s. For many years, in fact, I assumed that the term was a 21st-Century coinage.”

    I also though it was a fairly new insult and did not know how far back the word went because I just recently started to use it.

  16. Jill says:

    The word ‘douchebag’ first came to my attention in the early 1980s when there was a character on Hill Street Blues who used it. Hill Street Blues was a police drama that strived for much greater believability than other such shows at the time and was one of the best things on television. One of the characters was Sgt Mick Belker, a cop who worked undercover most of the time. To make the character really authentic he would have had to swear rather a lot, which was not allowed on television under FCC guidelines. He frequently referred to criminals as “douchebags”, and I remember discussion at the time about whether this word was appropriate for prime time television.

    • joeym says:

      Douchebag really took off when TMZ started using it on the regular.. They obviously didn’t coin it.. but they were deffo one of the first to get the douchebag slang rolling to what we know it as today.

  17. Matt says:

    Ok, it’s pretty obvious after reading these comments that the true meaning and origin of calling someone a “douche” or “douchebag” (what is the origin of the word? French) and I just saw on an episode of nazi collaborators about the douche pierre laval and the fully douchey things he did in world war 2!!!! You people are so disconnected and the people who could truly answer this question don’t go on “blogs”!!! #clueless! #nosenseofhistory #thinkbeforeyouspeak!

    Sorry. But I seriously tried to research the origin of the term douchebag and my logical conclusion came as a result of seeing what bullshit the French pulled in WW2! And how douchey it was to trade 3 French workers for 1 POW only to turn and lose France entirely to that Antichrist hitler!?! Really?! I mean, REALY?!?!?? Were you people THAT oblivious as to what was going on then???!! Eff! I digress.. I doubt this will be posted or that anyone will read this. But I dare you to challenge my statement that Lavells actions/person is NOT the origin of “douche”! Bam!

  18. Ace says:

    Both “Douche” and “Douchebag” were very common in the seventies when I grew up. I haven’t noticed any uptick in it’s usage from my perspective.

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  20. AshB says:

    For god sakes people, the word was popularized in the early 2000s by John Stewart on the Daily Show. I’m not sure where he picked it up from, but oddly we both must have come across it at the same time. About 6 months before John started using douchebag on TV, my friends and I just randomly started saying it. It was a small circle thing and other people at school thought we were odd and had no idea what a douchebag was. The first time I heard the word on the Daily Show in the early 2000s my jaw dropped. My friends were also surprised because we had, to our knowledge, never heard the word used as an insult outside our circle. After that point “douchebag” took off and no one questioned our using it anymore.

  21. John says:

    I am from England, and this word has always puzzled me because it is such a stupid insult and in fact it makes the user seem slightly moronic. I’ve never heard anyone who speaks English use it yet, because I think they would be laughed at. I am of the impression that the vast majority of people using this word have no idea what a douche bag is, and simply use it to imitate others.

  22. Kunt Kardooshian says:

    You’ve all got it slightly wrong. A douche was used by women not just to clean their vaginas, but to clean their vaginas OF SPERM. It was a cheap “birth control” device. Thus the insult. A douche is a guy who uses his cock to clean another man’s sperm from a woman’s vagina. Therefor the guy being called a douche is not “masculine” in the sense that his woman is not his alone, he does not fornicate with her for the purpose of creating a family, she has already had sex with other men. Now that the word is a “prime-time TV’ or “household” word in America, a douche is any person you don’t like for whatever reason.

  23. Ed N says:

    C’mon people. I can’t be the only one to remember this Saturday Night Live skit from the 70s.