The other day, I was riding down a Tucson highway with my mother. We had been to the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store and now it was rush hour. Suddenly, a man in a white pickup accelerated, passed us on the right, and screamed, “GET OUT OF THE FAST LANE, DUMBASS!”
After a moment of stunned silence, we both started to snicker.
Dumbass has always been one of my favorite insults. Not to use, just to savor as a word. In its combination of coarseness and babyishness, it is unusually silly. It’s hard not to think of Beavis and Butt-Head—who were never as menacing as parents seemed to think they were—or boys on an elementary-school playground. Compound insults like this are the special province of kids. I’ll still never get over the shock I felt when my brother’s four-year-old friend, Doug, turned to his older sister and said very coolly, “Mary Jane, you’re a fuckindamnshit.”
When you think about it in a literal way, dumbass doesn’t even sound that insulting. Isn’t a donkey, or a rear end, less objectionable when silenced? Of course, that’s not what anyone means.
In any case, it seemed a strange epithet to level at my dignified, silver-haired mother. Especially when we weren’t going that slowly and everyone was mired in traffic. Indeed, after he’d pulled ahead of us, the guy—who had a shaved head and a vanity plate that said KARN; he was probably in his thirties—was unable to move any further. Surely frustrating. He looked back at us and saw us snickering. His face darkened with rage. “YOU ARE ONE DUMBASS BITCH!” he screamed, with real anger.
We guffawed harder. We were thrilled.
Later, when we got home, we admitted that the genuine rage we’d seen in his eyes had been alarming, kind of. And there was my dad, watching a local news special about the rise in road-rage incidents.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.