One Word: Dipshit


One Word

In our column One Word, writers expound on their favorite words. 

I was on an airplane last year, and the woman sitting in front of me was a real piece of work. She had two young kids who were totally fine, totally quiet, really low energy—but she kept trying to engage them and turn everything into a teachable moment.

She had a very loud, affected voice. I shit you not, this is a direct quote: “Asher, if you wish it, you may have one of your Laffy Taffys now, but then only two Laffy Taffys will remain.” How elegant! The kid didn’t respond, didn’t care either way, but she kept pushing them on him as if it were some kind of Stanford marshmallow experiment. Every time she said something, she repeated it (once more for the balcony!). Of course, she read to them, at top volume, from some Amelia Bedelia–style chapter book the whole flight, overarticulating like it was fucking Chaucer, nervously glancing from side to side to see if we noticed how good she was at this. Meanwhile, the kids tuned her out to play video games and eat wads of candy. When the plane was descending, she was like, “The flight to Manhattan is not all that long, if you recall the flight to London. Do you recall when we flew to London? That was a much longer flight than this, the flight into Heathrow. You may have another Laffy Taffy if you wish.” At that point, the guy across the aisle closed his eyes, exhaled, and said, very softly, “Jesus fucking Christ.”

That woman was a dipshit.

Dipshit is my favorite word. I recommend it. It has a slightly Illinoisan-car-salesman feel to it, so part of the pleasure of saying it is the one-second role-play. The “sh” part of dipshit should come out soft and slightly prolonged, and each syllable of dipshit should have equal, firm emphasis. The word should come out slightly lower than your normal register. Never high pitched, never defensive, never whiney. For example, not “Oh my god, what a dipshit!” but, with a quick yet slow head-shake, “He’s a dipshit.” It’s dismissive. It’s absolute.

The next time your friend comes to you with a work-related problem—turned down for a raise, condescended to, overworked, pee breaks monitored, whatever—instead of furrowing your brow and saying, “I’m so sorry, that sounds terrible” try, “Your boss is a dipshit.” See if your friend likes this notion. I bet they will.

When you’re watching TV, if you see something/someone you don’t like, you can say “Look at that/those dipshit/s.” Anyone who unnecessarily says no to you can be a dipshit. People who don’t, you know, recognize the depth of your feelings and perceptions can be dipshits. Mark Zuckerberg, with those pouty little lips, scared eyes, and the breathy gasps he takes when he’s talking, is a dipshit. Anyone who is passive aggressive with you, condescending to you: dipshit. Say it in your head or say it out loud—either way, it feels good! It reorients the hierarchy.

I used this word a lot growing up. I liked calling my tenth-grade English teacher—the one who made us watch the movie Tootsie in class instead of reading Pride and Prejudice, the one who had a distinctive Betsy DeVos look about her, who gave me a D (for insubordination? for not turning in my homework? I don’t remember), the one with whom I had constant friction—a dipshit in the privacy of my home. It helped, felt right. The dense, authoritative gym teacher; the bike-cop who was blocking my way when I was clearly trying to park; the art teacher who asked if the women in the Brassaï photo I was painting for extra credit were “sisters”; the doctor who gave me a prescription for Zoloft after giving me a Zoloft-brand clipboard with a multiple-choice questionnaire (“Are you sad more than X times a day?”) on Zoloft letterhead; the grown adults who passed out those little cards in the halls that we were supposed to sign, promising to stay virgins, and return (what kind of database were they building?); the fifth-grade teacher who threw a dodgeball at my head and then said, sarcastically, “Whoops!” (seriously); the science teacher who had the class look at how ragged my fingernails were as part of the lesson plan—dipshits all. “How was school today, honey?” “Chock full of dipshits.”

Dipshit just means idiot, but with a little more flair. It sounds like dipstick, which—I just googled it—also means idiot (an “inept person”). But in my opinion, the word dipshit is reserved for people who have some assured, small sense of authority, and take pleasure in wielding it. One could, theoretically, call the history teacher who dressed up in a three-piece leather suit and did a striptease to a Nine Inch Nails song for our high school’s lip-synch contest a dipshit, but I’m not sure that would be very accurate. I might call him a genius instead. On the other hand, the guidance counselor who thought I probably wouldn’t get into college was definitely a dipshit. Now I teach at colleges! Ivy League ones. [1] Take that!

I might have a problem with authority.

I’ve always been kind of proud of this, thinking myself a kind of Spirit, Stallion of the Cimarron—untamable, a horse that can’t be broken, et cetera. I do a lot of reverse-bragging. Oh, you were in the Montessori “gifted and talented” program in kindergarten? I pulled the fire alarm in kindergarten. Oh, you’re getting your Ph.D.? I microwave eggs at the mall for money. Because, you know, we each make our own meaning. Look at that dipshit microwaving eggs? Oh no, my friend, look at that living angel microwaving eggs. I read Adorno for fun. [2]

The other night, I was in a hotel watching a documentary about Donald Trump, who was similarly untamable as a child and similarly proud of it. Aside from all the stuff about knives and mansions and scary parents, baby Trump felt eerily familiar. The muscles in my neck slowly started to clench up to the point where I could not move my head without also moving my entire torso. I am a thirty-three-year-old woman. Why am I still so proud of defying my high school teachers? It dawned on me that my identification as antiauthoritarian was authoritarian in itself—or, if not that extreme, then at least kind of bratty. Entitled. Had I been courting rejection and discipline, butting up against authority, and calling people dipshits all these years as a way to flex my superiority? Why should I be the one to exist outside of the rules? I’d been telling myself that my mediocre academic performance, my shitty jobs, my lax grooming, my hermitism, were all philosophical, even slightly political, acts of resistance against a system that valued conformity and hierarchy and status, but this was feeling less and less true. Yes, less and less true. “I mean, look around you!” I thought to myself. I’d accidentally gotten the sex room at the Quality Inn (which might explain the weird air of sarcasm from the women at the front desk). There was a very large Jacuzzi next to the bed.

I ate another slice of pizza and thought, “Yes, less and less true.”

I felt very critical of the actors in the TV commercials and the people being interviewed for the paranormal documentary, wondering why anybody would want this kind of attention, or any kind of attention at all. Then I laughed nervously, felt lightheaded, and drank cold water out of the Jacuzzi tap, which was probably not the best move, in retrospect. I said “M-m-ms. Butler, Ms. Butler, what’s your favorite novel!” like I was a nervous junior reporter. I put my feet on the edge of the tub and said “Paris? Never been” and then muttered something about The Paris Review—definitely used to pretend to read it in high school—rolled my eyes, made some abstract noises, and thought of myself as King Dipshit.

And that’s when I remembered! Dipshit could be loving, too, especially when used on yourself. Like when you drop food you’ve spent all day making, you can laugh and say, “Whoa, I’m such a dipshit!” Failure is always an option, I know this well. And it’s true—people who say shit like “Failure is not an option” are absolute enemy disphits, but there’s a sweetie pie kind of dipshit, too. Yes, yes. It’s you.


[1] They couldn’t find anyone else.

[2] I don’t understand it.


Halle Butler is a Granta Best Young American Novelist and a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” Honoree. She is the author of the novels Jillian ​and The New Me (out this week).