An assclown, wrote etymologist John Kelly in the blog Strong Language, “is a pejorative pie thrown especially in the face of someone who, wrongly, thinks their actions are clever, funny, or worthwhile.” Examples of persons named as assclowns in the popular press include art vandals, Anonymous, and selfie-stick wielders.

As with an asshat, an assclown’s identity derives largely from the dissonance between the person’s regard for himself and the regard in which others hold him. But how to draw a line between the two? Name developer and brand consultant Nancy Friedman, who has written about asshats for Strong Language, says that of the two, an asshat “is more of an asshole and less of a joker” than his cousin the assclown.

Others disagreed. “I see assclown as an appropriate putdown not just for a run-of-the-mill jerk, but someone who revels in the performance of being a jerk,” said linguist and lexicographer Ben Zimmer. “Asshat is a bit milder and not so performative.”

Kelly tells Quartz at Work that he considers asshat an appropriate term for a person doing obnoxious things, while assclown is the correct label for a fundamentally obnoxious person. A hat is something you wear; a clown is something you are. “Hats can be taken on and off, at least in my mental imagery of the swears, while clown hits deeper at someone’s behavior or being,” Kelly told us via email.

Both terms derive their power from their associations with asshole, a word of singular force in English. “Asshole” was first used to describe an unpleasant person during World War II, explains Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguistics professor at the University of California, Berkeley and the author of Ascent of the A-word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years. From the beginning, it was an insult that punched up: US soldiers used it to describe an officer who believes his status “entitles him to a kind of behavior—to either abuse his men, or makes him more important than he really is,” Nunberg told NPR.

By the 1970s, the word had embedded itself in popular culture. It still carried the implicit accusation that the asshole in question was abusing whatever power he (or, less often, she) held, and failing to give others the basic respect and decency required by the social contract.

An asshole—or an assclown, or an asshat—is someone who doesn’t care, by reason of ignorance or malice, if his conduct demeans or offends another. It is about having a skewed relationship to entitlement, something that can become glaringly apparent in the confines of the workplace.

So, that guy: Is he an asshat or an assclown? You should use whichever term feels most satisfying in its utterance, safe in the knowledge that when historians unearth your furious tweets and texts and office-chat DMs centuries from now, the OED will be able to tell them exactly what you meant.

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