A Definition of a Jerk, by Sydney J. Harris

'Some extremely clever persons can be jerks'

Sydney J. Harris (1917-1986).

From the 1940s to the 1980s, Sydney J. Harris wrote a daily column, titled "Strictly Personal," which was syndicated in hundreds of newspapers throughout the United States. Described as "America's finest living aphorist" and "the most cosmic journalist we possess," Harris wrote thought-provoking personal essays on various aspects of contemporary life.

In this brief essay, first published in 1961, Harris offers an extended definition of a familiar character type.

A Jerk*

by Sidney J. Harris

I don't know whether history repeats itself, but biography certainly does. The other day, Michael came in and asked me what a "jerk" was--the same question Carolyn put to me a dozen years ago.

At that time, I fluffed her off with some inane answer, such as, "A jerk isn't a very nice person," but both of us knew it was an unsatisfactory reply. When she went to bed, I began trying to work up a suitable definition.

It is a marvelously apt word, of course. Until it was coined, there was really no single word in English to describe the kind of person who is a jerk--"boob" and "simp" were too old hat, and besides they really didn’t fit, for they could be lovable, and a jerk never is.

Thinking it over, I decided that a jerk is basically a person without insight. He is not necessarily a fool or a dope, because some extremely clever persons can be jerks. In fact, it has little to do with intelligence as we commonly think of it; it is, rather, a kind of subtle but persuasive aroma emanating from the inner part of the personality.

I know a college president who can be described only as a jerk. He is not an unintelligent man, nor unlearned, nor even unschooled in the social amenities. Yet he is a jerk cum laude, because of a fatal flaw in his nature--he is totally incapable of looking into the mirror of his soul and shuddering at what he sees there.

A jerk, then, is a man (or woman) who is utterly unable to see himself as he appears to others. He has no grace, he is tactless without meaning to be, he is a bore even to his best friends, he is an egotist without charm. All of us are egotists to some extent, but most of us--unlike the jerk--are perfectly and horribly aware of it when we make asses of ourselves. The jerk never knows.

Selected Works of Nonfiction by Sydney J. Harris

  • Strictly Personal, 1953
  • Last Things First, 1961
  • Leaving the Surface, 1968
  • For the Time Being, 1972
  • Winners and Losers, 1973
  • The Best of Sydney J. Harris, 1975
  • Would You Believe?, 1979
  • Pieces of Eight, 1982
  • Clearing the Ground, 1986

* "A Jerk" by Sydney J. Harris was published in Last Things First, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1961.