An important-ass word
The human brain is a powerful tool. Let's file that
under 'Top 10 Most Controversial Statements of All
Time,' alongside 'Don't
mix orange juice and toothpaste' and 'Man, that
stovetop gets hot!' The brain is pretty much in charge of everything from
heart rate to making a litter of six Shibu-Inu puppies one of the most watched videos on the web. But its primary function on a cognitive
level is categorization. (Which is weird, actually, since it majored in
Gender Studies in college). And it
is this function that allows us to catch a baseball, sip soy lattes in the Third World Cafe while deconstructing Heidegger,
and use language.
It is more or less useless to contrast ‘physical’ and ‘psychological’ aspects of the human
experience - numerous studies have investigated how closely these two realms are
connected, and if you don't believe me just say the words 'nature vs. nurture'
to anyone who has ever taken Psych 101.
So we know how the physical world can affect cognition (for example, a brain tumor can cause irrational thinking). We
also know how mental processes can affect the physical body (as in the case of placebos, or
psychosomatic illnesses). This is even true of less subjective aspects of
humanity; our base-ten counting system, for example, is thought to be a direct result of having ten fingers and ten
This relationship between
categorization and the
psychological and physical also holds true for human languages, and how we
speak can certainly influence how we think. I'm not talking about
vertically challenged, War on Terror, newspeak... You can take your
pick, propaganda and euphemism are ancient and valued human traditions in
fiction and real life. So why should they have all the fun?
I'm talking about metaphors, and how they are way
way more important than anyone who's gotten that amusing similes chain email would
expect. I'm talking about the metaphors implicit to human language, and how they
shape the way we think about the tangibly-challenged. One example
in English, presented by Lakoff, is the conceptual
structure UP IS GOOD. For example, you might use he's feeling down today
to indicate negative emotions, or I'm just getting back on my feet
could be said by someone recovering in a more general way from a bad point in their life.
These conceptual metaphors are frequently linked to the physical world, and
they often have a literal basis. In the previous example, up is related to the physical
standing position, which indicates at least basic health and wellness. Anthropomorphism, or the saddling of non-human objects with human characteristics, is another example of this;
buildings have faces, and flowers 'wake up' and 'go to sleep' with
So, then, we come to The Ass.
Butt, Tushy, Fanny, Rump, Junk in the Trunk, Can, Cheeks, Winston
Churchill, Ba-donk-a-donk: A History
Back in the day, an ass was not an ass. Instead, it was a nominal,
non-vulgar 'well-known quadruped of the horse kind.' This
definition, while clearly less fun, was much better suited for... pulling
things... through fields. A popular
activity at the time. The ass was often described as clumsy, stubborn, and
stupid, a reputation that according to modern
thinkers is both "uncalled for" and "just plain mean." As
a result, however, our modern ass's have come to refer to a person exemplifying these negative characteristics. This
usage is shown in examples such as she’s making an ass out of herself, or
he’s such a jackass, in which the referent is described as behaving similarly to the
popular four-footed animal of yore.
The etymology of ass in reference to backside (see other
synonyms above) is thought to have originated from the German word arsch, and to have come more recently from
nautical slang (no, really, this is cool). The loss of the /r/ phoneme in words
is also seen in examples such as curse becoming cuss, and burst becoming
bust around the same time, which lends support to this etymology. This usage is also evident in examples such as
he is being a horse’s ass, meaning that 'he' is behaving in an un-gentlemanly or rude manner, which combines the two
The use of ass to mean ‘beast of burden’ or ‘donkey’ is fairly archaic
today, and doesn't seem to be the basis for most of the modern usages (I mean,
would you still rock out to the Stones singing "I'll never
be your ass, my back is broad but it's a-hurtin"?). The secondary meaning, ‘stupid’ or ‘clumsy,’ is still present in
modern speech, but it does not directly relate to many of the newer usages of the word
ass. So while the words are related, the use of nominal ass as an insult is
most likely not the underlying or prototypical meaning of the forms that developed later.
ASS IS SELF
So, if it doesn't have hooves and get irritated
by flies, what role does the ass play in modern English? Lets posit (because
face it, we are the kind of people who posit) a conceptual metaphor like the one
above - instead of UP IS GOOD, we have ASS IS SELF. This is a type of metaphor
known as synecdoche, where a part of something is used in language to
represent the whole. So, for example, when we say 'Diddy,' we are often
actually referring to his music as a whole (lets not go into the whole P.
Diddy, Puff Daddy, Puffy, Sean Combs debacle, and with a little luck we
can even avoid a Prince reference). In this
case, the body part colloquially known as the ass is used to represent both an
entire physical human body, and in many cases the core or central
characteristics of a person.
Most likely, this use of ass has its basis
in sexual slang, but then
again, what doesn't? (see: urban dictionary). In
sentences such as get some ass tonight, or that is a nice piece of ass,
the word is used to refer to the physical body in the context of sexual intercourse. Yes, it's derogatory, and yes, it has some literal
basis in fact, particularly if you believe what you see in the pornos
This use has come to include the ethnic or identifying characteristics of the
(usually) women to which the speaker is referring. For example, in the sentence
get some Asian ass, the referent is a woman of Asian descent. This is also
productive, as less common examples such as get some movie executive ass or
get some French dictionary publisher ass would also make sense
(for a given value of both 'make' and 'sense') to the listener.
This terminology can also be extended beyond the
sexual connotations to refer to a person’s
generalized ethnicity or identity. For example, in the sentence get your country ass back to
work, the adjective preceding the word ass is seen as describing
the person, and not specifically their country boy butt.
And here is where this writeup's ass really takes off.
All kinds of English phrases develop out
of this conceptual metaphor, using this particular part of the human anatomy
to refer to the entire physical body. A few examples: kick his ass and
(for the Trace Adkins in
all of us) whup his ass, both of which refer to winning a physical
confrontation. More generally there are sentences such as get your ass
onboard the ship or I want to see your ass skipping and frolicking on
this picnic. The person being addressed is most likely (read: who the hell
did you used to picnic with??) not expected to move only their ass - rather, the
addressee in their entirety are expected to respond to the statement. In
other news, language studies volunteers are quote weirdly bossy unquote.
In the example I was dragging my ass at work,
similarly, the behavior of the person is seen as slow and ineffective, but
their physical posterior is not directly responsible for or related to
this fact. I suppose there is a certain class of jobs... uh rug-burn...
nevermind. There is still a literal element to some of these expressions, as in
the case of I am up to my ass in homework. While this conjures up a
strangely depressing mental image, colloquially it only means
that the speaker has a lot of homework left to do.
This is also true of another common construction
in English, of the form ___ my ass off, as in the examples work my
ass off, freeze my ass off, or laugh
my ass off. These statements are not literal. Put another way, the ass does
not actually come off, people. Instead this construction is used to show just
how involved the speaker is in the stated activity. So while you may be
half-heartedly translating something (more likely you took a break from
translating to browse E2, but that's beside the point), I am translating
my ass off over here.
There is a possible literal basis for these
expressions - if someone expressed an interest in running their ass off, they
could quite possibly wind up with less ass (for more 'Least Badass Things to
Say EVER', see "I am going to diet my ass off this summer!").
However, this construction is quite productive, and as soon as the literal
interpretation is applied to a sentence like I cooked my ass off
yesterday, well, things just get weird.
However, the ass represents more than just the
entire body. It also represents a person's inner nature, personality,
thoughts, dreams, ambitions, and treasured memories. Well, actually mostly
just the first two. So when you tell someone I hate his dumb ass, you are
referring to more than just his posterior - you are saying you hate the whole
individual. And since few butts have the power to really piss us
off, it's likely that what you hate is actually some aspect of his personality.
And when someone tells you I bet my ass, and they're wrong, don't expect
literal payment. Word to the wise, they're actually betting some largely
unspecified notion of honor or self-worth. I know, right? It's like, who
gives? Even more convoluted, when someone tells you to watch your ass,
they are not in fact suggesting that you check yourself out - taken to extremes
that would actually totally defeat the purpose of the warning, and strangers
would make fun of you. In this case the upcoming danger could be physical or
not, but the word ass still refers to well-being (and not necessarily
in a corporal sense).
A few other examples: I guess I'm going to have
to save your unconscious ass then, My boss was really riding my ass
today at work, and Man, I don't want to listen to her boring ass any
more. All non-literal. With the possible exception of number two, if you
feel obliged to bring back that certain class of jobs again. C'mon, grow up
Another use for an English ass is in an expression of
disbelief, as in the sentence you did all your chores, my ass!, which implies a
sarcastic or often angry lack of belief in a statement. This is harder to relate to the central meaning of the word
ass, and seems instead to be a more derisory use referring to the posterior as something
negative or undesirable. However, the usage of ass in this case still reflects the emotions or beliefs of the speaker as a whole, and can still be seen as going beyond the
physical realm of the anatomical usage.
An example of the progression from literal usage of the word ass to a more figurative usage can be found in the concept of
sitting. The sentence it knocked me on my ass invokes the physical act of falling in response to a
blow, and directly reflects the human form in that the posterior is the most likely point of contact with the ground after a fall. However, this example can also be used less literally to refer to a
traumatic or upsetting event, which emotionally derailed the speaker, as in the sentence
my brine shrimp dying really knocked me on my ass.
So congratulations, you are now qualified to write
the new hit, Oprah-approved, coming-of-age novella, Our Asses, Our Selves.
The -ass suffix
Finally, we come to the most elusive, productive,
and compelling of the affixes, the -ass suffix. This suffix is a
staple in the vocabularies of 'kids these days,' and it
serves as an intensifier of the core or root meaning of the word to which it
is attached. It is also mostly restricted to adjectives, as in the examples weird-ass
girl, wild-ass party, or the more obscure reflective-ass
mirror. That is, for the latter, a mirror that is just more reflective
than most and no two ways about it.
In some cases the addition of the -ass
suffix can change the meaning of the adjective to which it is affixed, as in the
examples fancy-ass boat or sweet-ass dive bar. In the former,
the word fancy can develop a more negative
connotation, and in the latter the meaning of the word sweet changes to
roughly 'good' as opposed to referring to a category of flavors. Most likely
it is also a sweaty-ass, sketchy-ass, and ok-yeah-but-the-beer's-cheap-ass
Celebrity -ass suffixations include kick-ass
meaning 'fun,' big-ass, meaning, well, 'really big,' (caution: not to be confused with huge, friggin huge, or fluffy) and bad-ass, meaning pretty much 'not bad at all' or
'nasty and fierce in the best sense of the words.' The words 'kick' and
'bad' play different roles, both syntactically and semantically,
when they appear without their ass's.
The addition of the -ass suffix can also
sometimes lead to a nominalization of the lexical item, as in the
expressions smart-ass (or wise-ass), fat-ass, and dumb-ass.
While these can still be used as emphasized adjectives, they are also used as
independent nouns, as in the sentences he was acting like a total wise-ass
last night. Without its ass, wise could not function as a noun -
the expression is intensified and changes lexical category with the addition of
the -ass suffix. This nominalization appears to only take place when the
affixed word has also changed meaning. For example, a hard-ass table is
a table with a very hard surface, but a hard-ass professor grades harshly
(heads up, professors: I have it on good authority that nowadays taking
attendance is more than enough to earn you a 'hard-ass' or two). Only the forms
that also undergo a semantic shift have developed nominal forms.
Penultimately, there are words in English that take the
–ass suffix and have only nominal forms. These are less common and less productive, but some examples include
whup-ass, jack-ass, and kiss-ass, meaning respectively ‘a physical beating,’ ‘an
idiot or unpleasant person’ (most likely derived from the asses of
yesteryear), and ‘to flatter someone, or attempt to ingratiate oneself.’ This category does not have an adjectival
manifestation; you can try and have a kiss-ass day, but you won't get very
Finally, the word ass also has some limited usage as a prefix, generally in nominalizations of other common expressions. For example, the sentence
I kicked his ass can be changed to I gave him an ass-kicking, and the same is true for
ass-covering and ass-kissing. And for those of you who thought cups and ounces and halfpounds and the whole tea vs. table spoon...ism... were cool (clearly, I do not bake. I am not a baker.), the ass also appears in its very own unit of measurement! If you have, for example, a large number of Pink Floyd posters, then you have an ass-load of Pink Floyd posters. For how many shit-tons that is, check the back of your marbled composition book. Ass also makes a cameo in one of
only two or three English infixes, in the very much under-appreciated back-ass-wards.
In all of the examples given here, the –ass affix is used to
emphasize the word it is modifying, and in some cases also change the meaning
of a word. This relates to the usages of ass as representative of 'the self'
because it is the core properties of the adjective or noun that are intensified.
It can also be seen as providing a physical basis or grounding for these terms – if
ass has come to mean the central tendency of an object, then its use as a suffix reflects this prototypical usage by attaching and intensifying certain semantically central characteristics.
And that is the ass-end of a long-ass writeup.
(man, I was really hoping to work a cunning linguist joke in here
With special thanks to the word ass, for
appearing here no less than 107 times!
Harper, Douglas. “The Online Etymology Dictionary.” Nov. 2001.
http://www.etymonline.com/ (accessed June 7, 2008).
Davies, Mark. “Corpus of American English.” 1990. http://www.americancorpus.org (accessed May 13, 2008).
Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1980.
Simpson, John. “Oxford English Dictionary.” 2004. http://www.oed.com (accessed May 24, 2008).
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