An important-ass word

Vague psycho-babble

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 toes1.

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 the sun.

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 glosses.

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.


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 these days.

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 already.

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 dive bar. 

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 far.

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 somewhere)

With special thanks to the word ass, for appearing here no less than 107 times!

Harper, Douglas. “The Online Etymology Dictionary.” Nov. 2001. (accessed June 7, 2008).
Davies, Mark. “Corpus of American English.” 1990. (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. (accessed May 24, 2008).

Brought to you by the Supreme Allied Coalition of "oh, you're a linguist? how many languages do you speak?" noders.

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