One Crazy-Ass Word: The Flexibility of “Ass”

the heads of two asses of the donkey variety
Wokandapix on Pixabay

This post came about as a result of going down a rabbit hole after looking up whether “the crack of ass” was actually a variation of saying “the ass crack of dawn“, or whether I was just making that up in my head. Ass is a very versatile word, and it’s become particularly popular in North American English as a linguistic intensifier (intensifiers are words that don’t change the meaning of a word or phrase, but they turn up the emotional intensity of it). So just for fun, let’s explore some of the ways we use “ass.” Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll also take a look at fuck and shit.

Wiktionary offers several ways of using -ass as a suffix:

  • to intensify an adjective (e.g. “badass mofo”)
  • to turn an adjective into a noun (e.g. “he’s a dumbass”)
  • as a synonym of -like (Wiktionary didn’t give an example, and I can’t think of an example)

Then there’s -assed, as in if you half-assed a task. Dumbass acts as a noun, while you can use dumb-assed as an adjective with intensifier.

I came across linguistic discussions on Language Log (Can “[adjective]-ass” occur predicatively?) about where in a sentence it can go. A commenter gave these examples, pointing out that only certain words fit in certain examples, yet there aren’t clear rules as to why:

  • “That was a _____-ass party.”
  • “That party was _____-ass.” (with “badass” being a notable exception, we’re more likely to talk about a sweet-ass party rather than a party being sweet-ass)
  • “That party was ass-_____.” (ass normally comes after the word it’s attached to, but we also talk about things being ass-backwards)

Ass can occasionally be a verb, or it can refer to a person as a subject or a reflexive or non-reflexive object (source: JSTOR Daily). For example, all four of those appear here: Her sorry ass couldn’t be assed to leave the house, even to save her friend’s ass when he needed his alibi corroborated, so he got his ass thrown in jail.

Ass is a handy way of referring to the whole body (using a part to represent a whole is a synecdoche, a word I don’t think I’ve heard since high school English class). You can laugh your ass off without your rear end actually detaching from your body. You can open a can of whoop-ass, even if, as a grown-ass person, you should probably rein that in. Giving someone an ass-kicking is a very different thing from something being kick-ass.

If you come across a woman who’s a hot piece of ass (or a hot-ass woman, if you will), you may be tempted to tap that ass, although what you might actually be after is her wet-ass pussy. However, if you’re an asshole, she might think you’re just being a pain in the ass, and your ass might be shit outta luck.

Sometimes ass is interchangeable with butt, but it seems to me that if using it as an intensifier, it would need to go before the adjective that it’s paired with. For example, you may be butt-ugly or an ugly-ass woman, or you could be butt-naked or a naked-ass man. The -ass suffix can intensify in a negative direction (as in ugly-ass) or a positive direction (a sweet-ass ride). Speaking of negatives, “my ass!” can indicate that you don’t believe someone.

Wiktionary says buttload is an actual unit of measurement, although this Strong Language blog post says that while butt is a medieval unit of measurement, no one started talking about buttloads until more recently. Regardless of the legitimacy of the buttload, ass-load just doesn’t seem to work very well. I tend to prefer shit ton. While shitton is an accepted spelling, if I was reading that, the pronunciation that would first jump to mind with that would be shitten, and I’d have to think about it for a second before I realized it was the same thing as shit ton. A petition on the UK Parliament petition site suggested making a shit ton an official unit of measurement, but it only got 19 signatures.

Back in 1998, Diana Elgersma suggested an “anal-retentive hypothesis” to describe the growing American fixation on incorporating words like butt, ass, and shit. However, it seems like no one is sure how we got so obsessed with that area of the body in the first place. Freud was into that area as well (e.g. the anal triad), so who knows, maybe that provided some lube.

For those of you who speak other languages, do your languages have anywhere near this level of anal fixation? And for those of you in the UK, are people as ass-obsessed on that side of the pond?

31 thoughts on “One Crazy-Ass Word: The Flexibility of “Ass””

  1. I found this post extremely amusing.

    I do use these -ass suffix words in conversation (although I’m pretty good about not doing this in work conversation). I think it’s the sort of habit you don’t really notice in conversation, but that looks a bit odd in writing.

    Like I was writing dialogue where someone is calling someone else a “dumbass” and I wrote that stared. Kind of like when you spell something wrong. Like is “dumbass” really spelled “dumbass”? It makes it look like we should pronounce it “Dum-bass”, which is really weird. It looked so wrong that I wound up changing the dialogue so that the character was calling the other a “dipshit”. “Dipshit” looks like it’s spelled correctly, you know?

  2. Ton of fun, this! And one of these days I’m gonna go searching around and find out why ‘shit’ is so objectionable. It still gets bleeped on US network television where other ‘curse’ words get thrown around like confetti.

  3. Haha!

    I wonder if the NZ slang “that was [adjective] as,” which is a complete sentence despite being an incomplete simile, was derived from [adjective]-ass. As in, “that party was wild as, bro.”

    I like the saying “I can’t be assed”, i.e. can’t be bothered.

    1. Huh, that’s interesting. I’ve never heard anyone use “that was [adj] as” before.

      I’m also a fan of “I can’t be assed.” It’s not really something that’s said in Canada, but it really should be.

  4. In Australia it’s usually spelt arse not ass. To me the first thing I usually think when I see ass written is a donkey. Maybe that’s because I’m getting old. 🤷🏻‍♀️

  5. Johnzelle Anderson

    This was absolutely hilarious. I’ve been dealing with the ebb and flow of Covid symptoms and this was the first thing I saw after a glorious fever-induced slumber 🤣

  6. What a truly fascinating post! 😀
    We do have anal expressions in Polish, but I don’t think we’re quite as inventive, which could be down to our language being less flexible. Most of the time, if something is a noun, it’s a noun and you can’t make it a verb. You can try prefixes and suffixes that are typical for other types of words but it won’t always sound natural.
    Ass is “dupa” in Polish, and it’s used in reference to women similarly as hot ass. To make it interesting, dupek, which is a masculine noun, is used in reference to men, but definitely doesn’t mean hot, it’s more like an equivalent of the English prick. Dupny is an adjective which can mean something of bad quality, similarly as guwniany (shitty). You can say you have something or someone in your ass, which means you don’t care about this thing or person, or if you want to be more polite you can use “somewhere” instead of “in my ass”. Or that something is to the ass, which means it’s bad. You can tell someone to kiss your ass if you want them to get lost. Or kick them in the ass, aka motivate them to do something in an unpleasant way, by hurting them or something. Or lick their ass, aka suck up. A place that’s in the middle of nowhere is called zadupie, which suggests it’s behind the ass. And there are surely more.
    Shit is guwno, but no one will just randomly yell “Guwno!” as you can do with shit. You can use shit as a synonym of nothing: “It’s worth shit”, “You know shit about it” or respond to a question like “What?” with “Shit!” And then there’s guwniarz (masculine) and guwniara (feminine) which is a sometimes mildly condescending, sometimes downright vulgar word for someone young/younger than yourself – usually a kid or adolescent, or someone unexperienced. – It literally means shitter. We also use a pile of shit as a way to say that something is bad or trashy, which is the more funny that pile is kupa in Polish, and kupa can also mean poop so it’s literally poop of shit.

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