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?

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

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