Linguist, lexicographer, radio host, public speaker

Where would we be without “ass”?

My latest column in the Malaysia Star.

In its most common form, “ass” means one’s buttocks, rear end, behind, etc. The slangy use of it, though, means fool or stupid person.

You can probably see how that came about: an ass is a taboo place on the body because that’s where we excrete our waste. Nobody wants to be associated with excrement. So “ass” is used in all sorts of ways that are negative. The British equivalent and the older form, “arse”, is understood by Americans and Canadians, but they only tend to use it themselves self-consciously when making reference to the United Kingdom or English spoken on other continents.

“Ass” is informal enough that you’re unlikely to hear politicians use it in interviews, yet a parent might publicly say “Move your ass!” to a poky (slow-moving) child. It would be understood by onlookers that the parent was upset or frustrated because it’s a bit of an impolite way to say “hurry up!”

“Move your butt!” would be a politer, milder way to say the same thing.

“Get your ass in gear!” would be a ruder way of saying it. As you can guess, “to get your ass in gear” comes from putting the engine of a car in gear.

“Get the lead out of your ass!” would be an even ruder way of putting it. Lead is a heavy metal, so if one is said to have lead in one’s ass, they act as if they’re slowed down by a heavy load.

In all three of those phrases, “ass” and “butt” are used to mean an entire person. They are “meronyms”, which means part of something is used to mean the entire thing.

“Haul ass!” also means “move faster!” Interestingly, in this case “ass” is working as a mass noun, as opposed to a count noun as it usually does. A mass noun is one, like “sheep” or “fish”, in which the plural word is the same as the singular.

In very recent slang, you’ll find “ass” as a mass noun in expressions like “That smells like ass!”, meaning that it doesn’t smell very good.

Back to nicer “asses”. A parent might also say “Don’t be a pain in the ass” to a child who is being difficult or annoying. In that case, a “pain in the ass” is an informal, not very polite expression that means “something bothersome or annoying”. It refers only figuratively to an actual ass.

Another way in which “ass” is used is as an intensifier. By tacking it on after an adjective or noun, you can emphasise its meaning. This is what linguist Diana Elgersma’s humorously calls an “anal emphatic”.

For example, “That is a big-ass piece of cake” means “That’s a very big piece of cake”.

“That’s a crap-ass computer” means the computer is really bad. “Crap”, as I’ve mentioned here before, is an informal way of saying something is poorly made, poorly operated, or overall just a sorry-assed thing.

“That’s one sad-assed cake” means the cake is poorly made, small, or in some other way not a very good cake at all. It’s kind of sad-looking.

“The cop was a real hard-ass” means that the police officer was firm, obstinate, or harsh in his treatment. To be “hard” in this context means to be stern and uncompromising.

“That was a crazy-ass party” means the party was chaotic in a good way. Crazy here means disorganised, confusing, crowded, or loud, which, in this case, are all good things.

“He’s a bad-ass” is a bit more complicated. “Bad” in this sense is positive, taking on the idea of “good or excellent in a tough or strong way”. So someone who is a bad-ass is a very tough or strong person.

These anal emphatics come in two forms. Sometimes “-ass” is added, and sometimes “-assed” is added. In general, they mean the same things and work in the sentences the same way, though you should be alert to subtle differences, such as whether the word that is created works as a noun (as in the case of “hard-ass” and “bad-ass”) or an adjective (as in the case of “crap-ass,” “crazy-ass,” and “sad-assed”).

There are probably enough things happening with “ass” to write a book, but I’ll give you a few more that you’re likely to hear.

If someone says, “I busted ass to get the garden planted this year”, they mean that they worked very hard to sow seeds and plant seedlings.

“That’s a kick-ass computer” means the computer is great or excellent. “To kick ass” means to be good at something. It’s a variation of “to kick someone’s ass”, which means to beat them in a fight or contest.

“Raggedy-ass” means shabby, beat-up, overused, or pathetic. “She trotted out that raggedy-ass story about her trip to Greece again” means that she has told the same story too many times.

“Don’t be bringing those raggedy-assed animals into my house” means that the animals are soiled or generally unclean-looking.

author avatar
Grant Barrett