I recently read Åsa Larsson’s The Savage Altar, translated into English from the original Swedish. It was a perfectly Scandinavian murder mystery, and for the majority of the book I did not notice it was a work in translation. There was one thing that kept tripping me up as I read:
You’ve invented a new kind of bidet for the American market: an inexpensive, easy-to-install attachment that replaces toilet paper with a water stream. You’ve given your invention a cheeky name: Tushy.
Now you need a mascot to give your product a face. Naturally, you choose … an asshole. And you give it a starring role in a nearly three-minute-long advertorial.
“But like literally: Poop comes out of me.”
Sort of a manic pixie dream asshole, actually, with a potty mouth that cheerfully emits English swears and English-inflected Yiddish scatology along with a generous dose of social shaming.
Profanity, sometimes the language of celebration, also often gives us something to celebrate. In comedy, it can signify a character’s superiority to situation, the fluid personality unimpeded by almost inevitably hostile circumstance, even if that’s just the prospect of meeting someone in a bar, or dealing with star-crossed love or your crazy parents, or whatever. Profanity provokes a smile or chuckle, too, when it’s used against type, when the good girl emits an unexpected fuck. Who saw that coming? It’s a verbal pratfall.
In earlier installments of the bitch chronicles, we’ve observed these stylistic effects in the situation comedy How I Met Your Mother, its sure-tongued use of son of a bitch and various euphemisms for it, especially Lily Aldrin’s Inigo Montoya-influenced You son of a beetch. It was all in good fun, but some of HIMYM’s bitching appropriates Black Language and whitewashes it for a mass audience. That’s not fun for everyone. On this point, HIMYM is inadvertently political. Its misappropriations of African American-inflected bitch ring false and rather than promote comedy interfere with it, at least for some viewers.
How much do you love swearing? Enough to order a mystery box of swear-themed merchandise? Enough to order a monthly delivery of mysterious sweary shit? For a whole year?
Emily Simonis, a graphic designer, embroidery artist, and self-described “resident profanity expert” in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is counting on a lot of affirmative answers. Her new subscription business, CussCrate, is dedicated to the proposition that people need, in her words and capitalization style, MORE PROFANITY. We at Strong Language agree! So Emily graciously sent a sample box for us (OK, me, Nancy) to review.
Ass shows up a lot on Strong Language. We’ve looked at kick ass and my ass, lick-my-ass and assclowns and asshats, among other-ass things – or other ass-things, if you prefer the xkcd hyphenation. (See Language Log for a lit-ass –ass lit review.)
As a suffix, –ass is used to form ‘generally negative (but increasingly positive too) adjectives and occasionally nouns’, notes Green’s Dictionary of Slang. This Janus nature recurs in slang, as in the contradictory shit vs. the shit. And you can’t spell Janus without anus.
A search for ass on GDoS currently yields 137 results, and the main entry for ass (n.) has 184 subentries, with compounds like ass-bucket (‘unpopular or unimportant person’) and expressions like give up the ass (‘accede to seduction’) and up to one’s ass in alligators (‘in very serious troubles’).
Ass, in short, gets around. It’s a seriously productive-ass piece of vocabulary.