A new online archive of Civil War correspondence promises to shed light on historical varieties of nonstandard American English. Two linguists, Michael Ellis (Missouri State University) and Michael Montgomery (University of South Carolina), have teamed up with historian Stephen Berry (University of Georgia) to create “Private Voices,” an archive of letters from Civil War soldiers. Based on correspondence collected by Ellis and Montgomery as part of the Corpus of American Civil War Letters, the Private Voices archive focuses on the writing of soldiers who were “untrained in spelling, punctuation, or the use of capital letters,” according to the press release announcing the launch of the site (which you can read here).
Soon after news of the archive was shared on the American Dialect Society mailing list, Jonathan Lighter (author of the Historical Dictionary of American Slang) began looking for hidden treasures. He swiftly turned up a letter from 1862 in which the author, an infantryman from Virginia, appears to express a violent sentiment: “I want to kick ass.”
You can read the whole letter here. The writer was John B. Gregory of Pittsylvania County, Virginia, serving in Company B of the 38th Virginia Infantry. His letter is dated Feb. 17, 1862, from a camp near Manassas Junction. (This was in between the first and second battles of Bull Run, or the battles of Manassas as they were known in the South.) In the letter, Gregory writes to the folks back home, “old capen gilburt is doun her doing All he Can to get us to volenter Agan he Think evry one orter stay” (i.e., “Old Captain Gilbert is down here doing all he can to get us to volunteer again; he thinks everyone ought to stay”). And then, in between the lines right above “one orter stay,” Gregory adds, “I want to kick ass.”
At least that’s what it looks like. But was Gregory suggesting he wanted to kick Old Captain Gilbert’s ass — or did he want to “kick ass” in general? Jonathan Lighter notes on ADS-L, “Something sounds a little off about ‘kick ass,’ but I don’t know how to interpret it except in the current sense.” The “current sense” is defined by Lighter’s Historical Dictionary of American Slang as follows:
kick ass [or (euphem.) butt or tail] 1 Esp. Mil. to enforce one’s authority or otherwise assert oneself mercilessly or pugnaciously; (also) (prob. the orig. sense) to subdue others by beatings…
2. to inflict punishment or defeat (in general). — usu. considered vulgar.
The earliest citation given in HDAS is from exactly one hundred years after the 1862 letter:
1962 Killens Heard the Thunder 44 [ref. to WWII]: Them Japs are kicking asses and taking names [in the Pacific].
Jonathon Green takes the expression back a bit further, to 1956, in his more recent work, Green’s Dictionary of Slang:
1956 N. Algren Walk on the Wild Side 78: I’m so tired of kickin’ asses I just think I’ll start crushing skulls.
Could the Civil War letter really represent an antedating of nearly a century? It’s true that obscene language can persist for decades in oral use before appearing in print, but it’s hard to believe kick ass could have stayed under the radar for that long. Still, the transcription here looks accurate.
Regardless of how we interpret the letter, this is just one tantalizing example of many that should turn up in the Private Voices archive as the site grows. It launched with 4,000 letters from four Southern states (North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama), and according to the press release, 6,000 more transcribed letters from New England, the Northeast, and the Midwest are expected in the coming year, “along with a dynamic mapping feature so users can explore regional variations in word usage and speech patterns.” That sounds pretty kick-ass to me.