Country singer Neal McCoy has a new song called “Take a Knee, My Ass,” bluntly commenting on the controversy over NFL players kneeling during the national anthem. He performed it in concert, and the Facebook live stream has gone viral. Buzzfeed has helpfully transcribed some of the lyrics:
I’ll honor the ones who gave it all
So we’re all free to go play ball
If only for their sake
I won’t take a knee
Arm and arm, side by side
America’s heroes fought and died
Is showing some respect too much to ask?
I speak for those whose freedom was not free
And I say
Take a knee
(McCoy prefaced the song by saying it has “a bad word in it,” in case anyone was offended by the word ass.)
The “take a knee” part of the chorus and title is a straightforward allusion to the kneeling football players. (See my Language Log post for a history of the expression.) But the “my ass” part introduces another body part into the mix, and people have been having fun intentionally misinterpreting it.
A Twitter Moment rounding up reactions to the song is rather inaccurately called, “People are questioning the grammar of country song Take A Knee, My Ass.” There is, of course, nothing ungrammatical about the song title, and the confusion people have about it would best be described as mock confusion — or, as Buzzfeed puts it, trolling. A selection:
So the shared joke is that “my ass” represents the addressee in a vocative construction, with the imperative “take a knee” interpreted as an order that the singer’s ass must follow. Now, granted, a change in punctuation might have cleared this up.
But there’s really no ambiguity here, despite the juxtaposition of the two named body parts, knee and ass. The knee is a literal reference to a knee (in the act of kneeling on one), while the ass is not literal at all. Allow me to destroy the humor even further.
Historically, “my [body part]” has been used as an idiomatic interjection to express contemptuous disbelief about another person’s opinion, and the more vulgar the body part, the more strenuous the objection. On the non-vulgar side, we have my eye (dated by the Oxford English Dictionary to 1826, predated by the similar expression all my eye) and my foot (dated to 1921). On the vulgar end of the spectrum, a commenter in a discussion on English Language & Usage Stack Exchange notes you can say my left nut. But my ass, preceded by the British equivalent my arse, has a remarkably long history.
The OED supplies an early example that doesn’t quite follow the familiar idiom but shows how it might have developed. Ben Jonson’s 1602 play Poetaster includes this exchange between the characters Crispinus and Tucca:
Cris. They say, he’s valiant.
Tvcc. Valiant? so is mine arse.
In Green’s Dictionary of Slang, Jonathon Green shows how my/mine arse continued to develop over the years as a vulgar objection in British English:
1675 Character of a Town-Gallant in C. Hindley Old Bk Collector’s Misc. 10: He is […] A Baboon usurping Human Shape; or (to use his own silly nasty Phrase) Mine A-se all over.
1734 C. Johnson Hist. of Highwaymen &c. 62: Quaeso, quaeso, my Arse, answered the Footman.
1749 Fielding Tom Jones (1959) 506: ‘You frighten the young lady so, that you deprive her of all power of uttrance.’ ‘Power of mine a—’ answered the squire.
1831 Navy at Home I 151: ‘As you can’t converse like a gentleman, I shall find a time and place to talk to you in another strain.’ — ‘Strain, my a — e, let’s drop it’.
By the mid-twentieth century, American usage of my ass had become common, though for a while it was too vulgar to print in most publications. More examples from Green:
1945 in G. Legman Rationale of the Dirty Joke (1972) I 303: Wee-wee my ass! Where the hell is the nearest whore-house!
1951 L. Brown Iron City 40: Alimony, my ass!
1965 F. Pollini Glover 14: Take a look — my sweet ass!
1977 E. Bunker Animal Factory 167: ‘Rams, my ass!’ said Earl, getting up . . . ‘They oughta call ’em Lambs’.
1987 T. Wolfe Bonfire of the Vanities 199: My ass, it’s a possibility.
1990 S. Morgan Homeboy 138: Clean, my ass […] I’ve been having yeast infections ever since I come to work here.
Green further observes that my hairy arse/ass has been used as an intensified version of the expression. In Skagboys, a novel by Irvine Welsh (the prequel to Trainspotting), we get a Scottish twist: “Upset my hairy ersehole. It’s this shite that upsets me.” That’s in line with other ass insults that get further vulgarized by adding a description: kiss my ass is one thing, but kiss my fat hairy ass (which you can abbreviate as KMFHA if you’re in a hurry) is quite another. (My favorite literary example comes from Zora Neale Hurston’s 1942 autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road, where she quotes a woman at a Florida juke joint as saying, “You kiss my black, independent, money-making ass!”)
So regardless of what people’s objections are to McCoy’s song, it’s perfectly idiomatic. If you want to complain about it, perhaps you could just say, “Take A Knee, My Ass,’ my ass!”