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.
Native English users take this versatility for granted. If English isn’t your first language, though, it can be hard to get a handle on ass. Finnish comedian Ismo Leikola, appearing on Conan this week, said he found ass ‘the hardest word to truly master’.
So when life gives you ass, make assets: in this case, good comedy. The ass part begins at 1:50, but the whole clip is worth watching:
I studied English for years, and I thought I know English, but then I moved to America, turns out … no. Like, I didn’t really know it, like, all the things.
I think the hardest word to truly master has been the word … ass. Ass. I thought, it’s really easy, it means ‘a butt’. But no. Like yes, sometimes it can mean a butt, but that’s just the tip of the … assberg.
Like, there are so many meanings to the word ass. I think it’s the most complicated word in English. I’ve been trying to write a whole dictionary about just ass.
There are so many, like for example, lazy-ass. That means lazy. Like, ‘my lazy-ass husband’, it’s the same sentence without the ass. Yeah. The ass is just optional there. And long-ass means long. Like a long-ass flight, it’s a long flight. But if you want to make it longer, you can add ass.
And my definite favourite one: a grown-ass man. It turns out it means a grown man. The entire man has grown – not only his ass. So I learned that you can just add ass to anything and then it sounds a little bit cooler. Like anything. I just bought this blue-ass shirt. Oh, thank you, that was some good-ass meatballs. Anything.
But you have to be careful, because sometimes if you add ass to something, it can actually reverse the meaning of the original word. Like for example bad-ass. That’s ‘good’. Bad is ‘bad’ but bad-ass is ‘good’. But not always. Like dumbass is still ‘dumb’. So how can you know? You have to know specifically which ones are flipped.
And then there’s the concept of your ass. And your ass, that means like ‘yourself’. Like, Move your ass! That’s like ‘move everything’. Move your ass and the rest of your body and, like, everything. And if you have a car, that’s included in the ass. All of them, same direction. Just move.
So your ass means yourself plus all you have. But my ass, my ass, that means like … no. Like, if I say that, Wow, this car is really fast, and you say, Oh, fast, my ass. So it means like no, it’s not fast.
And to make it even more complicated, ass can be divided. Like, if you are an ass, that means that you’re being stupid. But if you’re half-assed, then it means that you are not concentrating properly. And if you go even smaller, if you are a piece of ass, then you are beautiful.
[hat-tip to Mike Pope]