With the passing of Scott Walker, who found pop-music fame as a member of the Walker Brothers before setting out on an inimitable solo career, the singer’s best-known work has been making the rounds online. One particularly memorable song from Walker was his first solo single, “Jackie,” released in December 1967. “Jackie” was an English-language rendering of Jacques Brel’s “La chanson de Jacky,” translated from French by Mort Shuman (a Brill Building songwriter who would go on to co-create the musical revue Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris). Both the French and English lyrics were quite racy for the time. The English chorus, as unforgettably delivered by Walker, goes:
If I could be for only an hour
If I could be for an hour every day
If I could be for just one little hour
A-cute-cute in a stupid-ass way
In the original French, the chorus is:
Être une heure, une heure seulement
Être une heure, une heure quelquefois
Être une heure, rien qu’une heure durant
Beau, beau, beau et con à la fois
That last line could be more faithfully translated as “beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, and an idiot at the same time.” As elsewhere in the song, Shuman took creative liberties with his translation, but Brel’s mischievous spirit still shines through. In this case, Brel used the word con, a common French insult that ultimately derives from Latin cunnus ‘vulva’ but lacks the offensiveness of English cunt. (For more on con and its English equivalents, see Richard Beard’s “Translating French Swear Words.” Con also came up in John Kelly’s Strong Language post, “Pardon my French: Lewd language lessons in Henry V.”)
Shuman’s choice to render the line as “a-cute-cute in a stupid-ass way” is certainly peculiar, and more than half a century later it still comes as a bit of a jolt to hear Walker sing it. How did people perceive it at the time? It probably depended which side of the Atlantic they were on. Walker was an American, but he settled in the UK in 1965 and received much more acclaim there. The “Jackie” single failed to chart in the US, while it hit #22 on the British charts. It likely would have done much better had it not been denied airplay in the UK. According to Scott Walker: The Rhymes of Goodbye by Lewis Williams, the BBC “effectively banned the record from its airwaves and TV broadcasts.” The lyrics that were evidently the most objectionable to the BBC occurred elsewhere in the song, when Walker sang of “authentic queers and phony virgins.” (That’s Shuman’s translation of Brel’s “de vrais pédés, de fausses vierges.”)
But what of stupid-ass? On 45cat, an online archive of 7-inch singles, the page for “Jackie” includes comments from British and American record collectors musing on the lyrics. From the UK side, Tony Moss wrote, “I am amazed at how he got away with saying the word ‘stupid@rse’ at the end of each chorus, yet 2 years later, The Kinks song Plastic Man got banned for saying ‘bum’… Oh, hang on, he means ‘ass’ as in donkey?” Another commenter, TheJudge, responded: “Perhaps because it sounded more like ‘stupid-ass’ which would have got around potential objections by claiming it was about a donkey… And it would have been deemed an Americanism anyway.”
In American English, ass for “donkey” and arse for “buttocks” merged historically into the single word ass, and confusion over this ambiguity has reigned ever since. Calling someone “a stupid ass,” for instance, would be relatively tame under the “donkey” reading of ass, but as the equivalent of British arse it would be much more vulgar. Asshole of course dispels with the ambiguity, as that can only be understood anatomically. (For more, see Lynne Murphy’s post “Arse, ass and other bottoms” on her Separated by a Common Language blog.)
Calling someone “a stupid ass,” regardless of whether it’s the “donkey” or “buttocks” meaning at play, is rather different from using stupid-ass as an adjective, however. That construction takes advantage of -ass as a general intensifier in American English, and we can surmise that’s how Shuman (and Walker) intended it. By 1967, the -ass suffix had been percolating for a few decades in American slang, though it would soon take off in a major way, especially in African-American English. (I’ve previously written about the -ass suffix in two Language Log posts: “Can ‘[adjective]-ass’ occur predicatively?” and “A productive-ass suffix.” See the links here for further relevant discussion on Language Log and elsewhere.)
The African-American colloquial use of -ass has been key to its spread in recent decades, as discussed by Arthur Spears in his 1998 article, “African-American language use: Ideology and so-called obscenity” (in African-American English, edited by Mufwene, Rickford, Bailey, and Baugh). Spears identifies three types of African-American uses of ass: anatomical (referring to the buttocks), metonymic (where ass, standing for a person, can be used as a pseudo-pronoun, as in get your ass out of here), and what he calls “discourse –ass,” where it can attach as a suffix to nouns, adjectives, or even verb phrases for intensification and other pragmatic purposes.
It’s unclear to what extent the stupid-ass of “Jackie” was influenced by African-American usage of -ass. While the slang references I checked don’t have adjectival examples of stupid-ass predating 1967, the synonym dumb-ass does appear earlier. Here are the early citations gathered by Jonathon Green in the entry for dumb-ass(ed) in Green’s Dictionary of Slang:
1934 B. Appel Brain Guy (1937) 60: Betting his life on the card of a dumb ass crack.
1956 H. Gold Man Who Was Not With It (1965) 257: Well then you’re nothing but another dumb-ass mark in the crowd.
1957 H. Simmons Corner Boy 198: You’re nothing but a dumb-assed nigger!
1962 (con. WWII) J.O. Killens And Then We Heard The Thunder (1964) 29: You too educated for us dumb-ass colored soldiers.
(Stupid-ass doesn’t have a separate entry in GDoS, but it appears in the entry for the –ass suffix with citations starting in 1971, in The Thief: The Autobiography of Wayne Burk as told to Ted Thackrey: “My stupid-ass nephew’s smarter than that.”)
It strikes me that at least early on, the adjectival use of dumb-ass and stupid-ass had a kind of strategic ambiguity. Because “dumb” and “stupid” are qualities associated with donkeys, the “donkey” meaning of ass could have been foremost in many people’s minds. But for those in the know, especially those familiar with African-American slang, it would have had more of a connection to the anatomical sense. (That connection would have been undeniable in the written form dumb-assed or stupid-assed; it’s been argued that the -ass suffix arose out of a dialectal pronunciation of -assed that dropped the final /t/ sound.)
So, while the BBC was fretting about “authentic queers and phony virgins” in deciding whether “Jackie” deserved airplay, they may have missed a much more obvious bit of vulgarity in the chorus. As the 45cat commenters conjectured, the “donkey” meaning of ass could have provided plausible deniability for a rather innocuous reading of “a stupid-ass way.” But my guess is that both Shuman and Walker were using the word in a more smart-ass way.