Unass and ass up

We like ass at Strong Language, and it’s an impressively productive piece of vocabulary. Recently I came across a whole new use of it – new to me, that is – in Jay Dobyns’s undercover-biker memoir No Angel. That use is unass, and it turns out to have more than one meaning.

Here it is in Dobyns’s book:

1. About a hundred miles in, we pulled off at Cordes Junction to gas up. We stopped at a Mobil and unassed. My legs and shoulders were killing me.

2. Meeting the Angels in a tent outside during the day wasn’t the same as riding our bikes into their driveway at 153 South LeBaron, kicking down, unassing, and walking right into their cinderblock stronghold.

3. We roared into the strip around six, and made our way to the Hard Rock. We pulled in looking like a pack of drowned rats. The valets tried not to stare at us as they attended to the normal procession of cars containing tourists and minor television stars. Two security guards approached as we unassed.

The context makes unass’s sense apparent: ‘dismount (a bike)’. The book also features what appears to be the word’s antonym: the phrase ass up. It’s an inevitable sequence: one asses up, then unasses.

4. We went outside, assed up, and started our engines.

5. I told everyone we wouldn’t stay longer than an hour or two. In and out, meet and greet, get the lay of the land, that kind of thing. As we assed-up I looked at my guys.

(Not to be assy about it, but as a copy-editor I’d have omitted that hyphen. While I’m in parentheses, I want to quote an unrelated bit of choice language in No Angel, where Dobyns describes Sonny Barger as ‘one of the hardest, no-shit-taking-est Angels to ever walk the earth’. No-shit-taking-est! That is some superlative-ass compound morphology.)

So what do slang experts have on unass and ass up? Green’s Dictionary of Slang (GDoS) by Jonathon Green, who has written for Strong Language, has an entry for unass that offers two senses: ‘hand over, give up’, since 1969:

‘Unass mah money, lady.’ (Iceberg Slim, Mama Black Widow)

And ‘leave, abandon’ (1989), which is close to the ‘dismount’ sense and may have led to it by extension, if my hunch is correct:

Then we jumped aboard and unassed the place. (David H. Hackworth and Julie Sherman, About Face)

Green tells me that unass ‘seems to be a Vietnam coinage’ and is listed in Gregory Clark’s Words of the Vietnam War. There may be earlier military examples, he adds, that are unrecorded to date: ‘Korea, largely unwritten up in comparison, gifted much to Vietnam’.

The word may be of Black English provenance. An early citation for unass, sent to me by Green, appears in a Black lexicon of 1967 by Robert H. deCoy, quoted in Edith Folb’s Comparative Study of Urban Black Argot (PDF):

UNASS (v.) To surrender or give up something; to remove one’s presence from a scene or place.

GDoS also has two senses for ass up: ‘take drugs’, in US Black slang, and as part of the phrase ass up to, meaning ‘toady to, curry favour’, dating to at least 1970 per the Dictionary of American Regional English.

Then I found a definition of unass that includes the narrow sense in which Dobyns uses it, at A Way With Words, courtesy of co-host Grant Barrett’s Double-Tongued Dictionary:

unass v. to dismount or disembark (a vehicle); to get off of (something); to unseat (someone); to leave (somewhere). Editorial Note: This term dates back to at least the 1960s and the Vietnam War. It is especially associated with the military, from where it has spread to politics and aeronautics.

I can see its potential in politics and aeronautics, though I’ve yet to notice it in either domain. The Routledge Dictionary of Modern American Slang (ed. Tom Dalzell) defines unassing (n.) as ‘getting out of a helicopter’ and includes unass in the related senses ‘stand up’ and ‘remove yourself from your immediate location’.

Wiktionary has unass ‘get out of (a vehicle or building)’, and there are some inevitable half-assed entries in Urban Dictionary. And that’s where I unass this post. But you can bet your arse I’ll find a way to use unass in conversation today.

A line of bikers begin to dismount their motorbikes. Nearest, on the left, is Hugh Keays-Byrne, with wild two-toned hair and a careful gaze left. About half a dozen other bikers are in various stages of dismount to his right, one wearing goggles and a mask over his mouth. Behind them is a row of businesses on the street.
Hugh Keays-Byrne (‘Toecutter’) and his biker gang unass en masse in Mad Max (1979)

11 thoughts on “Unass and ass up

  1. Ian Bagger July 4, 2020 / 7:20 pm

    When I was in the US Army in the 1980’s “unass the A.O. [area of operations]” was a stock phrase that basically meant “leave the area” or, when you had it yelled at you by a drill instructor, get the hell out of there in a hurry. “You recruits best unass my A.O.!”


    • Stan Carey July 4, 2020 / 8:49 pm

      Nice example. I can see how the phrase could catch on – it’s pithy and expressive.


  2. Patrick Collins July 4, 2020 / 11:28 pm

    The OED has one example of unass as a verb from 1654, with a slightly different nuance to the dismounting:

    E. Gayton Pleasant Notes Don Quixot iv. iii. 184 Gines Passamont..With Sancho’s Asse unto a Fare was packing; The quick-eyed Bore had spied him, and unass’d him.

    Perhaps some of those US soldiers were fans of Quixote and had read all the commentaries on his writing.


    • Patrick Collins July 4, 2020 / 11:31 pm

      Obviously I meant Cervantes and his writing and should have been asleep a few hours ago.


      • Stan Carey July 5, 2020 / 7:32 am

        So it does. And my search history tells me I looked it up after reading the book a month ago, then I forgot all about it when I wrote it up. My memory just unassed my brain.

        Obviously I meant Cervantes…

        He would approve of that slip, I’m sure.


  3. Stan Carey July 5, 2020 / 6:52 pm

    Grant Barrett has sent me the entry for unass from his Official Dictionary of Unofficial Slang, which is based on the Double-Tongued Dictionary that I quote in the post. It includes some choice quotations:


  4. Michelle July 19, 2020 / 11:03 pm

    Here in NZ, arsed up means you made a mistake. For example “he arsed up putting the tyre on the car.” Related, when the outcome is bad: “well, that tyre is arsed up.”


    • Michelle July 19, 2020 / 11:06 pm

      Also: “what an arse up”. Often ns the form: “what a complete and utter arse up.”


      • Stan Carey July 20, 2020 / 7:47 am

        Thank you – I overlooked this somehow. It’s not just a NZ usage: the OED dates ass up ‘mess up’ to 1932 and arse up to 1951. There’s every chance they’re older than that. The phrase fits a general set of X up = ‘make a mistake’ (where X is often taboo or vulgar but needn’t be), alongside ball(s) up, bollix up, botch up, foul up, fuck up, mess up, and muck up.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s