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.
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.