With Joe Pesci back in the spotlight thanks to The Irishman, and Christmas just around the corner, I’ve been remembering one of his finest performances – as hapless burglar Harry Lyme in Home Alone. It’s easy to forget how against-type this role was for Pesci, best known for playing menacing, foul-mouthed criminals in gangster films like Casino:
(Don’t miss the TV version, with its fancy hecking swear-avoidance.)
When Pesci was sent the script for Home Alone, he ‘saw he could do something with it’, according to executive producer Mark Levinson. But the filmmakers knew that Harry Lyme would be a challenge for Pesci. In a behind-the-scenes featurette on the DVD, director of photography Julio Macat says:
Previous bitch chronicles considered the stylistic opportunities that bitch and its derivates (son of a bitch) and euphemisms (son of a me) provide situation comedies like How I Met Your Mother (HIMYM — for basic facts about the show, see part 1), especially in the pace and punch of dialogue and in characterization. Some bitchy items support pop-cultural references bound to resonate with viewers as well as characterize the show’s protagonists. You son of a beech, for example, coordinates with cross-season references to The Princess Bride that characterize Ted Mosby and Marshall Erikson’s inner-childishness, yet it also allows Lily Aldrin a slightly euphemized signature swear consistent with her paradoxical personality. Some bitches in the series may misappropriate African American speech, and sometimes the characters use bitch as a weapon rather than a means of building in-group solidarity, so bitch has its dark side in the series, as it does in life. Thus, HIMYM is a rich, complex, and accurate description of bitch, its uses and abuses. Continue reading
Earlier bitch chronicles have celebrated highly evolved bitches, but How I Met Your Mother (HIMYM) acknowledges bitch’s baser uses, too. For instance, you can deploy weaponized bitch against people you hate or despise. You can use it glibly to abuse anyone outside your own group, exactly the opposite of using bitch to build solidarity within the group. But you cannot use basic bitch against a woman friend, neither to her face nor indirectly in a way that gets back to her. HIMYM demonstrates over and over just how rhetorically and stylistically impressive a bitch can be, but some bitches confront a stone face and stop time. Continue reading
Profanity, sometimes the language of celebration, also often gives us something to celebrate. In comedy, it can signify a character’s superiority to situation, the fluid personality unimpeded by almost inevitably hostile circumstance, even if that’s just the prospect of meeting someone in a bar, or dealing with star-crossed love or your crazy parents, or whatever. Profanity provokes a smile or chuckle, too, when it’s used against type, when the good girl emits an unexpected fuck. Who saw that coming? It’s a verbal pratfall.
In earlier installments of the bitch chronicles, we’ve observed these stylistic effects in the situation comedy How I Met Your Mother, its sure-tongued use of son of a bitch and various euphemisms for it, especially Lily Aldrin’s Inigo Montoya-influenced You son of a beetch. It was all in good fun, but some of HIMYM’s bitching appropriates Black Language and whitewashes it for a mass audience. That’s not fun for everyone. On this point, HIMYM is inadvertently political. Its misappropriations of African American-inflected bitch ring false and rather than promote comedy interfere with it, at least for some viewers.
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.