I recently read Åsa Larsson’s The Savage Altar, translated into English from the original Swedish. It was a perfectly Scandinavian murder mystery, and for the majority of the book I did not notice it was a work in translation. There was one thing that kept tripping me up as I read:
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.
This is a guest post by Cory O’Brien (@bettermyths), who is currently studying American Sign Language (ASL) at Columbia College Chicago. Cory has published two swear-laden books, George Washington is Cash Money and Zeus Grants Stupid Wishes, and runs a Swear of the Month Club which you can subscribe to at: patreon.com/bettermyths.
The signers in the GIFs below are Ethan Cook and Peter Wujcik, Deaf ASL tutors at Columbia College Chicago.
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Whenever I tell someone that I’m studying American Sign Language, there is a nonzero chance that they’ll trot out the same tired joke: “Oh yeah? I know some sign language! [Flips me the bird.]” They laugh, and I laugh, and we promptly stop being friends. Really, though, these people have no idea just how right they are. It’s only that, when you’re talking about a language that has spent hundreds of years figuring out how to squeeze the absolute most meaning out of every part of a hand, merely throwing up a middle finger is the linguistic equivalent of showing up to a duel and then firing your pistol straight into the air.
In English, the middle finger is a gesture, as opposed to a word. A gesture is a physical (or verbal) action, like a nod or a head shake or a grunt, that you can’t use as a part of a longer sentence. You can’t say “[middle finger] you, Steve!” You can dress your middle finger up with all kinds of fancy pageantry – pretending to peel a banana, or scratch your eye, or crank a jack-in-the-box, for example – but the meaning is always more or less the same: Fuck you.
In ASL, the middle finger itself still isn’t a word, but it’s not exactly a gesture either. It’s a part of a word, a morpheme. Signs in ASL have five distinct elements that give them meaning: Location, Palm Orientation, Hand Shape, Movement, and Non-Manual Markers (essentially facial expressions). In ASL, the iconic meaning of the middle finger (an erect cock and balls) has been almost entirely eliminated, but the emotional connotations of the gesture have been retained. So, when incorporated into a sign, the middle finger provides the hand shape, but the meaning of that hand shape in context varies drastically depending on the other parameters used, allowing for an endless array of middle-finger-based swears and idioms. What follows is a mere sampling of that variety, and the techniques used to create it.
Whereas in English we flip someone off with the back of our hand oriented towards the offending party, ASL has made the palm orientation a meaning component, adapting the gesture so that the middle finger points towards the object of the swear:
This is part of a larger tendency in ASL to encode subject–object relationships with directional verbs. Another example is the idiom “Mutual Hatred”:
“Hang him, mechanical salt-butter rogue!” Falstaff colorfully denounces Master Ford as a working-class peon in The Merry Wives of Windsor (2.2.246). Shakespeare packs this gender and class comedy with pranks, pratfalls, and, yes, profanity. But no swearing is quite as memorable, and impressive, as its famed Latin lesson. That’s right: It wasn’t enough for the Bard to concoct his artful swears in his English. He cooked them up in Latin, too.
Sometime in the twentieth century, shit—having already long been a verb and then a noun—also became an adjective, as in He was a shit teacher or That restaurant has shit service. Exactly when this happened is a bit tricky to pin down, precisely because of the word’s versatility. In many contexts, the shit you think is an adjective might actually be a noun.
There’s a common misconception that putting one noun in front of another noun turns the first into an adjective: Continue reading