The quarterly update of the Oxford English Dictionary is always an occasion for rejoicing among hardcore lexicography buffs. The latest update is an even bigger bumper crop than usual, with a whopping 1,400 new words, senses, and subentries online. If you skim through the public list, you’ll see that a very large number have to do with the words arse, ass, bum, and butt, including related phrases and compounds. You might even say there’s a metric buttload of such additions. (Buttload, by the way, was already added to the OED back in June 2009, citing examples going back to 1988 — none of the metric variety, unfortunately.)
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.
Country singer Neal McCoy has a new song called “Take a Knee, My Ass,” bluntly commenting on the controversy over NFL players kneeling during the national anthem. He performed it in concert, and the Facebook live stream has gone viral. Buzzfeed has helpfully transcribed some of the lyrics:
I’ll honor the ones who gave it all
So we’re all free to go play ball
If only for their sake
I won’t take a knee
Arm and arm, side by side
America’s heroes fought and died
Is showing some respect too much to ask?
I speak for those whose freedom was not free
And I say
Take a knee
(McCoy prefaced the song by saying it has “a bad word in it,” in case anyone was offended by the word ass.)
The “take a knee” part of the chorus and title is a straightforward allusion to the kneeling football players. (See my Language Log post for a history of the expression.) But the “my ass” part introduces another body part into the mix, and people have been having fun intentionally misinterpreting it.
A new online archive of Civil War correspondence promises to shed light on historical varieties of nonstandard American English. Two linguists, Michael Ellis (Missouri State University) and Michael Montgomery (University of South Carolina), have teamed up with historian Stephen Berry (University of Georgia) to create “Private Voices,” an archive of letters from Civil War soldiers. Based on correspondence collected by Ellis and Montgomery as part of the Corpus of American Civil War Letters, the Private Voices archive focuses on the writing of soldiers who were “untrained in spelling, punctuation, or the use of capital letters,” according to the press release announcing the launch of the site (which you can read here).
Soon after news of the archive was shared on the American Dialect Society mailing list, Jonathan Lighter (author of the Historical Dictionary of American Slang) began looking for hidden treasures. He swiftly turned up a letter from 1862 in which the author, an infantryman from Virginia, appears to express a violent sentiment: “I want to kick ass.”
This is a guest post by Orin Hargraves, an independent lexicographer, language researcher, and past president of the Dictionary Society of North America. Orin is the author of several language reference books, including It’s Been Said Before: A Guide to the Use and Abuse of Clichés (Oxford) and Slang Rules!: A Practical Guide for English Learners (Merriam-Webster).
A few years ago I wrote about how collocations in fiction skew the statistics of collocations in a corpus because of their extremely frequent use; Ben Zimmer expanded on the idea in a later New York Times piece. In summary, the point is that a number of collocations would not be statistically significant were it not for their appearance in fiction. This is because writers of fiction—particularly writers of the amateur, unedited fiction that appears online—tend to reuse the same tropes and phrases so much that these effectively become clichés, formulaic ways of expressing the same (rather tired) ideas and events.
All of that came to light when I was working with the Oxford English Corpus, a well balanced and carefully curated corpus that, at the time, had about two billion words of English. These days I’m working with the enTenTen13 corpus, a web-crawled corpus of nearly 20 billion words, owned and made available by Sketch Engine. Sketch Engine’s web-crawler roves the Internet indiscriminately, pulling text from wherever it can be found. Like some grandmother aghast in Greenville, the web-crawler regularly comes upon sites with pornographic content. The difference between the grandmother and the web-crawler is that while she may avert her gaze in shock and dismay, the web-crawler grabs the text, parses and tags it, and adds it to the corpus. The result is that enTenTen13 houses a steaming, pulsating trove of pornographic writing.