Back in the olden-not-so-golden-days I used to know a bit of Latin. I would translate swear-words into Latin and use them on people who were particularly annoying. At home, our mouths would be washed with soap if we were caught swearing or one of us told on the other. All four of us were awful tattletales, especially if revenge was the goal. Some of these usages of “ass” were new to me.
CHI LUU | JUNE 1, 2016
IN WHICH WE GET TO THE BOTTOM OF SOME CRAZY-ASS LANGUAGE
Let’s face it, there is no depth to which linguists will not sink in their hunt for the oddities of language. And that includes getting to the bottom of some of the weirdly versatile uses of strong, coarse, foul, no good, very bad language.Now you may think that strong language is useful only when practicing to be a longshoreman in the comfort of your own home (or so I assume), but no. As it turns out not only is strong language a powerful invective that you may not wish to use in front of a policeman, in casual speech it’s often used in innovative and productive ways that have changed colloquial American English grammar—rather unexpectedly.
We saw, for instance, how abso-bloody-lutely fan-freaking-tastic it could be to add a swear word infix to a humble polysyllabic like “Minne-fucking-sota,” in a process called “expletive infixation.” But while expletive infixation may be used for emphasis in casual speech, its usage is still fairly marked. It hasn’t made as insidious an infiltration into mainstream language as one other surprisingly popular curse word:ass. If you’re unconvinced about the grammatical versatility of “ass,” worry not, the linguists are on it!
Just to emphasize, yes, there are actual serious-ass, um, analyses about the word “ass.” (Well, perhaps not that serious). The Annals of Improbable Research recently popularized one such study—a short paper in Snippets Journal by linguist Daniel Siddiqi on the subject of “ass” as a modern intensifier, which gained some mainstream attention. I say “modern,” but in fact fancy-ass examples of the phenomenon have been noted as far back as the 1920s. Even before Siddiqi, there’s been abundant scholarship on the subject, including Diana Elgersma’s elegantly titled 1998 paper “Serious-ass morphology: The anal emphatic in English.”
So what is the so-called “ass” intensifier?
Once, we were all happy enough using rather dull words like “very” and “really” as intensifiers, as in “a very big car” or “a really crazy idea.” They’ve often become so (another intensifier) overused and diluted in effect that many complain bitterly about their use at all. In casual speech, using “-ass” as an intensifier suffix attached to an adjective, we might express the same ideas as the more colorful “a big-ass car” and “a crazy-ass idea.” Obviously, we’re not talking about actual posteriors being big or crazy, so the curse word has developed into a kind of functional linguistic morpheme, carrying a more effective and emphatic weight. Although this is still a marked form that you mostly find in colloquial contexts, it’s getting increasingly common for the “-ass” intensifier to make appearances in mainstream media, as the linguistic register of record becomes ever more casual, perhaps in an effort to become more approachable.
You would never think that the word “ass” could give us so much in the way of grammatical delights…….