Can "[adjective]-ass" occur predicatively?

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One of the highlights of this weekend's Saturday Night Live was a "Weekend Update" appearance by Taran Killam playing Jebidiah Atkinson, a 19th-century speech critic.

(Apologies to those outside of the U.S. who can't view Hulu videos.)

After thoroughly panning the Gettysburg Address, he moves on to other historical speeches (allowing for a bit of time travel), including FDR's Pearl Harbor address. Killam flubs the line and breaks character, which also cracks up "Weekend Update" host Seth Meyers, leading to a bit of improvisation.

Killam: You know what date will live in infamy for me? December 8th, 1941, when FDR gave a speech that was so boring-ass.
(Pause.) I think I misquoted myself.

Meyers: Yeah, I think you did. I was gonna say, that wasn't your best written one.

Killam: That was a rough draft. Coulda used a couple of kamikazes after that.

It's hard to say what line Killam was supposed to deliver. Perhaps it was written as "FDR gave a boring-ass speech," followed by the bit about kamikazes. Or perhaps the boring-ass was improvised entirely but inserted in the wrong place. Either way, the problem that Killam faced was that boring-ass sounds just fine when it's used attributively (pre-modifying speech), but sounds wrong as a predicate adjective.

We've looked at the "[adjective]-ass" combining form a few times in the past: "The intensified crack of dawn?" (ML, 6/7/05), "Root haughtiness" (GP, 8/20/11), "Is it a prosodic-ass constraint?" (GP, 8/25/11), "Rachel Jenteal's language in the Zimmerman trial" (JR, 7/10/13). But I don't think we've ever addressed the attributive vs. predicative issue. Neal Whitman tackled this on his Literal-Minded blog last year in his post "Ass/Fucking Intensification," in part inspired by a classic xkcd strip:

Neal writes:

Ass, however, can intensify only attributive adjectives. Put it with a predicative adjective and it's just silly:

*This car is sweet-ass.
He has a sweet-ass car.

Constraints on the predicative use of "[adjective]-ass" were noted as early as 1998, when Diana Elgersma presented a paper entitled "Serious-ass morphology:
The anal emphatic in English
" at MILC 2. Elgersma's observation was limited to backward-ass, however:

Although the origin of the '-ass' suffix is unclear, it would seem to have spread from a more restricted nominalizing morpheme, which attaches not only to adjectives, but also to verbs: bad-ass ('Check the dude in the leather jacket – he's a total bad-ass!'), hard-ass, slack-ass, whup-ass ('If you don't shut up, I'm gonna open up a big can of Texas-style whup-ass on ya.'), lazy-ass, stupid-ass and kiss-ass, for example. Note that many of these can also be used as emphatic adjectives (stupid-ass, lazy-ass, slack-ass, hard-ass).

One interesting case is the word backward. There are several variants with this particular base, including bass-ackward, backasswards (infixation), or the prefixed ass-backward. This latter variant can potentially be explained as an iconic reversal; that is, putting the normally suffixed '-ass' in a prefixed position is in itself backward. It is possible to have the attributive variant backward-ass ('That's one backward-ass idea'), however, this particular construction cannot occur as a predicate adjective: * 'That idea is backward-ass.'

A more nuanced statement of the constraint is given by Daniel Sidiqqi in "The English intensifier ass" (Snippets, May 2011):

Ass seems to have a requirement that it appear right of the adjective that it is modifying AND left of the head the adjective modifies (i.e. it cannot be phrase final):

a. The night is very cold. *The night is cold-ass.
b. I am very happy. *I am happy-ass.
c. I am hottest in leather. *I am hot-ass in leather.
d. I run quickly. *I run quick-ass.

The only time that ass can appear phrase-finally is when attached to bad (e.g. That receiver is badass), but, in such cases it is always stressed (otherwise it is not). I expect badass is the source of the affix rather than an exception.

If the constraint is just that "[adjective]-ass" cannot be phrase-final, then that would allow predicative uses of this type (found on COCA):

The father would talk about how backward-ass the medical school was in its, say, treatment of severe high blood pressure…
—Brock Clarke, "The Son's Point of View," The Southern Review, 39(3):556 (Summer 2003).

…and possibly also this boring-ass example from Urban Dictionary:

That physics lecture was so boring ass, I fell asleep with my leg behind my ear and my finger in my ass.

If the UD example is acceptable (it's pretty borderline for me), then I wonder if Killam wanted to say:

FDR gave a speech that was so boring-ass (that) I needed a couple of kamikazes afterwards.

If he intended to phrase it that way, then he got into trouble by pausing after boring-ass, as if that were the end of the sentence. (Blame the cue cards?) But I'm glad he did pause, since breaking character made the bit even funnier, and also provided excellent material for another boring-ass Language Log post.

[Update: Welcome, Geekosystem readers!]



24 Comments

  1. sep332 said,

    November 18, 2013 @ 2:47 pm

    None of these have the conclusion I jumped to: It's an elision of the word "fuck". "Boring-as-fuck car" becomes "boring-as-* car" becomes "boring-ass car".

  2. Ben C said,

    November 18, 2013 @ 2:48 pm

    I wonder if that Urban Dictionary example is an example of speech that could be found in a natural context. I just question the "make up a sentence that uses the headword" exercise as a good predictor of natural speech.

  3. keri said,

    November 18, 2013 @ 3:09 pm

    Hm, one thing I noticed in the example *The night was cold-ass. is that while I wouldn't use that construction, I would use "ass-cold" to mean the same thing – much like I wouldn't say "backward-ass" but would say "ass-backward".

    I do find it curious that the construction gets used differently – "whup-ass" or "slack-ass" &c. nouns (as in the examples from Elgersma) which can be used in some cases as adjectives, versus "sweet-ass" or "boring-ass" which are strictly descriptive. … and as I think on it, I'm not sure that *ass-sweet or *ass-boring would work in a sentence.

    That was a _____-ass party.
    That party was _____-ass.
    That party was ass-_____.

    I try to fill in the blanks, but can't figure out why certain words work with the ass- emphatic but others don't. It's intriguing, though, and I'm probably going to be speaking somewhat unnaturally for a few days while I fixate on the phrase (not that I use the form often, but likely will now that it's on my mind!).

  4. Stan Carey said,

    November 18, 2013 @ 3:20 pm

    Great stuff, Ben. I can't watch the video yet, but I enjoyed the text and read it all the way to the bottom.

    another boring-ass Language Log post

    If I said this was some wrong-ass self-deprecation, would that be too anal-ass?

    [(bgz) You're entitled to your anal-ysis.]

  5. CuConnacht said,

    November 18, 2013 @ 3:57 pm

    If my memory is correct, "ass-backward" predates the intensifying suffix -ass. I always took ass-backward to be a sort of conflation of "ass first" and "backward".

  6. Kenny Easwaran said,

    November 18, 2013 @ 5:12 pm

    sep332 – I've heard usage in Australia and New Zealand of things like "it's cold-as out there" or "he's hot-as". However, these are all stressed on the "as", while "cold-ass" or "hot-ass" has an un-stressed "ass". Also, as these examples indicate, this usage appears to only occur predicatively.

  7. Zubon said,

    November 18, 2013 @ 5:54 pm

    Stephen King seems to have been fond of "candy-ass." I recall its being used predicatively in The Stand. The internet suggests the phrase is used also in "The Body"/Stand By Me and in Needful Things, although I have not tracked down quotes to see how it is used.

  8. Chris C. said,

    November 18, 2013 @ 8:31 pm

    God, I love this blog.

    @Zubon — it's worth noting that "candy-ass" isn't quite in this class. "-ass" here isn't an intensifier; phrases where it's normally used wouldn't make sense with "candy" alone.

  9. Joe Fineman said,

    November 18, 2013 @ 10:42 pm

    FWIW, round about 1960, at Caltech, Pasadena, "-ass" was used to intensify adjectives both attributively and predicatively. "It's cold-ass" was entirely possible.

  10. Chris C. said,

    November 19, 2013 @ 2:04 am

    "It's cold-ass" was entirely possible.

    I disagree. It's never really cold-ass in Pasadena.

  11. Matt Whyndham said,

    November 19, 2013 @ 7:45 am

    Re the Elision Of Fuck thing. Yes, there is an expression that uses the near-homophone "Adjective-as", probably current in UK, Aus, NZ. It goes like this:

    Dude: How do you copy a formula in Excel (or some such simple thing)?
    Hero: Hover over this bit, drag down. Done. Simple-as.

  12. J. L. Barnes said,

    November 19, 2013 @ 8:05 am

    This entire post was bad-ass.

  13. Seonachan said,

    November 19, 2013 @ 8:34 am

    The honey badger is really pretty badass.

    Re: the XKCD cartoon, I once mentioned to my (non-native English-speaking) wife that we needed a "big-ass pot" for making large quantities of pasta. A few weeks later my parents came to visit and brought such a pot. My wife took it from them, saying "Oh, that's the big ASS pot he wanted". The shift in emphasis had the effect of shifting the hyphen.

  14. Mr Punch said,

    November 19, 2013 @ 11:00 am

    I agree with both CuConnacht and Chris C; "ass-backward" (and variants) and "candy-ass" are different from the general "-ass" suffix. Both of these reference the actual posterior anatomy in a way that "bad-ass," etc., do not. Candy-ass, by the way, is very familiar to me, and I am like Stephen King a New Englander. Is this a regionalism.

  15. David B said,

    November 19, 2013 @ 12:35 pm

    So am i actually alone in thinking that there's no problem at all with the Urban Dictionary quote, and can't figure out why anyone would find it at all marked? For that matter, 'boring-ass' in the SNL bit seems marked to me, but only slightly, and certainly grammatical.

    Yes, just me? Okay, then, guess i'll just slink away back into lurking.

  16. Devin said,

    November 19, 2013 @ 12:55 pm

    I agree with you, David B. You're not the only one. The phrase-final *-ass sounds a little odd to me, but I don't find it ungrammatical. To clarify, it sounds odd to me in the same way as when people try too hard to not end on a preposition: grammatical, but awkward because that's just not what most people say.

  17. Seonachan said,

    November 19, 2013 @ 1:30 pm

    Another thing that separates "badass" from the other -ass endings is that the suffix changes the meaning of the root; whereas "boring-ass" just means "very boring", "badass" means something different from "very bad", unless it's working on the less common meaning (e.g. "I'm a BAD man"), in which case -ass may just be serving to call attention to the secondary meaning.

  18. Kristina said,

    November 19, 2013 @ 4:13 pm

    I agree with Chris C. regarding "candy-ass" and point out that his argument also applies to "kiss-ass." I was surprised to see "kiss-ass" listed in Elgersma's paper, because "ass" is indeed not an intensifier here.

  19. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 20, 2013 @ 12:29 am

    I just heard "Yoshi is bad-ass" today. Apparently Yoshi (sp?) is a game.

    Seonachan, in some circles the secondary meaning of "bad" is the more common one—here in northern New Mexico, for the primary meaning, many people say "not good". In that case, I'd say the postpositive "ass" is just an intensifier. In other circles, it may call attention to the secondary meaning.

  20. J Lee said,

    November 20, 2013 @ 6:00 am

    my second favorite grammaticalization of 'ass' after the AAVE 'i gotta go pick up my brothers ass'

  21. Jeremy Butterfield said,

    November 23, 2013 @ 3:29 am

    I agree with people here who have suggested that 'ass-backward' is older than and different in kind from adjectives with the -ass suffix. The OED gives the adjective from 1955 'What kind of an ass-backward Catholic are you?', but has a quote implying it from 1932; a version of the adverb ass-backwards is dated 1893.

  22. Nick Lamb said,

    November 23, 2013 @ 8:43 am

    Jerry, Yoshi is the name of an anthropomorphic dinosaur character from the popular Mario Brothers video game franchise. I don't think any games have been released under the precise name "Yoshi" in English-speaking countries but perhaps games such as "Yoshi's Story" and "Yoshi's Island" could be referred to as just "Yoshi" to distinguish them from other games about stories or islands. Or you may have misunderstood and the players were referring to the character rather than the name of a game.

  23. Edward Vanderpump said,

    November 23, 2013 @ 11:37 am

    Was the Gettysburg address criticised for using a "restrictive which", I wonder? (It's fine in my dialect, by the way, in standard BrE.)

  24. Bessel Dekker said,

    January 8, 2014 @ 7:25 pm

    How about "Your decision is stupid-ass"?
    (http://www.quickmeme.com/meme/3p8chq)

    [(bgz) That meme is based on a line from "The Avengers," where Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury says, "I recognize the council has made a decision, but given that it's a stupid-ass decision, I've elected to ignore it." Boiling that down to "Your decision is stupid-ass" strikes me as intentionally "wrong"-sounding, not unlike the intentionally odd grammar of the doge meme.]

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