Rand Paul's "dumbass" comment

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Two years ago, I posted about a flubbed joke on Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update," wherein Taran Killam as historical critic Jebidiah Atkinson slammed FDR's Pearl Harbor address as "a speech that was so boring-ass." The joke as originally written probably referred to a "boring-ass speech," because "[adjective]-ass" almost always occurs attributively (pre-modifying a noun or noun phrase) and not as a predicate adjective. (Acceptability judgments of the predicative use will vary, of course.)

Attributive vs. predicative use of "[adjective]-ass" is relevant again this week, after Sen. Rand Paul was captured on camera being snarky about a daylong livestreaming event his campaign was recording. Asked if he was indeed still running for President, he said:

"I don't know — wouldn't be doing this dumbass livestreaming if I weren't. So yes, I still am running for President. Get over it."

Paul told Fox News today that the comment was intended to be sarcastic. As Talking Points Memo reported,

Paul, who took flak this week for a subdued appearance in a day-long livestream video produced by his campaign, told Fox's "America's Newsroom" that he was joking when he called the exercise "dumbass."

In paraphrasing Paul's original comment, TPM changes the context of dumbass, from an attributive adjective pre-modifying livestreaming to something more predicative: the adjectival complement of the verb call in the frame "call NP AdjP." Call and similar transitive verbs like consider, declaredeem, designatelabel, and proclaim can take two complements: (1) a noun phrase specifying someone or something being given a designation of some sort, and (2) a predicative noun phrase or adjective phrase specifying the designation.

I talked about the "call NP NP" frame in a 2006 post, "Pronominal perplexity at the AP," and "call NP AdjP" works much the same way. In both cases, we're encouraged to think of the first verbal complement (NP) as the subject of a clause and the second complement (NP or AdjP, depending on the frame) as that clause's predicate. Linguists often label such constructions "small clauses," which can be thought of as "predicative sentences without the copula." Inserting the copula (as well as treating the object of the main verb as the subject of the predicative expression) reveals the structure of the small clause:

  • Call [me crazy]: small clause is equivalent to I am crazy
  • He called [the exercise dumbass]: small clause is equivalent to the exercise is dumbass

In a quick check of Google News, I'm not finding any similar paraphrase of Paul's quote that uses dumbass predicatively. Instead, we get plenty of attributive uses like "Rand Paul’s 'dumbass' masochistic campaign gimmick" (a headline on Washington Post's The Fix). Attributive use also allows for some play with the use-mention distinction, so referring to Paul's "'dumbass' remark" (as TPM did) or his "'dumbass' comment" (NPR's It's All Politics) makes it easy to treat his snarky observation and not the livestreaming event itself as the target of scorn.

Paul's campaign has responded to all of this with a T-shirt you can buy for $20, which reads, "I watched Rand Paul's livestream and all I got was this dumbass teeshirt."

(Predictably, nitpickers have taken issue with the spelling of "teeshirt.")


  1. Y said,

    October 16, 2015 @ 1:02 pm

    In my judgement, He called the exercise dumbass is not quite grammatical, but He called the exercise "dumbass" is (written with quotes, or spoken with an equivalent intonation.)

  2. Michael Watts said,

    October 16, 2015 @ 2:46 pm

    I agree with Y; you don't have many other options.

    This case in particular would seem to be complicated by the fact that "dumbass" is (I think, anyway) a much older term than the -ass intensifier suffix — it's originally a noun. I guess it's open to interpretation how it was being used here (if I were speculating, I'd say that the noun "dumbass" probably blended with the -ass suffix in Rand Paul's mind, leading to this), but there's nothing very strange about using nouns as modifiers.

  3. Matt said,

    October 16, 2015 @ 6:55 pm

    Interesting – I find "He called the exercise dumbass" (with no quotes) just as grammatical as "He called the exercise stupid", but I still feel dubious about "The exercise is dumbass" (yet perfectly okay about "The exercise is stupid").

  4. John Shutt said,

    October 17, 2015 @ 7:37 am

    For me, the grammatical difficulty with the SNL joke doesn't work as well grammatically because boring-ass is a spontaneous construction and therefore not as far along the grammaticalization curve as dumbass (which, notice, has lost its hyphen). Dumbass is practically an adjective by now.

  5. John Shutt said,

    October 17, 2015 @ 7:40 am

  6. Alyssa said,

    October 17, 2015 @ 10:50 am

    Personally, I'd still spell it "dumb-ass" in this context ("dumbass" is the noun, with a different meaning). And I'd quote him as having called the exercise "dumb", much as someone saying "that boring-ass speech" is calling the speech boring.

  7. TonyK said,

    October 17, 2015 @ 6:40 pm

    "Dumb ass" means exactly the same as "damn fool", right? And you couldn't say "he called the exercise 'damn fool'," could you?

  8. JS said,

    October 17, 2015 @ 7:06 pm

    Was going to say -ass- is really "infixed" between A and N. Then encountered "[t]hat one over-the-shoulder pass to grant from the post was sweet ass" online. So never mind.

  9. Marc Sacks said,

    October 18, 2015 @ 8:55 pm

    If "dumbass" is an adjective, what's its comparative? Would it be "dumberass" rather than "dumbasser"? The latter sounds absolutely wrong to me, while the former suggests the line in "Giles Goat-Boy" about smashing something into "even smithier eens." Or is this the dumbestass response you've gotten so far?

  10. John Shutt said,

    October 19, 2015 @ 5:52 am

    In the (seemingly) unlikely event I were forming the comparative of "dumbass", I'd write "dumbass-er", with a hyphen. Not that I'd think deeply about it and come to an intellectual decision to write it that way, but that it's what comes naturally to me. Considering it after the fact, I'd say "dumbass" is becoming an adjective but isn't all the way there yet, and the natural hyphen recognizes that inflecting it for comparative still feels odd. (My forming the comparative of "dumbass" is only seemingly unlikely, because in the current circumstance it's evidently very likely.)

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