A productive-ass suffix

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Currently making the rounds is a video from Conan showing a standup appearance by the Finnish comedian Ismo Leikola. In his experience of learning English as a second language, he says, "I think the hardest word to truly master has been the word ass." He muses on the peculiar application of -ass as a slangy suffix in words like lazy-ass, long-ass, grown-ass, bad-ass, and dumb-ass.

Stan Carey discussed the video on the Strong Language blog ("A paradoxical-ass word"), and he links to Mark Liberman's 2014 roundup of scholarship on -ass (on Language Log and elsewhere), "Ignoble-ass citation practices."

Ismo's standup act has been the talk of the water cooler at Language Log Plaza. Victor Mair was reminded of ass-backwards: "I find it particularly amusing because, from the time I was a boy in Ohio, people used to spoonerize and euphemize it as bass-ackwards — and that just sounded really funny to me." Ass-backwards and bass-ackwards came up in my own contribution to -ass studies, the 2013 LL post, "Can '[adjective]-ass' occur predicatively?" There I quote one of the pioneers of the field, Diana Elgersma, in her 1998 paper, "Serious-ass morphology: the anal emphatic in English."

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.'

Elgersma's treatment conflates ass-backward(s), bass-ackward(s), and backward(s)-ass as equal variants, but the history of these terms is rather complex. We can assume that ass-backward(s) came first, which was then euphemized through metathesis as bass-ackward(s). But while ass-backward(s) isn't attested by the Oxford English Dictionary and other sources until the 1930s, the spoonerism bass-ackward(s) can be found much earlier than that. In fact, it goes all the way back to the 1840s, when a young Abraham Lincoln was practicing law in Springfield, Illinois. As first documented by Emanuel Hertz in The Hidden Lincoln (1938), Lincoln wrote a note to a bailiff in one of the Springfield courts, and it was full of spooneristic humor. (It's unclear whether Lincoln came up with it himself or if he was simply repeating the work of another wag.)

He said he was riding bass-ackwards on a jass-ack through a patton-cotch on a pair of baddle-sags stuffed full of binger-gred when the animal steered at a scump and the lirrup-steather broke and throwed him in the forner of the kence and broke his pishing-fole.

(Image from the Chronicling Illinois website.)

The bass-ackwards euphemism got to be popular enough to stand on its own, as in the January 1884 issue of The Medical Summary (published in Lansdale, Penn.), which included this from the obstetrician G.O. Smith of Odessa, N.Y.:

I was suspected of incompetency by the friends, and I began to think every thing in obstetrical practice was going "bass ackwards" with me.

While bass-ackward(s) and the unsanitized ass-backward(s) became popular American expressions in the early 20th century, backward(s)-ass is a much later development, informed by the African-American colloquial use of -ass as documented by Arthur Spears in his 1998 article, "African-American language use: Ideology and so-called obscenity" (in African-American English, edited by Mufwene, Rickford, Bailey, and Baugh). Even though it has long been possible to call someone "a backward ass" (e.g., in The Other Mr. Barclay by Henry Irving Dodge, published in 1906), adjectival backward(s)-ass is much more modern. The earliest clear-cut example I can find is in the 1982 movie 48 Hours, where Eddie Murphy says: "I've never seen so many backwards-ass country fucks in my life."

All of this would likely be even more confusing to poor Ismo.



21 Comments

  1. Jonathan Smith said,

    January 29, 2018 @ 11:34 am

    Has no LL post on this topic discussed Nicki Minaj Lookin Ass? If so it may well qualify as the largest-ever academic oversight… though please note profoundly NSFW and full of n-word.

    (sample lyric)
    Look at y'all sharin' one bottle in the club One bottle full of bub' ass n—-s
    Look at y'all not havin' game ass n—-s Y'all n—-s share a chain ass n—-s
    Same cup in the hand ass n—- in the club with a credit card scam ass n—-
    etc.

    (on youtube)

  2. Jonathan Smith said,

    January 29, 2018 @ 11:43 am

    Took lyrics from online but on second listen probably should be "y'all non havin' game ass n—-s" for the syntacticians out there

  3. Tim Stewart said,

    January 29, 2018 @ 12:09 pm

    Is Language Log Plaza carry-corner to Car Talk Plaza?

  4. Tim Stewart said,

    January 29, 2018 @ 12:09 pm

    *catty-corner

  5. ===Dan said,

    January 29, 2018 @ 12:21 pm

    Some earlier Language Log post must have noted this XKCD cartoon: https://www.xkcd.com/37/

    [(myl) "Intensifying assed", 11/2/2016.]

  6. BZ said,

    January 29, 2018 @ 2:44 pm

    I always analyzed ass-backward(s) as "as backward(s) as an ass", not a reversal of backward(s)-ass, which makes some sense considering where the ass is located.

  7. Gregory Kusnick said,

    January 29, 2018 @ 4:14 pm

    Is there a parallel to be drawn between "ass-backward" and "head over heels"?

  8. Anne Cutler said,

    January 29, 2018 @ 7:37 pm

    So did Elgersma really write "iconic reversal" and not "ironic"?

  9. Viseguy said,

    January 29, 2018 @ 9:48 pm

    I view the -ass construction as more gluteal than anal. We're talkin' cheeks here, not orifices, are we not?

  10. R. Fenwick said,

    January 29, 2018 @ 10:09 pm

    Somewhat tangentially, the topic and scope of the –ass suffix intrigues me greatly because in Ubykh, alongside the noun pʃa "bottom, arse", there's a homophonous productive deverbal noun formant –pʃa that's added to a verb to produce a noun meaning "habitual [verb]er", seemingly always with a negative or pejorative connotation:
    gʲəgʲapʃa "coward, someone timid" (← gʲəgʲa "to be scared")
    ʥʷapʃa "drunkard, sot" (← ʥʷa "to drink")
    məʨaq'apʃa "liar" (← məʨa q'a "to tell a lie")
    In my Ubykh dictionary I'd compared the suffix to the English adjectival suffix, which seems to be highly productive, but I hadn't thought about its use in English as a deverbal formant too. Very interesting indeed.

  11. ~flow said,

    January 30, 2018 @ 8:39 am

    Ismo actually delivers a good educational session there, it's funny but also very instructive and memorable, e.g. that your ass – my ass part. "And that's only the tip of the ass-berg"…

  12. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 30, 2018 @ 10:25 am

    Since in normal locomotion one's ass (arse) is supposed to be backward, I don't get the point of the expression.

  13. Robert Coren said,

    January 30, 2018 @ 10:36 am

    I question the inclusion of "kiss-ass" in Diana Elgersma's list, as it refers to someone (or the behavior of someone) who (metaphorically) kisses one or more asses; the -ass is not an otherwise-meaningless intensifier here, as it in the other examples.

  14. BZ said,

    January 30, 2018 @ 10:46 am

    @Cuby,
    As I said before, I analyze ass-backward as "as backward as an ass" like "buck naked"

  15. mikegrubb said,

    January 30, 2018 @ 11:41 am

    Whenever I hear "ass-backward"–even though I know the original reference is, as Viseguy said, gluteal–I have a mental image of a mule facing the cart it's meant to be pulling. No progress is going to happen.

  16. Aaron Toivo said,

    January 30, 2018 @ 1:36 pm

    The human posterior is sometimes used as a synecdoche for the whole person: "Get your butt over here!", "Get your lazy asses back to work!", and so forth. I don't know where that construction came from, but since part of its value is that it offers a slick way to apply an adjective to the addressee, it doesn't seem like it would need very many steps to develop into the -ass suffix we have today.

  17. cs said,

    January 30, 2018 @ 3:46 pm

    Re: "in normal locomotion one's ass (arse) is supposed to be backward"…You could say it should really be "ass-forwards", but changing the "forwards" to "backwards" makes it a better phrase because it emphasizes the backwards-ness. Similar I guess to "head over heels" as mentioned earlier.

  18. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 30, 2018 @ 9:40 pm

    BZ: Are you thinking that "buck-naked" comes from "naked as a buck"? The American Heritage Dictionary says it's "(perhaps alteration of BUTT4) + NAKED," BUTT4 being the very part of the body we're talking about. If so, it would be like "stark naked".

  19. Peter Erwin said,

    January 31, 2018 @ 6:31 am

    @ Cory Lubliner:
    Since in normal locomotion one's ass (arse) is supposed to be backward, I don't get the point of the expression.

    I think the more general meaning of "backwards" is "wrong way round" or "opposite from the correct direction" (as in, "you've got it backwards"), so if you are walking backwards, you are leading with your ass.

  20. Ben Zimmer said,

    January 31, 2018 @ 10:06 am

    @Anne Cutler: By calling it an "iconic reversal," Elgersma was using the semiotic sense of "iconic." She was arguing that there's an iconic resemblance between moving ass to the front of the word and the image of one's ass actually leading the way. That might make sense in a synchronic interpretation, but diachronically (as I showed) ass-backward(s) came about long before backward(s)-ass.

  21. ajay said,

    February 1, 2018 @ 5:49 am

    I am sorry to have to tell you that you are not the first to examine this topic from an academic standpoint:
    The original text, an excerpt from "From Here to Just Over There":
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nUbIekD2PEQ

    and a televised critique, which unfortunately I can only find in transcript form:
    http://abitoffryandlaurie.co.uk/sketches/my_ass_critique

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