Friday, April 27, 2012

On Ass

On my blogs, especially the one about food, I’ve tried to keep my language as PG as possible which isn’t that hard to do, because I don’t really swear that much in real life anyway. Well, except when the situation warrants an expletive or two. Still that doesn’t happen a whole lot.

But today I’m going to be writing about the word “ass” and since “ass” is the main topic, I cannot avoid it. And I can’t use any of its synonyms either as you’ll see. I must use the word, “ass.” So be warned that there will be a lot of asses coming at you.

I don’t know why I have to preface this with an apology (of sorts). There are like – I don’t know – six of you reading this blog anyway, and I know that four of you swear.

But I digress.

Back to ass. Yes. Let’s get cracking. (Sorry.)

When I first came to the United States, I wasn’t exactly a blank slate in terms of the English language and the American culture. I’d seen several Hollywood movies over the years. I’d had American teachers and professors. Almost every Friday afternoon, after school, I’d go sit in an obscure corner inside American University Alumni (AUA) library, reading everything from Louis L’Amour to Erma Bombeck to Good Housekeeping to Cosmopolitan (it was there!).

But the moment I came ashore, got off the boat, and reached out for a handshake, what did I get? The American people threw the word “ass” at me like a cranked-up automatic tennis ball launcher. That happened so often that I became kind of obsessed with it.

And it bothers me a little that after all these years of trying, I still don’t have a firm grasp on ass (no pun intended).

You see, even when I didn’t know so much about ass, I kind of knew that it is a vulgar synonym for a person’s buttocks. The problem is that ass means so much more in the American culture.

It can be used as derogatory term for someone who is either stupid or rude, e.g. “What are you going out with him for? That guy’s an ass!”

It gets more interesting.

Ass can also be used as an intensifier, e.g. “What a lame-ass way to ask someone for a favor!” or “Don’t bring your stupid-ass boyfriend to my party!” Ass is usually a noun, but I’m not sure what part of speech it becomes when used this way. Is it an adverb modifying the adjective “lame” and “stupid” respectively (as in “really” or “super” lame/stupid)? Possible.

I also think it’s possible that, when used in this manner, ass and the adjective which it functions in conjunction with form a single, inseparable unit which functions adjectivally in a sentence (modifying “way” and “boyfriend” in the examples above). But then I can’t think of other examples of other adjective-noun combos that function in this way.

But the most amusing, complex, culturally-fascinating use of ass in the American culture is when it’s used as synecdoche. This type of ass was, in fact, the one that caused me the most confusion when I first came here. I fully understand it now. And, boy, what a fun-ass way to use ass. [For those unfamiliar with synecdoche, consult wiki.]

It’s the pars pro toto aspect of synecdoche, i.e. part of something is used to represent its totality. An example of pars pro toto synecdoche would be when you refer to a car as “a set of wheels.” Of course, a car consists of more parts than just the wheels, but “a set of wheels” has become a way of referring to a car – the whole car.

Ass is used this way quite a bit. Examples include “Yo, move your ass over here!” (translation: you bring yourself – the whole body not just the rear end – over here) or “I called and called and called. Where was your ass last night?” (translation: where were you – the whole person not just your buttocks – last night?).

What still stumps me is when someone refers to a person as “a (hot) piece of ass.” My instinct says that this could be another form of synecdoche, referring to a person who is attractive as a whole not just his/her derriere. But since this usage of ass seems to always have a sexual connotation (e.g. “I get it. I’m just another piece of ass to you, aren’t I?”), I’m thinking perhaps ass here is a euphemism for – am I over-thinking this? – another body part located on the opposite side of the buttocks. Maybe not. I don’t know.

[Added April 28th, 2012: Then we have other uses which present a bit of a challenge in terms of semantics:
I'm rolling on the floor laughing my ass off.
Respect? Respect, my ass! Who does that to someone they respect?]