The Grammarphobia Blog

Asses and big asses

Q: I know this might sound slightly vulgar, but I’m really curious. I’ve been wondering how to classify the word “ass” in a phrase like, “That’s a big-ass house.” What part of speech is this?

A: “Big ass” alone isn’t hard to classify, as in “My big ass makes it difficult to zip my jeans.” Here, “big ass” is a noun phrase consisting of the adjective “big” plus the noun it modifies: “ass.”

But “big ass” can play the role of an adjective as well as a noun. In the sentence “That’s a big-ass house,” it’s an adjectival phrase modifying the noun “house.”

The Oxford English Dictionary has several citations for “big-assed” with a literal meaning (that is, having large buttocks).

The first is from a 1944 entry in H. L. Mencken’s diary: “The marines’ chosen name for their female aides is bams, from big-assed marines.”

An extended use of this literal meaning—applied to airplanes with big rear ends—was recorded in the military beginning in 1945.

Both the OED and the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang have citations from that time, when a plane with a large tail section (especially the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress) was referred to as a “big-ass bird” or “big-assed bird.”

But in addition to these more or less literal meanings, both dictionaries have citations for “big-assed” and “big-ass” to mean simply big or impressive.

The OED’s first citation is from a 1945 article in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology:

“A big white bastard stood up in front of the door, cop of course, hit me in my head with that big ass nightstick, which really rocked my brains.”

Here are a few more quotations from the OED and Random House:

“We ain’t enough, in case of a big-ass attack” (1955, from Thomas Anderson’s Your Own Beloved Sons, a novel of the Korean War).

“Abraham opened the door of his big-ass Cadillac” (1961-64, from Hubert Selby Jr.’s novel Last Exit to Brooklyn).

“He’ll sit there in this big-ass office downtown in Manila” (1977, from John Langone’s Life at the Bottom: The People of Antarctica).

“Somehow it seems daring for a big-assed conglomerate to put an artist in charge of a label’s direction” (1999, from Down Beat magazine).

In short, “big-ass” can be used adjectivally to mean simply big.

In similar adjectival usages, “smelly-ass” just means smelly; “jive-ass” means jive;  “sad-ass” means sad; “skinny-ass” means skinny, and so on. So in a sense, “ass” is a slang intensifier.

Your question gives us an excuse to explain a bit about the etymology of “ass”—or, rather, the etymologies.

Contrary to popular opinion, the two versions of “ass”—one for the posterior and one for the donkey—aren’t the same word. They’re unrelated etymologically and weren’t always identical.

The four-footed “ass” comes from an Old English word, assa, which was recorded sometime before 830 and may have been a diminutive form of an earlier word, esol.

The Old English was similar to words in Celtic, Teutonic, and Slavonic languages. But whatever its direct source, the Old English probably has its roots in the Latin asinus (donkey), which also gave us the word “asinine.”

The Latin asinus, like its Greek counterpart onos, is thought to have Semitic origins (in Hebrew, “she-ass” is athon).

But on to the anatomical “ass,” which is no relation to the donkey.

This “ass” was originally spelled “arse” (it still is in Britain).

“Arse” has its source in the far reaches of antiquity, a prehistoric Indo-European word that’s been reconstructed as orsos.

As you would expect, “arse” has counterparts from Ireland to Armenia, or “practically from end to end of the geographical range of the Indo-European language family,” as John Ayto puts it in his Dictionary of Word Origins.

The OED has citations for “arse” (spelled aers or ars in Old English) dating back to around 1000. The “ass” spelling and pronunciation originated in the 1930s in the US, where it’s chiefly used today.

Here are a couple of early citations:

“My ass to habeas corpus” (1930, from the John Dos Passos novel 42nd Parallel).

“You give me a pain in the ass” (1934, from John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra).

With that, we will demurely butt out.

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