I haven’t been sleeping well lately. Don’t ask me why. About five days a week, I lay awake in the wee hours of the morning, staring at the ceiling and contemplating, as Douglas Adams would say in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “Life, the universe and everything.” The good news is, by the time I drag my insomniatic ass out of bed, I often have the fodder for my next blog post. Here’s a perfect example. I recently found myself pondering word origins. It’s a fascinating subject. Although it’s usually easy enough to trace a single word to its beginnings, how then does that same word, over the generations, centuries and millennia, evolve to take on any number of different, often contradictory meanings? That’s a tough one.
In biblical times, an ass was a beast of burden and nothing more. The phrase to make an ass of oneself emerged around 1580 and referred to someone acting clumsy or stupid. Another three hundred years went by before ass was used in nautical slang to refer to one’s backside. That particular meaning wasn’t in common usage until the 1930’s. Since then, ass has somehow become one of the most versatile three letter words in the English language. I can think of at least one more versatile, more universal four letter word. I prefer to keep my blog post relatively clean. If, however, you feel it necessary to take this discussion to the next level and add that extra letter, and if you’re not easily offended, click here. Otherwise, please read on.
Ass, as I was saying, has greatly expanded beyond its original size and shape. Without too much effort, it can be adapted to suit almost any occasion. In most cases, any connection to the original definition of the word is tenuous at best. Here’s what I mean.
Nice ass, I thought admiringly, as a beautiful bikini clad brunette sauntered past me and returned to her beach towel.
“Hey Asshole. What are you looking at?”
I turned to see the inexplicably lucky guy that had to be her boyfriend. He was a serious bad ass: oversized shorts and oversized muscles and attitude oozing from every pore.
“Nothing,” I muttered, knowing that if I told this jackass what I thought of his sideways ball cap, mirrored shades and wall-to-wall tattoos, he’d call me a wise ass (see also smart ass) and kick my sorry ass all the way down the beach.
“Candy ass,” he spat, crushing my sand castle as he strutted past.
The following day, I showed up late to work and immediately got my ass chewed out by my horse’s ass of a boss. He didn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground but told me he didn’t care for the half-assed way I’d prepared my monthly report, like I gave a rat’s ass what the guy had to say. I called him a dumb ass, let my cubical and took my lazy ass back home.
Language changes constantly. Very recently, a 63 letter word dealing with meat inspection was officially removed from the German language, and tweet, in terms of social networking, was just added to the Oxford English Dictionary this month. Oddly, the word retweet first appeared in the OED in 2011. If you want to know more about word origins and you have a whole lot of time to kill, check out worldwidewords.com. It offers over 2,500 pages of word history, evolution, idiosyncrasies, etc. It’s an ass load of information.