We’ve become our own asses, people.
Being called an “ass” is nothing new for me. Back when I knew it as the “a-word,” it was one of the first obscenities I had ever learned. When someone’s acting foolish, he or she is called an “ass.” And unlike its relative that affixes the word “hole” to its backside, I’ve always thought the stop-being-such-an-ass ass arrived in our lexicon from the word “jackass” and referred to the similarity society’s more irritating members share with braying donkeys.
Webster agrees, defining this use of the “ass” as “a stupid, obstinate or perverse person.” However, since I started at UCSB, I learned a slew of other uses of the same word. In this academic world, I found that things no longer happened to people. Instead they happened to their asses.
“I need you to wake up early and drive my ass to the airport.”
“It’s already 3 a.m.? You need to get your ass to bed!”
“Those guys are going to get their sorry asses flunked.”
In all of these cases, the “ass” could be either substituted for “self” without significantly changing the meaning of the sentence.
From the context, it’s also clear that this sense of “ass” doesn’t mean donkeys; it’s metaphor in which the speaker replaces a person with an odd stand-in: their bottom. (Although if you go back and read the sentences using the donkey meaning, it makes them all the funnier.)
But why would people so openly refer to themselves and others as a body part usually considered foul and obscene? And if the more typical sense of “ass” – the obnoxious person sense – refers to donkeys, why don’t people use “asshole,” the more common term when referring to the body part? While the mental image of a friend driving someone’s anus to the airport is downright surreal, vulgar speech usually uses “asshole” when referring to the body part itself.
After pondering all things ass-related, I’ve decided this usage of “ass” is an extension of the phrase “to kick ass” or “to kick one’s ass.” This common expression denotes one person or thing’s total dominance over another, often in a physical sense but subsequently in other ways. “Jose’s new car kicks ass,” for example, means that the car is better than other cars even though it hasn’t proved so in the boxing ring.
Regardless of whether a physical fight took place, when people say “Mary kicked Suzy’s ass,” they’re saying that Mary dominated Suzy. In the instance of an actual beating, Mary could have kicked Suzy everywhere but her ass. Or Mary could have used brass knuckles or a bag of oranges and refrained from kicking altogether. Yet “Mary kicked Suzy’s ass” would be understood by most English speakers to mean that Suzy – the whole being of Suzy – lost this fight badly. Contextually, Suzy becomes her ass.
Thus, I think it’s this expression which introduced this odd relation of ass-as-self.
Likely because the relationship is drawn from the notion of ass-kicking, using “ass” to refer to the self preserves a bit of the pejorative nature of being physically dominated. I’m pretty sure you’d never hear Mary speak of her boyfriend in the terms, “My boyfriend bought my ass the loveliest diamond ring!” The expression would also never position the ass to be the grammatical subject, so “My ass ate the best lunch today” would never work – thankfully, I might add.
So we’ve done it. We’ve taken the organ that makes poop and said, “We want to identify with you, poop machine.” Whether this is a low point for language or a high point for asses, I’m not sure. But next time you shout, “I need to get my ass to class!” remember that you’re more than just an ass. You’re a person, and unless you actually own a donkey, you deserve better.
Don’t even get former Nexus opinion editor Drew Mackie started on people who say “ATM machine.”