Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Ass/Fucking Intensification

Posted by Neal on January 19, 2012

Several years ago, when Randall Munroe’s xkcd web comic still consisted mostly of scanned images of doodles from his graph-paper notebooks, I got a laugh out of this one:

It’s funny because it’s true: I do the same thing.

In September 2010, Munroe revisited the topic of obscenity-based intensifiers with this diagram:

Although Munroe didn’t include ass in this survey, I’d say the same adjectives that you don’t find intensified with fucking or as shit, you also don’t find intensified with ass. A lot of the discussion on the xkcd forum focused on which adjectives could and couldn’t be intensified in these ways, but as I thought about these three obscenity-based intensifiers, it occurred to me that even one and the same adjective can’t always be intensified by all three of these intensifiers. In fact, I discovered that the rules for how to use fucking, ass, and as shit are pretty subtle.

For comparison, let’s look at the intensifier really. You can use really to intensify a predicative adjective (i.e., an adjective that comes after the linking verb be), as in

This car is really sweet.

You can also use it to intensify an attributive adjective (i.e., one that modifies a noun), as in

He has a really sweet car.

Fucking can intensify both predicative and attributive adjectives, too; you can substitute fucking for really in both of the example sentences with no problem:

This car is fucking sweet.
He has a fucking sweet car.

So can as shit, although as we see below, it starts to get a little awkward before an attributive adjective. That’s probably due to long adjective phrases in general not sounding so good before the nouns they modify.

This car is sweet as shit.
?He has a sweet-as-shit car.

Ass, however, can intensify only attributive adjectives. Put it with a predicative adjective and it’s just silly:

*This car is sweet-ass.
He has a sweet-ass car.

By the way, if someone says something is as “nasty as shit” or “disgusting as shit”, you might be able to interpret as shit is an ordinary comparative phrase. But when they say “sweet as shit”, you know as shit has now become completely grammaticalized as an intensifier. Come to think of it, the same goes for pissed as shit, something I actually heard a dormmate say in college.

So anyway, as I was saying, it looks like two of the obscenity-based intensifiers, fucking and as shit, can go with either predicative or attributive adjectives, while ass is limited to attributives. This peculiarity of ass may be a relic of its origin. Patricia O’Conner writes on her Grammarphobia blog that the original ass-suffixed adjective was big, and at first it was written big-assed, and referred to people that had big asses. She cites the Oxford English Dictionary‘s first attestation, from 1944:

The marines’ chosen name for their female aides is bams, from big-assed marines.

O’Conner continues:

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.”

The phonetic simplification from big-assed to big-ass is unsurprising; it’s exactly the same change that took place in ice(d) cream and is ongoing in ice(d) tea (which with the right accent can even sound like “ass tea”). The semantic shift from something with a big ass to something that is itself big is understandable as well. The OED‘s earliest example of that is from 1945, referring to a policeman’s “big ass nightstick”.

But the complications don’t end with the limitation of ass to attributive adjective modification. With fucking and as shit both able to modify predicative adjectives, there is the possibility of using both in a single predicative adjective phrase, as in

(That’s) fucking annoying as shit.

You can get a similar doubling fucking and ass with attributive adjectives; for example,

a fucking sweet-ass car

This kind of double intensification is much less natural with other intensifiers; for instance, ?his really very expensive car is questionable. You can also pair fucking with really or very, but there’s a condition: fucking gets to be closer to the noun:

a really/very fucking expensive car
*a fucking really/very expensive car

(You might be thinking that a fucking really expensive car sounds fine, but what’s going on there is that fucking is modifying the entire nominal really expensive car, the same way as it could to with car all by itself: His fucking car is parked across the sidewalk! If you put in some other adjectives and separate fucking from the nominal, the phrase is questionable at best: ?/*a totally awesome but fucking really expensive car.)

I’ve paired fucking with as shit, and fucking with ass, but what about ass with as shit? Sorry, no can do:

*This car is sweet-ass as shit.
*He bought a sweet-ass as shit car.

It’s no surprise that predicative sweet-ass as shit is no good, given that predicative sweet-ass is no good, either. Attributive *sweet-ass as shit may be ungrammatical simply because it’s a long adjective phrase coming before the noun it modifies–the same thing that happened with ?sweet as shit car, but made worse now with the addition of ass-intensification.

Another wrinkle turns up when it comes to comparative forms of adjectives; i.e. their -er or more ___ forms. Fucking, like really and very, can’t modify comparative forms, whether they’re predicative or attributive adjective. The same goes for ass with its attributive adjectives:

*This car is really/very/fucking sweeter.
*He has a really/very/fucking sweeter car than me.
*He has a really/very sweeter car than me.
*He has a sweeter-ass car than me.

So early in 2011 when the question came up on Twitter on what the proper comparative of bad-ass should be, the answer should have been not worse-ass, bad-asser, or even badder-asser, but none of the above.

Once again, though, the obscenity-based intensifiers are different from ordinary intensifiers. They can modify comparatives after all, provided they get introduced by a lot:

This car is a lot fucking sweeter.
He has a lot fucking sweeter car.

(There’s also the question of why it’s not *an a lot fucking sweeter car, but that’s another story.)

But wait a minute! What about as shit? It has complications of its own. I said above that it has been completely grammaticalized into an intensifier, but I lied. It still has some of its original meaning–not in the shit part, but in the part that compares some property of the modified noun with that of shit. Sure, to be dumb as shit means to be really dumb, but if we’re talking even dumber than that, we don’t just say *dumber as shit; it has to be dumber than shit.

Intensification with fucking, ass, and as shit: a taste of syntactic anal-ysis.

10 Responses to “Ass/Fucking Intensification”

  1. Thank you, Neal, that was abso-farkin’-lutely brilliant!

  2. Glen said

    “So early in 2011 when the question came up on Twitter on what the proper comparative of bad-ass should be, the answer should have been not worse-ass, bad-asser, or even badder-asser, but none of the above.”

    I would say “more bad-ass,” as in “My car is more bad-ass than yours.” And isn’t the additional “more” the standard means of creating a comparative with adjectives that don’t take -er?

    • Glen, you are absolutely correct. “Correct,” however, holds less currency today. I’ve noticed lots of people using ‘more’ with single-syllable adjectives. E.g., “I’m more close to his kind of politics.” Language, being the democratic tool it is, ends up with seeming randomness and exceptions to the rule. (The average speaker is not a linguist; the average driver is not a mechanic.)

      • Ben said

        I think fucking can modify the comparative. But you do need to change the -er form to the more form, even with words that don’t normally take the -er form. I hear quite a lot of people do this down the local, and I hear more and more amongst children the use of ‘more’ instead of ‘-er’ (and often a redundant use of both – ‘way more sweeter’). I suspect this is a London thing though.

        In your examples…

        *This car is really/very/fucking sweeter.
        – This car is more fucking sweet.

        *He has a really/very/fucking sweeter car than me.
        – His car is more fucking sweet than mine. (Although ‘he has a fucking sweeter car than me’ sounds natural.)

  3. This is aside from the main point, but “ice(d) tea” is not the same situation as “ice(d) cream” and “big-ass(ed). There’s no phonetic simplification with “ice tea” versus “iced tea”. The two are pronounced the same in normal speech (as distinct from hyper-articulate speech). “iced” ends in the same sound that “tea” begins with, thus making “iced tea” sound just like “ice tea”. So with “ice(d) tea” it’s just a spelling difference.

  4. EP said

    “Yes, the cabernet is piquant as shit this year.” Hilarious. But what strikes me is how * easy it is to start * talking this * way. It’s easy as * and anybody can * begin whenever he or she the * feels like it. It’s * natural or hard-wired into our * brains or some * like that.

  5. SJ said

    I’ve noticed the “as”, as in ‘nasty as shit’ disappearing – at least in my neighborhood. “That’s some nasty shit” “Please cut out that annoying shit.” And “dumb shit” is 1) dumb something and 2) dumb someone.

  6. Neil, did you intend the ambiguity in the title of this post. (If you don’t see the ambiguity, disregard the punctuation.)

  7. […] here’s Neal Whitman on obscentity-based intensifiers, taking off from sweet-ass car in an xkcd […]

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