[Adjective]-ass [noun]. It’s a construction equally dear to elite-ass athletes and cool-ass bloggers—and even a few academic-ass linguists, as this illuminating post from JSTOR’s Daily blog reveals. An intensifier that renders its adjective friend that much pungent or that much more emphatic, “-ass” offers an option superior to the staid “very” or limp “really.”
Deploying this intensifier can even affect the course of competition, if you recall Golden State Warriors guard Shaun Livingston recent ejection in Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals, which they very nearly lost to the brave-ass Blazers. Assuming he was not complaining to some off-screen trainer about his “asthma funk,” this camera caught him right in the middle of calling the ref a “punk-ass motherfucker,” a sliver of which you can enjoy here:
What other athletes have counted on this trusty intensifier in times of duress? The archives reveal some choice cuts, all emerging in moments of combat: Kobe calling Dwight Howard a “soft motherfucker, bitch-ass nigga” after some jawing back in 2014, say, or Reggie Jackson firing the same phrase to retaliate at a heckler in 2015. In football, we’ve got then-Raiders linebacker Sio Moore calling Colin Kaepernick a “bitch-ass motherfucker” in 2014. (One can only imagine all the -asses we were deprived of in the pre-cameraphone era.) Our own Tom Ley was referring to “punk-ass snitches” as early as 2013, and though the blog record may falter around there, the usage of “-ass” undoubtedly goes much, much further. Mobb Deep dropped it in a song title as early as 1993, and it’s been a staple of shit-talking and enthusiastic description as far back as memory allows.
I can barely recall a time when I knew the word “ass” but did not know this particular construction; among my friends a favorite teenage pastime was shifting the hyphen in the phrase so that a “elite-ass athlete” became an “elite ass-athlete,” a “cool-ass blogger” becomes a “cool ass-blogger,” and so on. I also remember feeling peeved and much less original once corny-ass XKCD clinically laid out this phenomenon in a webcomic.
But studying its usage systematically proves tricky, for various reasons. It’s tacked onto the end of countless adjectives, making it hard to isolate on its own, especially since many search engines strip away punctuation. Poking around with the Google ngram viewer posed some difficulties of its own; when I tried to search “punk-ass” I was told via alert that the tool had “Replaced punk-ass with punk - ass to match how we processed the books.” This somewhat cryptic response made it sound as though the search was dredging up irrelevant uses of “punk” and “ass” separated by a dash, as opposed to a hyphen yoking the two into one adjective, the case we’re interested in. Nevertheless I input some common variants into the viewer and saw that “weird-ass” “and “punk-ass” surprisingly warm up around the ‘70s and spike in the ‘90s. “Bitch-ass,” a favorite of contemporary athletes, gets going in the ’80s and really surges in the ’00s. (“Dumb-ass,” which appears to have etymologically distinct origins and different use cases, picks up in the ‘60s.)
As far as academic discourse, “-ass” gets in the mix in 2011, courtesy of Daniel Siddiqi, a linguistics professor at Carleton University who published this relatively layman-friendly seminal work in the journal Snippets. There are some interesting takeaways here for the casual reader: “-ass” is not a suffix but an infix, in that it only appears when sandwiched between words—more specifically, between an adjective and the word that adjective modifies. That’s to say you can be “dope” and a “dope-ass guy,” but you can’t be merely “dope-ass,” full stop, end of phrase. The paper goes on to insightfully contrast its usage to another vulgar intensifying infix, seen in “abso-freakin’-lutely.”
A few follow-up questions for our sleeper linguist readership: what are the origins of “-ass” as intensifier? From what language communities or regions of the country did this perfect linguistic device emerge? Siddiqi said “there is some idea that it came from African American Vernacular English,” but added that this was outside his area of direct expertise (his work has focused on the syntactical aspects of “-ass” rather than its historical roots). We’ll update you with our findings.