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Is Ass a Bad Word?

July 21, 2017

(image via wikimedia)

Ass is often thought of as a bad word, but maybe it shouldn’t be.  It has only three letters, while most bad words (like the s-word and the f-word and the d-word) have four.  Plus, the word ass has two main definitions, while most bad words have only one general meaning.

When I was a kid, I thought I could get away with saying the word ass in front of my mom because everybody knew it meant donkey.  But I got my mouth washed out with soap anyway.  I didn’t think that was fair.  Was my mom a mind reader?  How could she tell if I meant buttocks or donkey when I said the word ass?

I knew that ass could mean donkey and that it could also mean buttocks (those were the words the dictionaries used in their definitions), but I could never see the connection between buttocks and donkey.  I mean, I didn’t lose any sleep over it, but I gave it some thought.

It’s not unusual in English for a word to have multiple meanings. It’s unusual for a word in English NOT to.  But very few vulgar words in English have non-vulgar multiple meanings.  So how did this happen?  After a little research from a couple dictionaries, I discovered that the multiple meanings came from multiple original languages.

For example, the donkey version of ass comes from Latin asinus which means an African mammal, the ancestor of the donkey.  The Old English version is assa, and the old Irish version is asan.  The first known use of ass is before the 12th century.

The buttocks version of ass comes from the German and Old Norse word ars which meant buttocksArse is a cool word, so cool that Middle English adapted it (ars), and somewhere along the way, arse became assArse is way cooler than ass, but I probably would have gotten in trouble for saying it.

Back when I was a kid, I swore (in a non-profane way) that I saw an old Bugs Bunny cartoon that used the word jackass, but my parents didn’t believe me.  How could ass be a bad word if jack-ass was in a Bugs Bunny cartoon?  I thought my logic was infallible (Infallible wasn’t part of my vocabulary back then), except we couldn’t record TV programming back then and that cartoon never came back on again.  At moments like that, I felt like the world was against me.

Just so you know, that cartoon exists.  I found a portion of it on YouTube, so I feel vindicated.  I recently bragged to my mom that the Bugs Bunny cartoon with the word jack-ass wasn’t my imagination and it wasn’t a lie, but she didn’t know what I was talking about.  Getting punished for saying the word ass leaves more of an impression on a kid than it does a parent.

I’m still not sure that ass should be a bad word.  If anything, butt should be a bad word because it has four letters and its only meaning is rear end.  It has no alternative definitions to give a wise-ass kid coverage.  If you call somebody a butt-face, everybody knows what you mean.  There is no ambiguity.

I’m a believer in context, but not everybody else is.  If you’re worried about getting punished for saying ass, don’t do it.  If you must say something like ass, say arse and pretend you’re a pirate.  You can get away with almost anything if you’re pretending to be a pirate.

*****

What do you think?  Should ass be considered a bad word?  Have you ever been punished for saying the word ass?

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When it comes to bad words, ass is just the beginning.  I got punished for saying a lot of other stuff when I was a kid.

It ticked me off so much that I wrote this ebook, Crap Is NOT a Bad Word!

Now available on the Amazon Kindle!

Now available on Amazon!

From → Etymology

5 Comments
  1. Can you imagine that I was kicked out of an American fb group because I had alluded to “The Golden Ass” by Apuleius and someone reported me to the moderator for offense against the group rules, i.e. no swear-words?

  2. Funny thing I’ve noticed, which kinda confirms your point: When you’re watching Stephen Colbert or whoever, and he say “asshole” on TV, they leave in “ass” and bleep out “hole.”

  3. When I was a kid, I said “ass” and when confronted about it I said it meant donkey. I even saw the movie Shrek and that word was used a lot in that movie.
    First Shrek said, “Well, I have to save my ass”
    Then Fiona replied, “What kind of knight are you?”
    Shrek said “One of a kind”
    Later in the movie when donkey and Shrek made up, donkey showed Shrek that he had a way to get to the wedding: the dragon. He said “I guess it’s my animal magnetism”
    Shrek started to hug him and Donkey stopped him by saying something about nobody likes to kiss ass.
    Keep in mind I’ve had to watch Shrek a lot be familiar with these lines in the movie 😉. When I first watched it, all I caught was the first time: “Well I have to save my ass”
    But over time I caught the other one. It was interesting to see how my mom reacted when she heard that word used on Shrek. She didn’t like Shrek after that

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