Is Ass the Most Complicated Word in English?

(Turn your sound on!)
I think the hardest word to truly master has been the word, "ass."
I've been trying to write a whole dictionary about just "ass."
This is Ismo, a Finnish comedian who struggled with the nuances of English after moving to the United States. In particular, he had trouble learning how to use the word “ass.”
Ismo’s frustrations resonated with people: this 2018 set on Conan about his “ass” struggles has over 4 million views on YouTube. We’re going to show highlights, but you can click here to watch the full routine first.
Let’s look at what Ismo has to say about “ass.” His main point is that “ass” can fit in any sentence, and mean almost anything. For some reason, it seems exempt from standard rules of language.
We’re going to investigate whether ass is truly the most complicated word. Along the way, we’ll see why slang in general can be so confusing (and enriching).
Throughout the bit, Ismo uses “ass” 34 times, in a variety of contexts. By doing so, he conveys ten unique meanings with the same word.

Unfortunately for Ismo, lexicographer Jonathon Green has beaten him to the punch: Green’s Dictionary of Slang, the most comprehensive collection of English slang in the world, contains over 140,000 words, including “ass.”

Green’s is fundamentally different than your standard dictionary. For most people, the dictionary is an authority on meaning, a set of rules for using words well. In linguistics, this kind of dictionary is called “prescriptive,” in that it prescribes best practices for speaking. Green’s Dictionary of Slang, on the other hand, is a “descriptive” dictionary. Its aim isn’t to teach people how to properly use slang, but to show how slang is used by people.

As a descriptive work, Green’s Dictionary of Slang relies on historical citations to show how slang is used, and how it has evolved over time. Green is a linguistic detective, combing through text ranging from 16th century religious pamphlets to internet message boards of the late 2000s to 20th century erotica and pornography in search of new slang words and usages. When he finds a new usage — or an additional example of a documented usage — he adds the evidence to his dossier.

Let’s be descriptivists and look at the different ways Ismo uses the word “ass” in his routine.

How Ismo Uses “Ass”

Here is Ismo’s first mention of “ass” from his comedy routine:

1. “The hardest word to master has been the word, ‘ass.’ I thought it’s really easy, it means ‘a butt.’”

Ismo’s choice to analyze the word “ass” reflects a keen understanding of how slang operates. Slang’s most widely used words revolve around a few major themes. “To sum them up as sex, drugs and, in its widest sense, rock ‘n’ roll wouldn’t be so far from the truth,” Green says. “Plus crime, drunkenness, insults, racism and a number of other of our less savoury but quite inescapable activities.” Which is to say, there is some less than savory language to follow. Please be advised that you may be offended by the history of slang.

Below is a timeline showing historical citations in Green’s for the basic usage of “ass” as butt. The citations give a snapshot of this usage of “ass” over time.

Green’s first recorded usage of this sense (lexicographer speak for “definition”) comes from a collection of British song lyrics published in 1761. Because slang naturally originates in subcultures before entering popular vernacular, this sense was certainly circulating before it was first written down. A “first recorded usage” is just that: the first one we know of so far. Ismo’s nine other usages are below, which operate as a noun, an adjective, a suffix, to form a compound word, and as part of a phrase. Other than “ass-berg”, which may be an Ismo invention, you can browse the citations from Green’s too.

But Ismo’s ass exegesis is, to use his words, “just the tip of the ass-berg.” Under the surface are more than 200 unique historical usages of “ass” documented by Jonathon Green. Of course, Green’s is also just the tip of a much larger ass-berg — a catalog of slang will never be exhaustive, because new usages are invented every day. Some of these novel definitions will become widely used, with a select few crossing the rubicon into a standard English dictionary. But the vast majority will live and die in obscurity, eventually becoming historical artifacts in a lexicographer’s collection.

201 Historic Usages of the Word "Ass"

It’s no surprise that “ass” has accrued so many meanings. The word sits in the center of the potent slang venn diagram — it’s related to sex, it’s considered a curse word, and it’s metaphorically evocative. “Ass” is not so much exceptional as it is representative of the slang ethos.

We can look at other popular slang words to see how these features help terms accrue additional senses. Words like “fuck” and “dick” share similar characteristics with “ass,” lending a breadth of meaning particular to the sexually explicit and obscene.

146 Historic Usages of the Word "Fuck"

Words like “dog” and “cat” aren’t curse words, but they draw upon a trove of evocative animal metaphors to form new usages. The same metaphorical heft contributes to the varied usages of sensory words like “black” and “red.”

164 Historic Usages of the Word "Dog"

As it turns out, “ass” is not the most complicated word in English, at least according to the number of different definitions listed in Green’s. That dubious honor goes to the word “shit,” which boasts 295 senses, complete with all sorts of befuddling contradictions. A “piece of shit” is bad, but “the shit?” That’s good!

295 Historic Usages of the Word "Shit"

The reason “ass” and “shit” are difficult words to pin down is that slang is fundamentally different than standard English. Slang is democratic; there are no gatekeepers to impose restrictions. Learning how to use “ass” might seem complicated, but the story of slang is pretty simple: it’s slippery, messy, transgressive, clever, cruel, confusing, industrious, evocative, vulgar, adaptable. In Green’s words: “Slang is humanity at its most human.”

Data for this story was provided by Jonathon Green, author of Green's Dictionary of Slang. Title art by Teryn Sampaga.