A pain in the grammatical butt

The English word buttocks presents a problem for speakers: in the standard language, it’s both formally plural (with final /s/) and grammatically plural (rejects singular determiners like a, takes plural verb agreement: *a buttocks, Kim’s buttocks were/*was perfectly symmetrical). However, buttocks plays a double role semantically:

it denotes a matched pair of body-parts (NOAD2’s definition for buttock: “either of the two round fleshy parts that form the lower rear area of a human trunk”; buttocks gets only a subentry here: “the rump of an animal”); this is buttock, roughly ‘ass-cheek’, seen in left buttock vs. right buttock

and it denotes the two as a unit — roughly, ‘ass, butt, bottom, behind, backside, rear end, …’ (for which I’ll use the gloss ‘butt’) — in which case it acts somewhat like a plurale tantum (cf. pants), plural formally and grammatically, but singular in reference, and somewhat like formally plural singular nouns (shingles the disease, linguistics, etc. — there are several subtypes of these, well studied)

How to reconcile this double role?

There’s a general pressure to convert pluralia tantum to singulars, formally and grammatically (a pant / brief / scissor …); or to formal plurals with singular grammar (a pants / briefs / scissors ...). Both things have happened to buttocks.

The first development (buttock ‘butt’) is hard to document for buttocks, since there continues to be a singular buttock ‘ass-cheek’. Hard, but not impossible, as Wilson Gray demonstrated on ADS-L on June 19, with this caption:

The photo above shows Nicole Coco Austin during her early modeling days, while sporting a much trimmer buttock, perhaps before she started her workout routine? [or, much more likely, before she got butt implants] (link)

The photo:

(showing Austin’s buttocks, both of them, in a thong).

This first development can also be seen as ripping off the plural marker from buttocks, to give buttock ‘ass-cheeks’.

The second development (grammatically singular buttocks ‘butt’) can be seen in a fitness essay (hat tip to Wilson Gray again):

A shapely buttocks is typically a strong buttocks, and a strong buttocks generally means a strong person. So if you want to decide at a glance whether a person is capable of sprinting and jumping after large prey, and then carrying it home, the buttocks is a good place to look. (link)

(buttocks is treated as singular throughout the essay).

More examples (from an ADS-L posting of mine from 2/10/08):

This is because he is just the biggest, beefiest hunk of studly manhood ever to come down the pike, which in turn is why his buttocks is featured in every …

… his buttocks is covered with bright red bruises.

But there’s also a (non-standard) extension of buttocks to ‘ass-cheek’. From 2008:

I checked the damage to Alex and was stunned by the wounds the dog had inflicted on his left arm, his left leg and his left buttocks.

Dr. Douglas R. Johnson recorded a history of the claimant waking up that morning with pain in his left buttocks radiating down the left leg …

There’s a further question, of how to refer to the buttocks of more than one person. For body-parts that come in pairs, standard English uses the plural both to refer to those of one person (The commander’s eyes were on his soldiers) and to refer to all those of people in a group (The soldiers’ eyes were on their commander). Still, there is some pressure to try to differentiate the two cases formally, especially in cases where the “pair-ness” of the parts is especially salient, as with breasts and buttocks. That gives us buttockses ‘butts of more than one person’. From 2008:

From yesterday’s Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me on NPR, two uses of buttockses in reference to Israeli soldiers who entertained themselves by mooning Palestinians. Each soldier exposed his buttocks; as a group, they exposed their buttockses (parallel to asses, backsides, butts, etc.). So, a double plural, where the standard form would just be plural, regardless of how many people are involved.

Buttockses gets 263 google webhits (with dupes removed). Most of them are double plurals — “thoughts on buttockses”, “that wacky british royal family and their tattoed buttockses”, and the like

The standard system has

sg. buttock ‘ass-cheek’
pl. buttocks ‘ass-cheeks, butt’ [of one person]
pl. buttocks ‘ass-cheeks, butts’ [of more than one person]

The double-plural reanalysis has

sg. buttock ‘ass-cheek’
pl. buttocks ‘ass-cheeks, butt’ [of one person]
pl. buttockses ‘ass-cheeks, butts’ [of more than one person]

Another reanalysis (leveling in favor of -s) has:

sg. buttocks ‘ass-cheek, butt’ [of one person]
pl. buttocks ‘ass-cheeks, butts’ [of one or more persons]

The two can be combined:

sg. buttocks ‘ass-cheek’
pl. buttocks ‘ass-cheeks, butt’ [of one person]
pl. buttockses ‘ass-cheeks, butts’ [of more than one person]

As if that weren’t enough, there are cites in which the double plural has been extended to use for a single person. From 2008:

Cause like, you know, when you’re poor, your nails aren’t manicured and your buttockses aren’t waxed and you’re just altogether ewwwww.

Most thirteen year olds probably wouldn’t want to talk about Benj’s buttockses.

In brief, people try to cope with the ‘ass-cheek’ vs. ‘butt’ distinction and the one-person vs. more-than-one person distinction in almost every way imaginable.

7 Responses to “A pain in the grammatical butt”

  1. Jan Freeman Says:

    I wrote a column about “butt” (as a kiddy word) a few years ago, and I was surprised to find that the OED thinks “buttock” is a diminutive of “butt” (cf.hill/ hillock, and lots of more obscure words). “Butt,” it says, “first appears in 15th cent., but must be much older if buttock n. (13th cent.) be a diminutive of it. Of obscure etymology: words apparently cognate are … Low German but, Dutch bot, blunt, short, thickset, stumpy; Spanish boto, Portuguese boto blunt, French bot in pied-bot (club foot),” etc. Made me wonder: Did “buttock” originate as the nursery talk of the 15th century?

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      I didn’t go into the etymology of buttock because the OED’s timeline is so puzzling. A natural progression would be from the ‘larger end’ sense of butt to a metaphorical application to rumps of animals (as in cookery) and then to a generalization taking in human beings as well, at which point human-reference butt would be available for diminutive suffixation (perhaps with euphemizing intent, perhaps as a kiddy word, or of course both). If so, then the metaphorical uses of butt must have lain around in slang, unrecorded in print, for a couple hundred years.

  2. Eric Says:

    Did this bullet hit both cheeks or just one?

    Lyndon B. Johnson: [Putting medal on Forrest] America owes you a debt of gratitude, son. Now I understand you were wounded. Where were you hit?
    Forrest Gump: In the buttocks.
    Lyndon B. Johnson: Oh that must be a sight.
    [Whispering to Forrest]
    Lyndon B. Johnson: I’d like to see that.
    [Forrest shows him; Johnson walks away embarrassed]
    Lyndon B. Johnson: God damn, son.

  3. Accented buttocks « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] up on my buttocks posting, Wilson Gray reminded people on ADS-L on June 21 that some people pronounce […]

  4. arnold zwicky Says:

    A piece of silliness from Neal Whitman on ADS-L: Monty Python and a man with three buttocks, here.

  5. MCB Says:

    “Nicole … sports a much trimmer buttock” seems to be an example of the phenomenon — I forget the formal name — in which the singular stands in for the plural (or even the collective), as in these overheard (paraphrased) usages:

    “Larry’s BBQ smokes a really fine rib. Their rib is more of a Kansas City rib than a Memphis rib or a Deep South rib.” (Obviously Larry’s BBQ smokes more than one rib.)

    Or to return to human anatomy:

    “Nancy’s outfit showed plenty of leg.” (It undoubtedly showed both legs, actually.)

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