Half-assing things

(It’s all about some English expressions using the bodypart-term ass, but without any reference to human buttocks. The verb fuck (up), figuratively ‘mishandle, damage, ruin’, puts in a cameo appearance at the beginning. But: no actual bodyparts, no sexual acts, presented either verbally or visually.)

Advertised in my Facebook feed yesterday, this t-shirt, available from many sources (this via Amazon, in five colors):

The verb half-ass, here ‘do (something) incompletely or incompetently’ — as opposed to totally messing it up

We start with the racy slang verb half-ass and work back from there.

On the verb, from OED3 (June 2015):

colloq. (orig. and chiefly U.S.) trans. To perform (an action or task) poorly or incompetently; (now usually) to do (something) in a desultory or half-hearted manner. Freq. with it as object.

[1st cite] 1954 J. Thompson Nothing Man xxi. 203 It looks almost like two guys. One of ’em..half-asses the job up and the second one makes it stick.

… 2000 Big Issue 4 Sept. 17/1 It’s like, you can’t half-ass it in this band. It’s all or nothing.

2011 T. Hooper & A. Goldsher Midnight Movie 102 Having a father who half-assed his cancer treatment until he had one toe in the grave will affect you that way, you know?

The verb is back-formed from the adjective half-assed half-ass half-arsed half-arse (which is also used as an adverb). From GDoS on adjective uses:

1st. cite 1865 in T.P. Lowry Stories the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell [Civil War context] There goes the half-assed Adjustant … 1949 H[enry] Miller Sexus Only a half-assed painter would deny the value of Cezanne’s work. … 1952 J[ames] Jones From Here to Eternity [WWII context] ‘What is pseudo?’ Prewitt asked. ‘It means half-assed,’ Angelo said … 2006 G[eorge] Pelicanos Night Gardener He’d see Asa on the football field, making half-assed tackles.

And on adverb uses:

1st cite 1934 J[ames] T. Farrell Young Manhood in Studs Lonigan [youth gang context] If I plan to do something, I don’t plan to do it half ass. … 1964 Larner & Tefferteller Addict on the Streets I was using stuff but I wasn’t hooked. It was still half-ass. … 1977 M[ichael] Herr Dispatches [Vietnam War context] The machine [was] running halfassed and depressed.

Uses of halfass(ed) are heavy among working-class men in groups (in the military, prisons, work crews, youth gangs, criminal mobs, athletic teams, etc.), who seem to serve as the agents of its spread. It continues to sound street-tough and masculine. And, given its meanings — ‘inadequate, incompetent, second-rate’ and ‘unenthusiastic, lackluster, uninspired’ — dismissive or contemptuous.

A few cites from OED2 illustrating some of the variant forms of the adjective (full or clipped, American or British):

half-assed: 1955 W[illiam] Gaddis Recognitions A half-assed critic .. thinks he has to make you unhappy before you’ll take him seriously.

half-ass: 1959 N[orman] Mailer Advts. for Myself (1961) He spent years hobnobbing with gentlemanly shits and half-ass operators.

half-arsed: 1961 A[nthony] West Trend is Up You don’t know what it is to worry about what half-arsed thing your own son is going to pull on you next. … 1972 Observer 24 Sept. The sort of half-arsed dottiness they dish out in West End comedies.

The HALF part. Back to the two somewhat different senses of the adjective half-ass(ed), which share the meaning component ‘contributing only a portion of one’s being’

‘inadequate, incompetent, second-rate’ like halfway:

— AHD5 on the adjective halfway: 2 reaching or including only half or a portion; partial: halfway measures

‘unenthusiastic, lackluster, uninspired’ like halfhearted:

— AHD5 on the adjective halfhearted: exhibiting or feeling little interest, enthusiasm, or heart; uninspired: a halfhearted attempt at writing a novel

Halfway measures and halfhearted efforts. I’m suggesting that the immediate models supplying the HALF part of half-ass(ed) are these existing compound adjectives, halfway ‘half of the way (to completeness) and halfhearted ‘with half a heart (meaning courage or enthusiasm)’ — in both cases with half treated as picking out an upper bound at best and so softened to conveying ‘only a part or portion’ and implicating (in series) ‘only a bit (a small part or portion), little, not very much’.

The ASS part. Here I draw on some usages with ASS standing metonymically for the whole body, indeed the whole person.

First, from my 9/4/20 posting “Candy-ass faggots”, the noun candy-ass ‘a soft, timid, cowardly person’ and the nouns hard-ass / badass ‘a tough, uncompromising, intimidating person’ — with the soft or yielding character, vs. the hard or unyielding character, of the bodypart carried over to the whole body and then (metaphorically) to the embodied person.

Then, from my 12/16/15 posting “Go H+A+R+D”:

For … possessive pronoun + ass used as a pronominal, there is … some linguistic literature, namely

John Beavers & Andrew Koontz-Garboden, A universal pronoun in English? Linguistic Inquiry 37.3.503-13 (2006)

One example (of a number) from this paper: “their asses sure know how to fuckin’ jam” ‘they sure know how to jam’. Yes, the construction is very much street vernacular

Sociolinguistic note. The mildly taboo demotic nature of the bodypart noun, and its associations with working-class masculinity, tend to get carried over to the non-anatomical usages considered above: the adjective and adverb half-ass(ed), the verb half-ass, the nouns candy-ass and hard-ass, and the pronominal PossPro + ass. That’s the big generalization. But no doubt the sociolinguistic and stylistic details are different for each of the usages, so there’s a lot to be discovered here (and, of course, collecting fortuitously discovered examples from texts and off-the-cuff field work can take us only so far).

8 Responses to “Half-assing things”

  1. Bigmacbear Says:

    Also the source of several bad puns I heard from my dad and brothers:
    “I’m not a fast bartender; I’m not a slow bartender. I’m just a half-fast bartender.”
    “Don’t start vast projects with half-vast ideas.”

  2. Robert Southwick Richmond Says:

    If you’re four times half-assed, does that mean you’re biased?

    The medical term for the condition is of course hemipygia….

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Well, hemipygia *would be* the medical term… But the term could be adapted to insults — so you could refer to stupid, ill-thought-out ideas as hemipygic.

      • Robert Southwick Richmond Says:

        There’s steatopygia, fat-assed, a word I think belongs to the physical anthropologists.

        My father’s 1920 Dorland medical dictionary records pygalgia, a pain in the ass, a word not in OED2.

        Wonder if Pygar, the angel in Jane Fonda’s 1968 Barbarella, is related. “An angel does not make love, an angel IS love.”

      • arnold zwicky Says:

        “pygalgia” cries out for common use. William F. Buckley Jr. would have loved it; he was fond of adapting learnèd terms for insult use.

        Meanwhile, I have coined “pygic” as a counterpart to “phallic”.

        And of course there’s good old “callipygian”.

      • Robert Southwick Richmond Says:

        Yes, my wife is very callipygian!

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: