Monday, June 25, 2007

A Vulgar But Public-Spirited Post

I’m not going to delve into the mysteries of British pronunciation (which, I grant, varies wildly in any case). I accept that “Cockfosters” will be pronounced “Cock Fosters,” as any rational person might expect, while “Cockburns” (as in the port wine) will be pronounced “Cobburns”. Fine. I admit it would be difficult, by analogy, to say “Coffisters” for “Cockfosters,” and that doing so would deny many schoolchildren a good giggle.

Hey, it’s your language. We just have it on permanent loan. If y’all wanna pronounce “Newgate” not as "New Gate" but rather as “nougat”—suggesting that a late medieval prison was some sort of sugary nut-and-fruit confection—who am I to complain? The language is called "English", after all. And I freely grant that in matters of vocabulary, we Yanks are toddlers, pointing at any four-legged animal that happens by, be it horse or hippo*, and exclaiming, “Doggy!” I’m not going to get snippy (or stroppy or tetchy or even mardy--thanks to Cate for that one) about minor matters.

*(Yeah, yeah, I know that “hippo” is Greek for “horse.” Don’t get all Oxford-Honors-in-Classics on me or I’ll have to lean over and whup ya’ one.)

My goals are modest. I'm not out to reform the entire language. But I would like to take a moment to discuss our ass. Or, rather, your arse. (I exclude from the following the use of "ass" to mean the four-legged beast of burden, since we seem to be in agreement on that usage.)

Until copyediting on Shock and Awe, I was unaware how often my book used the word “ass”. (Generally it’s in dialogue or internal monologue, so not really my fault. Blame my characters. My personal speech patterns are as unprofane as those of a goddamned nun.) Will Atkins has endorsed the use of “ass” in my manuscript, recognizing that this is simply how Americans say it, while “arse” would lack authenticity.

But on the topic of the great transatlantic ass/arse divide, I’d like to suggest a compromise. “Ass” is a lovely word—as in, “Wow, nice ass!” An astonished, open-mouthed “A” trailing off into a smooth, sibilant “S”…doesn’t it make you want to trail your hand down its curves? “Ass” is, as the They Might Be Giants song has it, S-E-X-X-Y.

However, we don’t always use “ass” in that admiring sense. “Get your ass over here!” is less curvaceous by far, and, “I think he’s a total ass!” is downright hostile. “Get your arse over here!” and, “I think he’s a total arse!” are more to the point. There’s something about the mild friction of the “r” in “arse” that’s irritating, and captures the intent far better, than “ass” in these contexts. This may be why, when we Yanks want to malign someone’s character, we generally call them a “horse’s ass” rather than an “ass”. “Ass” sounds a bit promising. We need that “r” sound in there somewhere for the annoyance factor.

Run your hand down someone’s ass. Nice, huh? Now run it down their arse. Little more sandpapery, isn’t it? Not really something you want to cuddle up against. From certain callipygian people, “Kiss my ass” sounds like an opportunity you don’t want to miss, while, “Kiss my arse” sounds like an insult even emanating from the most inviting source.

Digressive Disclaimer: Yes, I’m well aware that some people manage to say “arse” without sounding the “r”, hence arse = ahhhse. Well, if you aren’t going to pronounce the “r”, then get it the hell out of the word and put it where it is needed (Arstraliar, for example).

But now is not the time to debate pronunciation nuance. Before they leave office—very soon in the case of one, and far too late in the case of the other—I urge Tony Blair and George W. Bush to think of posterity, or at least posteriors, and at last do something useful with their rather disturbing relationship.

I suggest our two overlords use their last days as a team to form a transatlantic consensus on this critical issue. The language clearly needs both words. From now on, if you mean “ass,” say “ass.” If you mean “arse,” say “arse.” And if you say “ahhhse,” figure out what the hell you mean—or just say “booty,” you gangsta mofo, you.

Henceforth, it will be “ass” when used in an approving, sexual, lip-smacking, or otherwise luscious context; and “arse” when used in an insulting, demanding, or otherwise in-your-face context.

It will be “booty” if the bass on your car stereo is turned up and your treble is turned off--or, in the special case where you discover you are Long John Silver. (Don't you hate it when you have one of those piratical days?)


Charles Lambert said...

I don't know, David. I'm more than happy to run a hand over an arse and to smack my lips at the same time, while I'd feel, well, fraudulent if I had to call it an ass, lip-smackingly or not. (Spellcheck note: for lip-smackingly, which it didn't like, the suggested alternative was meat-packing!)

Anyway, it's too late. Blair is about to get his, er, posterior whipped in the Middle East...

One other thing. My copy-editor's just pointed out that I too have a fondness for certain words that borders on the obsessive. Nothing sexy, or unusual (the way Will Self repeats, infuriatingly, 'palpate'). Just stuff like nod, look, stare: verbs of non-verbal communication. I knew my characters did a lot of looking, but all that nodding really surprised me. Maybe they should get someone to write them some dialogue. Wait a minute...

I can't wait to see the back of it.

David Isaak said...

Meat-packing? Don't you just love spellcheckers? (I have a friend name 'Fereidun' and I've never added his name to my dictionary simply because it pleases me so much when the spellchecker insists it should be 'Freudian'.)

Everyone has weirdly overused words. You're lucky--one can get by with quite a lot of nodding without annoying the reader.