Explaining The Prefixes “Ass” and “Butt” To A Foreigner

As you know, helping others is a passion of mine.

The other day, a foreigner came up to me with a perplexed look. He was worried that he was about to lose his job over a simple breakdown in communication. The English language is complicated, and sometimes common expressions can become lost in translation for non-native speakers.

From what I gathered, his supervisor told him to deliver an “ass-load” of lumber to the construction site. It’s a simple enough request. The problem is, the foreigner showed up with a mere “butt-load.” You can imagine the frustration of the supervisor.

I chuckled as he relayed the story to me. True, confusing “ass-load” and “butt-load” is an easy misunderstanding when you think about it. As I explained to the foreigner, both terms reference tremendously large, burdensome quantities. For instance, you might say that you have an “ass-load of homework to do” or that you have a “butt-load of bills to pay.”

However, there is a distinction between the two words: an ass-load is much, much bigger than a butt-load. I elaborated further, that while it does imply a pretty massive quantity, a butt-load is still somewhat manageable. On the other hand, an ass-load is a quantity that is almost impossible to achieve.

“Think of it this way,” I told him, “if someone requests an ass-load of something, give them as much of it as is humanly possible, as there is no greater quantity of anything than an ass-load. On top of that, you can never exceed an ass-load. For instance, you’ll never hear someone say, ‘Whoa, whoa… this is way too much… I only wanted an ass-load of French fries.”

I continued on, “Now, think of a butt-load as generally one-fourth of an ass-load. Granted, it’s still a lot, but it’s somewhat doable.”

Despite this explanation, I could see the foreigner was still having a hard time understanding the concept. Then it dawned on me, in the foreigner’s native land, they used the metric system. Pulling out my TI-85, I used the conversion function to demonstrate that an ass-load was really 1.78 “arse-loads”, the corresponding unit of measure in the metric system. I could see it was starting to make sense.

I figured while I had the foreigner’s attention, it was incumbent upon me to share with him some of the other usages of the prefixes “ass” and “butt” to avoid future embarrassing mishaps. “In our culture,” I began, “the words “ass” and “butt” can be powerful modifiers of traditional words. In fact, in some circumstances, a prefix of “ass” or “butt” will make the word take on its most extreme form. Here are some examples…”

“For starters, let’s say you have to catch a flight in the wee hours of the morning. Obviously, you’d want to get up pretty early. You may even be forced to get up “ass-early”. This is the earliest possible time a person can be woken up from a full-on sleeping state. Technically speaking, the actual time of day you’d get out of bed would be the “butt-crack of dawn”. And naturally, the butt-crack of dawn is ridiculously earlier than the real crack of dawn.”

“Now when it comes to your job, if you hit traffic you might show up late for work. However, if it has been several hours, and there is considerable doubt you will show up for work at all, that is being “ass-late” for work. Generally, that means arriving at least two hours or so later from when you were supposed to be there. Similarly, if you have an important deadline, you might find yourself working ass-late at the office. Working ass-late means that when you finally do get home from work, all you do is go straight to bed so that you can get enough sleep to handle being at work at eight a.m. the next morning.”

“Also, if someone is really worthless at their job, they might be called “ass-lazy.” For the record, ass-lazy is as lazy as someone can possibly be. Even worse, if you have no professionalism whatsoever, you might get called an “ass-clown.” As you might expect, an “ass-clown” is even more of a buffoon than a regular clown.”

“And finally, when it comes to a blind date, worst-case scenario is that your date is “butt-ugly” with “ass-breath.” If you find yourself in that situation, just tell her you have to get up “ass-early” the next day and cut the date short.”

The foreigner thanked me for my help and we parted ways. I tried to make a joke about how this should help him “ass-similate” to our culture, but he didn’t get it. I thought it was clever though, and laughed to myself as I crossed the street.

8 thoughts on “Explaining The Prefixes “Ass” and “Butt” To A Foreigner”

  1. Hmph. Is nativity Really the factor here? Because I seriously believe that ass and butt attached with other words in colloquial usage are mere slang’s, and definitely not statically defined! :)

  2. Narziss, I think there have actually been three textbooks on the matter since the popularization of the term. And, as English is quite the lingua franca now, I can proudly say that these fine prefixes are now internationally used terms.

    Thanks for the calculations! I was stumbling a bit with my conversions :(

  3. An intelligent read about the english language. You crammed a butt-load of knowledge in there and kept it ass-entertaining. I always wondered where my mandibula was! (If you remember this reference, I’ll buy you a beer!)

    There seems to be one more type of usage that you left out of the definition. The oxymoronic substitution.

    The oxymoronic substitution is where you take a word that means something good like “fantastic” and swap out the first syllable with the word “ass.” You’ll see it quickly becomes “ass-tastic.” And it means just the opposite of “fantastic.” Ass becomes the instant negator; it blocks all fans from becoming tastic. Who could be a fan of asstastic?

    On second thought, kudos for leaving that out.

  4. I’ve always considered myself a native speaker of english, and I’m even studying is for my M.A. (and the “A” doesn’t, as you might think, stand for anything to do with “ass”), and I never realized there was a difference between the two terms or that they of all things indicated a difference in measurement.

    Boy, am I em-bare-assed.

  5. I dunno about ass-late or ass-early. I’ve never used that phrase or heard anyone say it. But then, this word that refers to the human anatomy has enjoyed the flexibility of the f-word. Private parts FTW.

  6. Thanks for the article…I was once asked what the conversion factor of a buttload is…and I have wondered off and on for about ten years what the answer is. TY for setting me straight!

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