Does this slang originate from half asked, since the difinition means exactly that. You only did half what I asked you.

  • 1
    Does it really come from half asked? I always thought it was more like "Instead of putting your ass to work (and getting it right), you only put half of it to work, so it turned out shoddy."
    – Gob Ties
    May 22, 2014 at 19:32
  • 1
    Probably from half-arsed oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/half-arsed
    – Tristan r
    May 22, 2014 at 19:37
  • 3
    Puritan America replaced a lot of terms like 'arse' with near equivalents - that's how you get 'ass'. But we say 'half-arsed' as @Tristan points out. It is also the reason why a male hen is called a 'rooster' in america, to avoid saying 'cock'.
    – WS2
    May 22, 2014 at 20:35
  • 2
    The real question here is why isn't it a compliment to say someone "really whole-assed this!" or "full-assed it." May 23, 2014 at 16:54
  • 3
    @Digital Chris: Because having half an ass (or half a brain or half a heart) is being inadequate, whereas having a whole ass or whole brain is normal and therefore no cause for special honor.
    – Merk
    May 24, 2014 at 3:28

6 Answers 6


By far the earliest instance of "half-assed" that a Google Books search turns up is from Thomas O'Brien & Oliver Diefendorf, General Orders of the [U.S.] War Department, Embracing the Years 1861, 1862 & 1863, volume 2 (1864), reporting on the court-martial of Captain John H. Behan on February 19, 1863:

Charge I.—"Conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline."

Specification 1st.—"In this ; that he, the said Captain John H. Behan, Company F, 16th Regiment Virginia Volunteers, while on duty in camp, on or about the 12th day of December, 1862, did use abusive and grossly insulting language to Joseph B. Hamilton, 2d Lieutenant of said Company F, before and in the presence of said Company F, while he, the said Joseph B. Hamilton, was on duty and was acting Adjutant of said 16th Regiment Virginia Volunteers, in words as follows, to wit: 'There goes our half-assed Adjutant ;' which was calculated to impair and weaken the influence and control of said Lieutenant Joseph B. Hamilton as Adjutant of said regiment, and also his influence and control over said Company. All this at or near Miner's Hill, Virginia, on or about the 12th day of December, 1862."

The captain was found Not Guilty on this charge, but Guilty on unrelated charges of having knowingly accepted a stolen sword from another soldier and of having refused to return to yet another soldier a sum of about $34 placed in his trust by that soldier.

The next instance of half-assed/halfassed that the search finds is from 1934, in Josephine Herbst, The Executioner Waits, where the closed-up form occurs at least twice. Here is one of them [snippet]:

He hardly listened to Jonathan until he caught the words, "And what I'm going to do is just light out, go to New York. I'm sick of these halfassed towns."

Numerous instances of half-assed turn up in search results from the late 1930s forward.

The first instance of half-arsed/halfarsed that the search turns up is from John Simon, Movies into Film: Film Criticism, 1967–1970 (1971) [series of snippets]:

The story, as everyone knows, concerns Myron Breckinridge, who, after a Scandinavian operation, becomes Myra. Equipped with physical beauty, knowledge from within of both sexes, and expertise in Hollywood lore, she sets out to capture both the men and the women of filmland today, and tomorrow the world. The movie turns all this into a dream, and cleans up the comically lewd incidents by reducing comedy to oafishness and lewdness to suggestive smirking. That kind of deliberately halfhearted — or, in this context, halfarsed — cleaning up is the real dishonesty, the real smuttiness of the enterprise. For the sexual acts are now performed by half-clothed Barbie dolls with carefully castrating camera angles, and if the dirtiness is not for real, it must be for dirty.

Interestingly, three useful collections from the period 1890–1915—Farmer & Henley, Slang and Its Analogues, Fla–Hyps (1893), Barre & Leland, Dictionary of Slang, Jargon & Cant, A–K (1897), and Thornton, An American Glossary, A–L (1912)—have no entry for either half-assed or half-arsed, despite the fact that the term clearly had been in use since at least 1862. Farmer & Henley is by no means squeamish about reporting on naughty words, so I find the term's absence there particularly baffling; I don't know how much the other two books may have been influenced by considerations of propriety.

Merriam Webster's Online, by the way, traces half-assed only to "circa 1932." Can the term really have gone underground for 70 years?

  • I belatedly followed Frank's link (above) to the earlier discussion of half-assed and found that Hugo had reported the same 1862 court-martial instance that I cite in my answer. Hugo also mentioned that The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (2008) characterizes the 1862 instance as "incompetent," presumably because no one at the court martial bothered to define the term; but the instance does indicate that the half-assed was viewed as (plausibly) "abusive and grossly insulting," as nothing else about "There goes our Adjutant" seems objectionable in the least.
    – Sven Yargs
    May 24, 2014 at 0:33

This might not explain its origin as much as its popularity, but as I noted in a comment, "half-assed"/"half-arsed" is of a piece (groan ;)) with lots of other idioms in which

inadequacy = not having one's full complement of body parts, as in

She's cruel; she has only half a heart; she's heartless.

He's got half the brains she does.

He's a eunuch./Grow a pair!

There is also

inadequacy = not having one's body parts properly arranged, as in

That whole thing's ass backwards (or bass ackwards.)

He has two left feet.

Her head's not screwed on right. etc.

  • Yeah, I think it's entirely possible (in fact, probable) that the term does not arise from any specific reference to mules or tools or such, but is simply the combo of "half" with a reference to the buttocks in order to indicate derision.
    – Hot Licks
    Dec 7, 2014 at 1:12

The origin may have been covered in other answers, but maybe not the meaning.

The “half-assed” part refers to having your pants not done up all the way yet, with half your ass showing. If you are in that state, you are likely to be unprepared for the day’s tasks and generally incompetent.

So the admonition:

Don’t go off half-assed.

… reminds you to stop, prepare, then go off and do a task successfully.


Mules and other load hauling animals are usually used in pairs. To harness only one mule (or donkey or ASS) is to be underprepared (perhaps incapable) of the task ahead.

Hence half-assed or one-assed means incompetent.

  • You haul a load but very slowly when half-assed. So as not to offend the donkey by calling him slow, we just say half-assed as a euphemism for slow. He still giddyups a bit because he thinks you called him something-fast, and he just didn’t make out the first part.
    – tchrist
    May 24, 2014 at 13:24
  • 1
    This certainly sounds more plausible than tchrist's assertions, Barry. Have you any references to support it? May 24, 2014 at 13:54

The story I've heard is that the term comes from half-adzed. As in, the woodworker only used the adz on the front half of a piece, so it is only half done. It makes sence but I can't confirm it. Here are a few references: Half Adzed, The Woodwrights Guide

  • I've always taken the (several) adz-based stories to be apocryphal. Apparently adz users were good at tall tales (or perhaps the improbable name of the tool simply encouraged the construction of such tales).
    – Hot Licks
    Dec 7, 2014 at 1:07

Within a translation of a greek joke book (Philolegos: The Laugh Addict) estimated to have been written around 400 CE, there is a joke that paraphrased goes like this: An Abderite man who owes someone an ass but doesn't have one to pay his debt asks if he can give two half-asses instead.

Based on the other jokes about Abderites they are from a particular region of Greece whose residents were portrayed as stupid and deformed, similar to cretins. If I understand the joke it is that this person does not own an ass but is so associated with half-assedness that he has plenty of that to pay with. If that is a correct interpretation then the term half-assed was in common use since at least the late period of the Roman empire.

  • 1
    Please support your answer with sources. That makes your answer stronger, and more likely to be viewed as correct. Otherwise it's only opinion. We don't actually know what your opinion is worth. Also, opinion is often not in keeping with the SE model of "Answers". The site tour and the help center will give you guidance on how to use this site. Dec 26, 2014 at 7:47

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.