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My kid heard the word ass somewhere and asked what it meant. My wife said not to use it as it's not a nice word. (She meant that it's vulgar or obscene.) Later (when the kid wasn't around), I objected on the grounds that, although in its "buttocks" sense ass is vulgar, it's not vulgar in its "fool" sense. She insisted it is. (We agreed that it's not vulgar in its "donkey" sense, but obviously one doesn't use that sense much nowadays; anyway, we weren't discussing it.)

What is common current use of the "fool" sense of ass: vulgar or no?

(I'm not asking whether my kid should be calling someone ass. Of course, my kid shouldn't call someone fool, either. I'm asking only about the vulgarity of it.)

  • i thought it meant a type of donkey – JonMark Perry Mar 10 '15 at 4:48
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    Vulgar, perhaps; impolite, definitely; but not obscene. However, amongst kids, they're bound to think "buttocks" first (or even "asshole"—definitely vulgar) and might not even be familiar with the donkey or fool meanings. I think it's (sadly) more common these days to hear someone called an "asshole" than an ass. – Brian Hitchcock Mar 10 '15 at 4:56
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    If you are training your kid not to insult others by calling them names, then it could be considered a vulgar word. This question is only asking for opinions, though, so I'm not sure it belongs on this site. – Ian MacDonald Mar 10 '15 at 4:59
  • @IanMacDonald Actually, it's asking what "common current use" is. Cf. meta.english.stackexchange.com/q/6603. – msh210 Mar 10 '15 at 5:06
  • @msh210 Isn't a word being labelled as vulgar entirely dependent on the audience (and therefore subjective)? – Ian MacDonald Mar 10 '15 at 5:20
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Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) identifies the relative vulgarity of various meanings of ass for your convenience. Here is how the various definitions rate:

  • "any of of several hardy, gregarious or Asian perissodactyl mammals (genus Equus) smaller than the horse and having long ears; esp : an African mammal (E. asinus) that is the ancestor of the donkey" MW VERDICT: degree of vulgarity not discussed (= not vulgar)

  • "a stupid obstinate, or perverse person {made an ass of himself}—often compounded with a preceding adjective {don't be a smart-ass}" MW VERDICT: "sometimes vulgar"

  • "BUTTOCKS—often used in emphatic reference to a a specific person {get your ass over here} {saved my ass}" MW VERDICT: "often vulgar"

  • "ANUS" MW VERDICT: "often vulgar"

  • "SEXUAL INTERCOURSE" MW VERDICT: "usu. vulgar"

  • "used as a postpositive intensive esp with words of derogatory implication {fancy-ass}" MW VERDICT: "often vulgar"

You could walk through these various definitions with your child and clarify the conditions under which Merriam-Webster deems ass to be not vulgar, sometimes vulgar, often vulgar, or usu. vulgar—or you could simply issue a blanket approval or condemnation of the word.

My sense is that views on the putative offensiveness of ass vary tremendously in different communities and subgroups of people in the United States, so Merriam-Webster's assessments of the various definitions' vulgarity are unlikely to accurately reflect community standards in an arbitrarily chosen locality. On the other hand, if you are at all concerned that people might overhear your child using the word ass and consider him or her vulgar, MW's appraisals suggest that blanket condemnation is probably the least potentially embarrassing position to adopt.

I doubt that the status of ass as a vulgarity (or not) has changed substantially in the 12 years since the Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary appeared, although people who watch network and cable TV probably have far greater insight into this question than I do.

  • My first thought was to consider close-voting as POB. But here, it's not that the answer is POB, but rather that the answer is 'POB', as you say. OP and Mrs OP could argue themselves silly on this one. How far does one go towards avoiding even the faintest risk of offending someone? Even a silence can be misconstrued. FWIW, I'd use 'duck-egg'. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 10 '15 at 9:46
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Ass in the sense of fool derives from ass in the sense of donkey. It predates the English language. At the time of Catullus, asinīnus, which literally means "pertaining to a donkey", already was used to mean, well, asinine.

Ass in the sense of buttocks comes fairly recently from arse, which has meant buttocks literally since time immemorial. Ancient Greeks said "ὄρρος" (órrhos), which is barely different.

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