June 07, 2005

The butt-crack of dawn

Rob Chametzky writes from Iowa City (which is in Iowa) to say that while watching his first grader do gymnastics class last Saturday he overheard two couples talking, and one of them said that their son was "up at the butt-crack of dawn this morning." Chametzky froze; this was a magic linguistic moment, but he needed corroboration concerning the astonishing figure of speech that he thought he had just heard, for the first time. And luckily he got it: one member of the other couple proceeded to say something about how their kids used to be up every day "at the butt-crack of dawn" and how they hated it, it woke up the whole family, etc. And then one of the two people who hadn't yet spoken up added that they didn't know what's worse, being up at the butt-crack of dawn on a weekday or a weekend morning. And then the conversation drifted on to other topics.

"What the hell is going on here?", Rob asks. And I can only say that I too am close to baffled. Conceivably, I told him, there is a rather extraordinary piece of folk metaphor creation going on here, involving a comparison between the slow sunrise over the Iowa farmland and the slow moonrise as an overweight plumber with low-slung jeans bends down and leans further and further forward trying to reach behind a pipe under the sink... But really, I just don't know. "The crack of dawn" is a familiar phrase, but the sense of crack there is "moment" or "instant" (Merriam-Webster's gives the example "I'll be there in a crack").

The exact moment defining the start of the day described in terms of a metaphor involving the cleavage between the buttocks? I am speechless. Yet the phrase gets six thousand Google hits. Someone's original wisecrack (the crack of dawn as a horrible time to have to get up, the butt as a horrible part of the body, blend the two) must have spread widely enough that innocent, ordinary people now use it without a hint of any vulgarity (Rob reports that the two couples apparently did not even live in Iowa City; just ordinary rural people from the heartland, not wisecracking intellectuals from the university). I'm telling you, there's a lot that we don't yet know about the English language over here at Language Log.

[Added later: It's not that new, and it's not Iowa-specific, we have now learned through our nationwide network of informants. Quite a number of people have already written in to say that they've heard it occasionally over a period of ten years or more. And several note that "the ass-crack of dawn" is also encountered; see Mark's next post.]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at June 7, 2005 06:51 PM