June 07, 2005

The intensified crack of dawn?

Geoff Pullum suggests that a sort of associative revulsion may be one of the forces behind the surprising expression "the butt crack of dawn". Although I'm someone who enjoys the early morning, I have no doubt that he's right. However, another source for this expression may be the spreading use of butt as an intensifier: "butt ugly", "butt expensive", "butt stupid", and so on.

"The butt tip of the iceberg" and similar expressions are not yet found on the web, and seem unlikely to show up any time soon. But the hypothesis here is that the spreading use of "butt" as an intensifier combines with the existing expressions "butt crack" and "crack of dawn" to put "butt crack of dawn" over the top as a plausible blend.

And just as "ass" substitutes readily for "butt" as an intensifier e.g. in "ass-ugly", as well as in the expression "ass crack", so "ass crack of dawn" has 4,650 hits on Google, and 14,100 on Yahoo.

[Update: Jill Beckman emailed to observe that

A friend of mine claims that "Californians usually use 'ass-crack' of dawn!"

I have to say that, in my own (relatively frequent) use of "butt-crack of dawn", there's no conscious sense of intensification or associative revulsion--rather, I'm merely playing off of the readily available (dominant?!) sense of "crack" in my lexicon. (NB: "butt-crack of doom"? Seems decidedly odd.)

These Yahoo counts show that Jill's intuitions about dawn vs. doom are quantitatively validated:

butt __
bare/butt ratio
bare/ass ratio
crack of dawn
crack of doom

(And Deborah Friedell claims that "a statistical tool has no ear for allusions"!)

But Jill's theory that it's "merely playing off of the readily available ... sense of crack" doesn't seem to explain this difference, unless I'm missing her point.

The role of intensification, I thought, is that in the expression "crack of dawn", people these days think of "crack" as meaning "the earliest signs" or something of the sort, a concept that can naturally be intensified. In contrast, "crack of doom" refers (as the OED says) to "the thunder-peal of the day of judgement, or perh. the blast of the archangel's trump", which is not so naturally intensified. ]

[Update: a correspondent reports reading trump as rump in the last sentence, while perusing Language Log over morning coffee, with "sinus-clearing" effects.]

[Update #2: another correspondent, requesting anonymity, wrrote:

I say ass-crack of dawn a lot (usually in regard to having to get up for an early flight). I live in NYC, and grew up 2 hrs north of here. I do have a sense of using an intensifier. If I had to get up at 4, that's REALLY EARLY, hence the ass-crack of dawn.

However, all other uses of ass can't precede the noun--they have to follow. "Ugly ass" and "dumb-ass" are all possible.

In fact, way back in 1998, I had an email exchange about this with my far more sophisticated friend, X, who wrote:

"the productive -ASS as used in cool-ass, trivial-ass, stupid-ass, dumb-ass cliticises with most adjectives, except where prohibited by the ass filter (see also X, 1998). Thus we fail to see,
        * existentially-quantified-ass
        * dependent-on-the-meaning-of-the-word-"is"-ass
        * automatically-garbarge-collected-ass
Analyses by X et al. (1998b) posit a +ASS feature on adjectives that specifies whether or not they can take part in these constructions. +ASS is strongly correlated with the semantic features +HUMAN and -BRAIN_IN_VAT."

I'm not sure that I agree with X's judgments -- we hear things like "get your existentially-qualified-ass proposition off of my blackboard, m*****f*****!" around Language Log Plaza all the time...

Seriously, I started a web search for counter-examples, but I gave up in dismay after finding this quote:

Employment of a qualified ASS consultant experienced in ASS projects similar to that proposed, will often save time and money in the long run and reduce exposure to future litigation.


[Update #3: Phooky, commenting at Language Hat's site, notes a classical reference:

I'm so goddamn horny, the crack of dawn better be careful around me.
-Tom Waits, Nighthawks at the Diner, 1975.

Hat identifies this as a "vital intermediate expression", but Vanya points out that Waits' referent is open to question.]

[Update #4: more butt-crack scholarship at Sauvage Noble.]

[Update #5 (9/6/2005): Martin Keegan points out by email that "The phrase 'butt-crack of dawn' is attested in the Christina Applegate vehicle 'Don't Tell Mom The Babysitter's Dead' (1991)".]

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 7, 2005 08:59 PM