Quarter Life Crisis

The world according to Sven-S. Porst

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634 words

An amusing thing about not using your mother tongue means that you can run into words which are considered to have a fairly standard meaning but which are commonly used in different ways. Jackass is one of those words. I think I first saw that word as the title of a seemingly popular M-TV show. I could try to cook up a number of rude words to describe my opinion of the show, but perhaps you’ll just find your own. Let’s just say that ‘subtle’ or ‘tasteful’ certainly are not among those words. And thus, my impression of the meaning of that word was completely formed by all the subtlety of Jack and the class of Ass. Both of which just fit that M-TV show perfectly.

This completely ignored that a dictionary will reveal that ass is not just an expression for arse but also one for stupid person and one for donkey – with the last two meanings just eluding me, I’m afraid. In particular, the fact that donkeys are involved gives a completely different spin on this for me. As donkey-stupid is a much more harmless, or even benign, form of stupid than M-TV stupid would be.

Particularly so, as it still remains unclear to me what exactly the word ‘jackass’ is supposed to mean. Is calling a person a jackass supposed to accuse him of all the cultural subtlety of a teenager brought up on M-TV? Is it supposed to signify the clumsiness of a donkey? Is it a claim that the person is talking bullshit? (knowingly? unknowingly?) I’m afraid, in most cases I cannot tell, just from reading the word. Usually this leaves a very wide room for interpretation, thus mostly nullifying the comment in which it was used: Saying that someone was a bit clumsy and made a wrong remark as consequence is benign and possibly even an offer to help him out of the situation. Claiming he is a bragging liar, however, is more of an open attack.

As I am not watching Jackass on M-TV, the most regular provider of Jackass material I have access to is probably the Daring Fireball site. Quite regularly its writer John Gruber calls tech writers by that name for writing things which are excessively stupid or at least incompatible with a certain degree of Apple fanboy-ism. At first those comments seemed really odd to me because John Gruber doesn’t seem to be the person who indulges in M-TV style ‘humour.’ Becoming aware of the full definition suggested that his comments are much tamer than the ass in them suggested to me at first.

Which of course raises the question what those comments are supposed to mean at all. Are they head-on insults on the writers in question, signifying that they are stupid and incompetent? Or are they just gentle nudges, an attempt to improve the quality of their research and the consistency of their arguments in the future? The answers to these questions remain unclear. But my impression is that it’s none of the above. To me they seem too hostile to help those poor suffering writers out of their incompetence and too inconsequential to actually call bullshit on them.

Which is a shame. Not just because of the lack of clarity but because many most tech writers certainly deserve a good spanking. The only advantage I can see in that kind of writing is that it’s very comfortable for the writer. Because the writer will remain largely unaccountable for making a jackass claim. You can’t really have an argument about whether or not jackass is an appropriate label to call a person. Because of all the ambiguities involved, such a statement is mostly non-falsifiable. Which, at least in any fact-based way of thinking, renders it worthless. A shame.

February 5, 2008, 7:53


Comment by g: User icon

On a recent visit to Wikipedia I saw a note about “weasel words”. I think Jackass, as a word, is culturally based and I also think it’s a “weasel word”, because it insufficiently describes why someone is “excessively stupid or at least incompatible with a certain degree of Apple fanboy-ism.” I think it’s fine to use it, and perhaps it’s better than calling somebody an idiot or stupid. Hey, maybe it’s polite to call someone a Jackass.

February 5, 2008, 9:31

Comment by Dave2: User icon

I think you are overanalyzing the word by breaking it into parts rather than taking it as a whole (which is what’s intended when it’s used as an insult here). “Jackass” simply means an offensively stupid person… it’s no more difficult to understand than that. If you were to look up “jackass” in the dictionary (not even the Urban Dictionary… but a regular old American English dictionary) the meaning is fairly clear. It is absolutely an insult, and you can’t really interpret it any other way. I think Gruber is using the word because it’s slightly less crass than coming out and saying “you are stupid.” Sure it can be used in fun, but all insult words can.

I prefer “dumbass” myself.

Now, as for the word when used as a term for a donkey, it’s a little more complicated and I’m not sure how that came about. I do know that a male donkey is a “Jack” and a female is a “Jenny”… so perhaps at one time “jackass” was referring to a male donkey, and eventually evolved to be a term donkeys in general?

February 5, 2008, 12:24

Comment by Nerg: User icon

Jack is indeed a male donkey. Jackass is a male donkeys ass, clearly. Similar to calling someone a horses ass.


It just emphasizes the fact that someone is an ass or at least talking out of it! It’s not used much in the UK but it’s understood.

February 5, 2008, 12:55

Comment by d.w.: User icon

I work with a guy who lives on a small farm and, yes, owns a jackass. I should peek my head over the cube wall and see if he has a picture of it in his cube.

February 5, 2008, 16:41

Comment by ssp: User icon

Err, thanks for all your comments guys, but you kind-of contradict yourselves. I’m starting to be more and more confused. Eeek.

I guess I’ll just avoid using that word actively myself (dumbass is fine for me, as is idiot…) but I’d still like to know what other people mean when using the word. That actually makes the weasel word hypothesis sound true I suppose.

February 5, 2008, 19:59

Comment by mgseeley: User icon

To me, there is a difference between dumbass and jackass and it all boils down to knowledge of the subject. A dumbass says stupid thing related to a subject they no little or nothing about. They either do not have the resources or the desire to understand the subject, but they still voice an opinion.

On the other hand, a jackass has knowledge related to the subject and possesses both the resources and ability to understand the subject in great detail but chooses not to. Either they are lazy and only learn enough to impress those with limited knowledge of the subject. Or worse, they have an predisposed opinion on the subject and only learn enough to support this opinion regardless of its validity.

February 8, 2008, 3:43

Comment by Carl: User icon

Quoth Apple’s Dictionary.app:

jackass |ˈjakˌas|
1 a stupid person.
2 a male ass or donkey.

Originally, jackass meant only a donkey. Over time, it took on the connotation of “one who is as stupid and stubborn as a donkey.” As far as curses go, it’s slightly outmoded. For example, in Bugs Bunny cartoons from the 1940s, after Elmer Fudd realizes he’s been tricked, he will turn into a donkey for one second and the a lollipop the next, in order to convey to the audience that he is a jackass and a sucker. Nevertheless, it is a term of offense. Then again, it’s not quite as bad as being called an ass (which actually has a different connotation, emphasizing boorishness malice over the ignorant arrogance of the jackass) or a dumbass. If a ten year old said it, you would tell them to watch their mouth. If a twelve year old said it, you would tell them to be careful who they insult, but not necessarily be offended by their using the word. I can’t imagine a situation where jackass would be bleeped on TV, but I can see certain groups bleeping “ass.” You can’t put the word “ass” in a children’s movie, but you might get away with jackass if tastefully done.


Nuance is hard, let’s go shopping.

February 11, 2008, 0:17

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