The night before my (adoptive) hometown Philadelphia Eagles took on the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII (which I keep reading as the Trumpian insult “Lil’”), Saturday Night Live aired a brilliant skit imagining Colonials from each region trash-talking each other at the Continental Congress.
Local girl Tina Fey led the Fluffyans (the way we say the city’s name) and nailed the weird local vowels, like pronouncing the team as “Iggles,” the place where you hang your hat as something like “hay-ome,” and a generic encouragement as “C’mawn!” She also laid down a few distinctive Philadelphia terms, like pop-pop (for grandfather), youse (for the second-person plural), and hoagie (for hero/submarine sandwich).
Since moving here in 1982, I’ve noticed a few other Philadelphia words, including wooder ice for what I grew up calling “Italian Ice”; gravy for spaghetti sauce; down the shore (“to the beach”); jimmies, for what the rest of the country (except Boston!) calls the sprinkles you put on ice cream; and the relatively recent and much talked-about all-purpose noun jawn.
But my favorite is a term I didn’t even know was a localism till last week. That’s when I read a remembrance by Stephen Fried of D. Herbert Lipson, the longtime publisher of Philadelphia Magazine, who passed away in December at the age of 88. It began:
I could tell you about my first weeks at the magazine in 1982, when Herb ordered me to get a haircut and then sent his assistant around every day to see if I had. (I hadn’t. Still haven’t.) I could tell you about the time he stormed into and out of my messy office, calling me an “unmade bed” — prompting one of my colleagues to actually buy a dollhouse bed he “unmade” for me. Or when he told the folks in the art department that I was “such a smacked ass.”
I also started working at Philadelphia Magazine in 1982 — it’s what brought me to the city — and I well remember the Lipsonian insults of Fried. I had never heard “smacked-ass” before and immediately adopted it. Well, actually, I use it in only one situation: in reference to photographs of myself. “If possible, try not to make me look like a smacked-ass,” I’ll say. Or, “Don’t use that one. I look like a smacked-ass.”
After reading Steve’s piece, I realized I had never heard anyone else use “smacked ass” since ’82, and, naturally, investigated, first by looking at the Oxford English Dictionary, Dictionary of American Regional English, and the prominent online dictionaries, none of which listed it. The top definition on Urban Dictionary was posted in 2004: “an absolute idiot that walks around as if he’s got no clue in life.” Searching the term on Google Books yielded 256 hits. To the extent I could discern the home of the authors, they were all from Philadelphia, including the memoirist Joe Queenan, the children’s book author Jerry Spinelli, and the crime writer Lisa Scottoline, whose novel Rough Justice has this line: “Then I hold a press conference where I tell the world that the mayor is a smacked ass.” That obviously suggested a Philly provenance. Herb Lipson himself was from Easton, Pa., but started working in Philadelphia in 1953, right after graduating from Lafayette College.
The first Google Books citation was a snippet from a 1977 criminology text, quoting (presumably) a criminal: “I just asked for change for a ten-dollar bill and felt like a real smacked-ass to myself.” The snippet view doesn’t allow me to search for any info on the person being quoted, but one of the co-authors, the late James Inciardi, was a professor at my institution, the University of Delaware, and may have done fieldwork in Philly, less than an hour away.
A Google search for “smacked ass” led me to a bulletin board where someone used it and was asked what it meant. He replied, “Northeastern US slang for ‘complete idiot.’” Someone else responded, “Funny, I’ve never heard of that in my 30 years of existence, all of it in the Northeast.” Then the original poster said, “Philadelphia, actually. Maybe it was just my mother.”
Green’s Dictionary of Slang contains no entry for the term, but it does have “Face like a smacked arse,” defined as “a phrase used to describe someone who looks very depressed.” It appears to be common in Ireland and the North of England. The first cite for it is 2000 but I found a 1986 quotation on Google Books: “Big red nose, big red face, just like a smacked arse.”—Cedar, by James Murphy. “Face like a smacked arse” has gotten quite popular, with 23 Google Books hits since 2010.
I posed the question on the American Dialect Society e-mail list and got some helpful responses. John Baker dug up a 2005 Philadelphia Inkwire (the way we say Inquirer) article discussing “Phillyspeak”: “Smacked ass. Peculiarly Philadelphian, this refers to a person, generally male, who has done something really dumb or foolish.” And Garson O’Toole found the earliest use I’ve seen, by the Inquirer columnist Tom Fox in 1971: “I had trouble my first year in high school. I was 13 and a real smacked ass. I knew all the answers. I was so smart when I was 13 I flunked everything but gym and expression.”
Anecdotally, I asked around. Everybody from Philadelphia was familiar with the expression; everyone from somewhere else wasn’t (even if they had lived here for decades). So smacked ass appears to be a particularly Philadelphia expression (with an intriguing Irish connection) that emerged no later than 1971. Any pre-dating or insights welcome.
In conclusion, here’s a message from all us Fluffyans to the Iggles, snapped by an Inkwire photographer: