“Can’t Be Arsed”

Online comments sections have a bad reputation, but sometimes you can learn a lot there. The first version of my post on Britishisms in the novel Room (below) appeared in the Lingua Franca blog of the Chronicle of Higher Education, to which I contribute one post a week. A commenter who calls herself “englishwlu” noted:

imagine my surprise when my kid (Virginia born and bred) started saying “I can’t be asked. . .” and “go on about” and “sweet f. a.”–all with the right intonation! It turns out that for many years some of the kids he hangs out with inside games like Minecraft on X-Box Live are British. Evidently their idioms of teenaged ennui have transferred and stuck.

Englishwlu mentioned three expressions. “Go on about” is more precisely “on about,” and I wrote about it here. The other two mystified me. I learned about the meaning and origin of  “sweet f.a.” here. As for “can’t be asked,” NOOB friend Nancy Friedman commented on the comment: “I believe you or your child mis-heard ‘can’t be arsed.'” The top definition for “can’t be arsed” at Urban Dictionary is “To be seriously demotivated; To be disinclined to get off one’s arse; To be unwilling to do something.”

All well and good, but I couldn’t very well claim “can’t be arsed” as a NOOB based on one Virginia teen’s use, or misuse, of it. Again, Nancy Friedman to the rescue. Today, she told me on Twitter that last night, an American had used the phrase in a tweet. Sure enough, she had, and here’s the tweet:

Screen Shot 2016-02-29 at 5.04.24 PM

13 responses to ““Can’t Be Arsed”

  1. Very cute that that the boy seems to have interpreted “can’t be arsed”+an accent as “can’t be asked”.

    For what it’s worth, an old friend from Singapore used to use both “can’t be arsed” and “can’t be fucked” (online shorthand equivalents being “cba” and “cbf”). I can’t say that cba would even be a one-off Britishism for me as an American, though!

  2. Nick L. Tipper

    I am surprised to read the Urban Dictionary idea ‘To be disinclined to get off one’s arse’ for this. I always thought this was an example of the creeping expletivisation of the expressive parts of our language: ‘browned off’/’cheesed off’ became ‘pissed off’; ‘taking the mickey’ became ‘taking the piss’; ‘can’t be bothered’ became ‘can’t be arsed’.

    • ‘Taking the piss’ came before ‘taking the mickey’. ‘Mickey bliss’ is cockney rhyming slang for ‘piss’. I’d have said it’s the other way around – ‘taking the mickey’ is used as a bowlderised version of ‘taking the piss’.

  3. I have an Irish friend who says, ‘I wouldn’t bodder me arse about …’ (the matter in question).

  4. ‘Don’t be such an arse’ is often heard (usually parents to their teenage offspring).

  5. There’s also “to see one’s arse” as in “the boss really saw his arse when the work wasn’t finished”.

  6. I used ‘can’t be arsed’ quite often. Didn’t realise that it was a British-ism rare in the USA. No one has called me out on it yet I guess.

    • Did you know that “arse” itself is a Britishism?

      • Nope. I have noted it is different to the ‘ass’ used here, but never looked it up. To me an ass is a donkey.
        I have two that I’m trying to infiltrate into the Denver scene: to crack the shits; and under the pump.
        Oh, and fortnight! Bi-weekly is too ambiguous.

      • ‘Arse’ is as British as a mushy pea and fish supper. Example: I can vouch for that being in Britain. Our tea lady at work routinely uses: ‘I can’t be arsed to…do…’ (anything that involves work) quite often! But she’s northern english so you get ‘A cart be arrrsed to…’

        Another phrase Brits use on UK financial chat/shares forums is ‘arris’ which is a corruption of ‘arse’ purely because it sounds like ‘harris’, everyone can tell it’s close to/means ‘arse’ but it flies under the moderator radar. As in: ‘get off your arris and do some research, you lazy bugger!’😉

  7. Jeremy Hawthorn

    Sweet f.a. = sweet Fanny Adams, itself a euphemism for sweet fuck all. Compare the US Jimminy Cricket as a euphemism for Jesus Christ (I often wonder if Walt Disney was aware of this – probably not).

  8. Working in and with South Londoners in the late 90s, I can confirm “can’t be asked” as a thing, albeit pronounced “can’t be axed”. Actually more common at that time than arsed…

    • I suppose that as many people pronounce asked without sounding the k and many southerners will use a long a, asked will sound like arsed. So, arsed gets misheard as asked and then mispronounced as aksed.

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