We’re all familiar with the expression “the crack of dawn“; I, for one, was not acquainted with the recent variant “the butt-crack of dawn,” and I can’t say I’m the better for having been introduced to it. But esthetics have no place in science, and if you wish to pursue an investigation of this phenomenon, you will direct yourself to Geoff Pullum’s initial announcement and Mark Liberman’s follow-up in Language Log.
Yes, I know esthetics do have a place in science—in fact, I believe some famous scientist said that the correct theory is always the most esthetically pleasing—but I needed a little inaccurate rhetoric for my sentence. These things happen.


  1. This particular interpretation of “crack of dawn” has been around for a while:
    I’m so goddamn horny, the crack of dawn better be careful around me.
    -Tom Waits, 1975

  2. Aha, a vital intermediate expression! Are you paying attention, Loggers?

  3. However, I think Waits is not referring to the posterior crack, but rather the anterior crack specific to the female anatomy.

  4. Slightly off-topic, but am I the only one who doesn’t like “esthetic” instead of “aesthetic”? It just doesn’t look as… nice without the “a”!

  5. I saw this phrase for the very first time yesterday, in a friend’s LiveJournal.
    She was born & raised in Chicago, and is in her early 20’s.

  6. Bourgeois Nerd: Actually, now that I look at the two spellings, I agree with you. Next time I use it I’ll include the a-.

  7. I believe “esthetic” is the preferred British spelling, “aesthetic” the preferred American spelling.

  8. “The buttcrack of dawn” has been part of my idiolect for longer than I can remember (I’m 29 and from the deep south USA.). I use it as an intensified version. However, I had never heard of “ass-crack of dawn” as Language Log mentions.

  9. I’ve tried to Google various versions of “anterior crack of dawn” and none of them came up.
    “Aesthetic” is much more aesthetic. Noah Webster’s simplifications were anaesthetic.

  10. “Butt-crack” and “ass-crack” of dawn are both fairly cozy in my lexicon, and that of my friends. Not sure when I first heard it in my 24 years so far hearing things, but I’ve also heard it throughout the midwestern, eastern, and mid-atlantic regions in which I have lived. I think Liberman is right about the intensification via “butt” and “ass,” though I doubt that the original wisecrack had any sort of connection to “butts” and “mornings” both being horrible. This just seems to be a bit of linguistic play pretty well divorced from meaning (most people probably don’t even know the meaning of “crack” in this phrase). Something like, “Ah, the crack of dawn…cracks are parts of butts…the butt-crack of dawn, that’d be fun to say.”
    I also prefer “aesthetic.”

  11. Alas! That Dawn’s crack should receive such attention!
    But she’s strong enough for it! And watch out what may come from such fixation!
    Thank you, Dawn, for being so tolerant of us humans.

  12. Rand uses “esthetic” in Fountainhead and it was first published in NY in 1943 by Bobbs-Merrill Company.
    Apparently, American usage has changed for the better(?)

  13. I suppose it would be a sort of piling-on to say that I’ve known the phrases ‘butt-‘ and ‘ass-crack of dawn’ for a (relatively speaking) good long while, and that ‘ass-crack of dawn’, when I first heard it, seemed to follow quite naturally from the ‘butt-crack’ thereof, but as long as I’m on top, I’ve no problem with a pile. . . .
    On a different note, I was amused by another example of the President’s, er, novel (ab)usage of English: In a chat with broadcast-news directors this week, he said of his Social Security tours “if you’re trying to influence opinion, the best way to do it is to travel hard around the country and give the people their dues.” (Washington Post Online)

  14. I was familiar with this phrase 20 years ago. Thank you for reminding me. My day is so much more complete now.
    The spelling I like is æsthetics (hope that shows up correctly: using Unicode 0xE6).

  15. If “esthetic” is the British spelling and “aesthetic” the American spelling, it’s quite odd. English seems to keep the ae’s, oe’s, etc. and American seems to cut them in half. Huh…

  16. No, it’s the reverse: ae- (or æ-) in the UK, either in the US (though Webster’s prefers ae-). Furthermore, the UK pronunciation starts with ee-, not eh-.

  17. Wow, I had no idea that the American penchant for trimming the ‘a’ had extended to ‘aesthetic’. Poor A, what did it do to you?

  18. “Aesthetic” is certainly the accepted british spelling (quoth he, writing from northern England). I’d never seen “esthetic” before, so I supposed it was an optional US variant.
    I’ve seen “anesthetic” (Am.), though. British usage is “anaesthetic”. A friend of mine is an anaesthetist, and would never spell it any other way.

  19. Anyone else heard the phrase “ass o’clock”? It means really, really early, i.e., the ass-/butt-crack of dawn. It’s hard to imagine it wasn’t born of those two.

  20. I’m a fan of “early dark o’thirty.”

  21. Speaking of which, was it not Homer who informed us that Rosie fingered Dawn? And has not this very epithet been misunderstood by generations of scholars.
    And the writer of the Song of Songs records a wish addressed to the beloved (suspiciously uncommented upon in the Catholic, Evangelical or Calvinist literature) to “put my hand in your secret place.” Solomon was wise indeed.
    I submit that both passages refer to the anterior..uh..passage, rather than to the posterior one.

  22. Furthermore, the UK pronunciation starts with ee-, not eh-.
    Are you sure about that? Maybe I’m just misinterpreting your phonetics, but that seems wrong to me.
    But anyway, while I’m here I might as well be useful contribute another word with a differental spelling: Oestrogen (UK/IRL) to estrogen (US), both of which I believe are pronounced the same.

  23. Languagehat, nothing whatsoever wrong with aesthetics (which I in my little corner of the north of England pronounce ess-) or even inaccurate rhetoric, which I use all the time. And very satifying it is, too. Sometimes, if you do it well enough, nobody notices the inaccurate bits.

  24. aldiboronti says

    Ee-sthetic in the South of England (spelt aesthetic, of course.)

  25. 1. I’ve had both “butt-crack” and “ass-crack of dawn” in my idiolect for at least 15 years.
    2. Aerosmith also had a lyric somewhere about “makin love to the crack of dawn”, and not in the temporal sense.
    3. Comics author Warren Ellis is fond of the phrase “up since the crack of sparrowshit” which I think is funnier and more indefinably British than the other two.

  26. Apropos dawn anality – here in New Zealand (and I believe in Australia also) we have the expression “sparrow fart”, as in “I’ve been up since sparrow fart.”

  27. “Sparrow fart”, or even “crack of sparrow fart” is just what I was going to mention, and I am in Darkest Blighty.
    And I say “ess-thetic”, spelt “aesthetic”.

  28. Andrew Dunbar says

    I was also going to mention sparrow (or sparrow’s?) fart. Most of the variations of anatomical cracks of dawn are pretty old hat as jokey alternatives around here but it does seem to have become an idiom as an internet meme lately.
    As for the pronunciation of æsthetic, I use a schwa for the first vowel but I’ve always been a bit uncertain since I also hear it with “e” and “ee”.

  29. Like I said (and MacDara kindly illustrated), British seems to keep the ae, oe, etc. (is there a name for those, BTW?), while American cuts one of the vowels.
    I, a Northeastern America, pronounce it “ess-thetic,” but spell it “aesthetics.” I suppose, if you want to be truly Latinate, it should be “eye-sthetic.”

  30. Are you sure about that?

    Well, no, not being a Brit. I’m just going by my UK references, to wit Cassell and Daniel Jones—but now that I check the OED, I see they give only ess-. Strange. But that means my honored UK commenters each have authority to back them up, which pleases me.
    Speaking of the OED, it provides some great early citations:

    1832 Penny Cycl. I. 156 Æsthetics (Æsthetik) is the designation given by German writers to a branch of philosophical inquiry, the object of which is a philosophical theory of the beautiful.
    1832 Philol. Museum 369 Beautiful and ugly depend on principles of taste, which it would be very convenient to designate by an adjective.. Some English writers have adopted the term esthetical. This has not however yet become an established English word.. Perception in general is something very different from that peculiar and complex modification of it which takes cognizance of the beauties of poetry and art. Esthetics would naturally designate the doctrine of perception in general, and might be wanted as a technical term for that purpose. By the Kantian school, indeed, esthetic is used to denote that branch of metaphysics which contains the laws of perception.. As an additional reason for hesitating before we adopt esthetic, it may be noticed that even in Germany it is not yet established beyond contest.
    1842 GWILT Encycl. Architect. 673 There has lately grown into use in the arts a silly pedantic term under the name of Æsthetics.. it is however one of the metaphysical and useless additions to nomenclature in the arts in which the German writers abound.
    1859 SIR W. HAMILTON Lect. Metaph. I. vii. 124 It is nearly a century since Baumgarten.. first applied the term Æsthetic to the doctrine which we vaguely and periphrastically denominate the Philosophy of Taste, the theory of the Fine Arts, the Science of the Beautiful, etc.,—and this term is now in general acceptation, not only in Germany, but throughout the other countries of Europe. The term Apolaustic would have been a more appropriate designation.

  31. “Butt” as an intensifier: “Butt rock” seems to be 80’s glam and hard rock, as listened to ironically, by people who are either a.) too young to remember the 80’s or b.) too old to listen to that dumb shit, but still have a nostalgic affection for it.
    Examples: Def Leppard, Poison, The Scorpions, Bon Jovi, Guns ‘N’ Roses, Twisted Sister. I don’t know why Van Halen isn’t mentioned; maybe they’re too classy.

  32. What, 31 comments and no mention of the Tony Orlando connection?

  33. quantumduck says

    Maybe the change from “crack of dawn” to “ass-crack of dawn” is just as much chaining (the move from “crack” meaning moment to a referencing an actual body part”) as it is using “ass” as an intensifier. Or maybe the two play off each other.

  34. Speaking of aesthetics and the ass/butt-crack of dawn, I find few expressions as aestheically unappealing as this instance of wordplay. It sounds like a middle-school gimmick that may be clever or funny the first time you hear it, but it deserves no place as a regular expression. Some of my friends have simply replaced “crack of dawn” with it permanently, and it makes me cringe every time they use it. Not so much for its vulgarity (I am still in my 20’s, mind you) as for its tediousness. I get the joke! Cracks are associated with butts!

  35. Jefeweiss says

    I like the phrase “ass crack of dawn.” I would suspect that the phrase would be more popular among people who hate mornings. The phrase rather neatly sums up my disdain for having to be awake during the rising of the sun.

  36. I like all those oe and ae spellings too.
    But was ‘economy’ or ‘ecology’ ever routinely written in English as ‘oeconomy’ or ‘oecology’, LH? Hungarians, since they have an o:, like the Germans, can go right back to Greek pronunciation and have a word they spell ‘o:kologia’ for ‘ecology’.
    It would be ‘oecology’ if put into English form.

  37. Yes, both originally had their Greekish digraphs, economy up through the 18th century and ecology through most of the 19th; the first OED citations for the latter are:
    1873 tr. Haeckel’s Hist. Creat. Pref., The great series of phenomena of comparative anatomy and ontogeny,.. chorology and œcology. 1879 tr. Haeckel’s Evol. Man I. 114 All the various relations of animals and plants to one another and to the outer world, with which the Oekology of organisms has to do.. admit of simple and natural explanation only on the Doctrine of Adaptation and Heredity. 1893 Brit. Med. Jrnl. 16 Sept. 613/1 Œcology, which uses all the knowledge it can obtain from the other two [physiology and morphology], but chiefly rests on the exploration of the endless varied phenomena of animal and plant life as they manifest themselves under natural conditions.
    But the very next year you get:
    1894 Proc. Madison Bot. Congr. 36 The separation of.. vegetable physiology into two departments: physiology proper and ecology.
    And after that it’s all e-.

  38. I’ve wondered why “aesthetic” and “archaeology”, and to a lesser extent “mediaeval”, are so resistant to the spelling simplification that other “ae” and “oe” words have undergone in the US.

  39. Oh, I’ve seen both mediaeval and archaeology without their e’s. Actually, I think I might mediaeval “medieval” most of the time. (It’s hard to say because, of course, when you actually THINK about it, you can’t remember.) Archaeology without the “a,” however, is an abomination that should be wiped from the face of the earth! Sorry, I guess my inner prescriptivist beast must have gotten out for a second… *LOL*

  40. Yeah, I think it’s pretty rare to see anything but “medieval” in the US, and “archeology” is common too.

  41. Yes, both originally had their Greekish digraphs
    I may be wrong but I’m pretty sure you’re confusing digraphs with ligatures. At least you don’t confuse them with diphthongs as many people do.
    At risk of over-plugging Wiktionary, I’ve also been building up a category for uses of ligatures of diacritics used in English over there.

  42. I was using “digraphs” for the “ae” and “oe” spellings KC mentioned; when I got to the OED I discovered some of the spellings used ligatures, but (being the lazy man I am) I didn’t bother rewriting the sentence to reflect the fact. Anyway, I do know the difference.

  43. I agree that “medieval” is more common than “mediaeval” in the US, but “archaeology” is far more common than “archeology” (the ratio is probably even greater than that between “aesthetic” and “esthetic”). In any case, my point was that those few “ae” spellings are accepted in the US (and sometimes even preferred), whereas virtually all the others — “haemoglobin”, “paedophile”, “encyclopaedia”, “foetus”, “diarrhoea”, “oesophagus” — are unknown in the US. But maybe I’m wrong about “mediaeval”.
    Oh, “amoeba” and “oenophile” are the usual spellings in the US, too. And of course names never are simplified (“Caesar”, “Aesop”, “Oedipus”).

  44. Johnny B. Average says

    Anyone else heard the phrase “ass o’clock”? It means really, really early, i.e., the ass-/butt-crack of dawn. It’s hard to imagine it wasn’t born of those two.
    I’ve heard (and used) that one. I’d think it originated there as well.

  45. Though I believe the OE character “ae” (ash) is a digraph. (We can only speak of ligatures after the invention of printing.)

  46. Only at Languagehat will you find discussions of “ass o’clock” cheek by jowl (so to speak) with discussions of digraphs and ligatures!

  47. bathrobe says

    Tom Waits was stale in 1975. In 1974 a friend of mine used the expression ‘up at the crack of Dawn’, with reference to a mutual acquaintance who was having an affair with said young lady.
    And if we are to talk about ‘aesthete’ looking better than ‘aesthete’, I really think have to say I think ‘cosy’ looks ‘cosier’ than ‘cozy’…

  48. …if we are to talk about ‘aesthete’ looking better than ‘aesthete’
    …our sanity might be questioned.

  49. bathrobe says

    Thanks for the correction 🙂

  50. nebulawindphone says

    See also “The crap of dawn,” which my mother (early 50s, raised on Long Island) is especially fond of.

  51. “Mediaeval” is still there right alongside “medieval” in Webster’s Collegiate, although it is rarely used by Americans except by etymology and orthography nuts like me. (I also prefer to write it as “mediæval,” with the ligature.)
    It seems that in the US, “æsthetic” and “archæology” have remained, while the rest of the words that have kept their written (but not pronounced) diphthongs are either scientific or proper names. Despite being an American though, I write “hæmoglobin,” “diarrhœa,” “anæmia,” and “fœtus” except in formal writing. And yes, I know that “fœtus” is etymologically incorrect.
    As for “ass o’clock,” I’ve never heard of it.

  52. Its possible I am the origin of saying “the ass crack of Dawn”.. 96/97
    I referred to my gf at the time whose name was Dawn, she worked (and possibly still does) for a popular restaurant in sFL where the girls wear tiny little orange shorts, her shorts always rode up in her “azz crack” more than the other employees, MANY people caught on to this in our city and I heard it for years up to 2011 as I moved to NY.. I actually heard the term in Cali 3years ago and just about fell over and asked the individual where he heard that, he stated I don’t know actually but its hilarious.. Not sure if it really was me or not, however I never heard any1 else say it before 96/97 This is the kind of things that happen several pitchers in with a buncha drunks.. When I’ve heard other people say it referring to some1 else who’s name isn’t even “Dawn”.. It really makes me think, did it really stick and travel that far? To me it’s not even funny unless the person is named Dawn, even then it’s not that funny.. A few other people thought it was and continued to say it for years in my hometown, maybe just maybe.

  53. I’m afraid that’s the kind of thing that gets reinvented time and time again; I’m quite sure you weren’t the first.

  54. Speaking of linguistics and south Florida Hooters: I was once staying in a fancy hotel in Coral Gables where a conference was located, and I found myself sharing an elevator with an extremely posh British family. They had apparently just come back to the hotel after an afternoon’s outing, and the daughter, about ten years old, asked where they were going to eat supper.

    “Hooters,” said her brother.

    “Hooters? Hooters?” the girl said, in a pretty old-fashioned RP accent. She sounded tremendously upset, and yet still trying to retain her stiff upper lip. “Mummy, we’re not going to Hooters, are we? Not Hooters?”

    It seemed like her parents were ignoring her anguished questions for quite a long time, but realistically it could not have been more than just a few seconds. Maybe they were waiting to get off the elevator, so as not to have to have the discussion in front of me, the stranger. But eventually, Mum did reassure her daughter that, no, they were not having supper at Hooters.

Speak Your Mind