“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

25 thoughts on ““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!

    1. My friend group liberally used CBA for… pretty much everything as stoner teenagers, and I’ve always liked how self-demonstrating it is – a lazy abbreviation for a statement about being lazy.

      It was also a very good mnemonic for learning to drive a manual car; pedals left to right = Clutch, Brake, Accelerator.

  2. 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’.

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

  5. 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.

      1. 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.

      2. ‘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!’ 😉

  6. 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).

    1. Originally a reference to Fanny Adams, a child who was brutally murdered in Victorian times and her body cut to pieces. Sailors began to refer to tinned meat or cheap stew as “Fanny Adams”, then the name was transferred to anything substandard, and eventually somebody noticed the coincidence of initials.

  7. 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…

    1. 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.

  8. Brit with a no-longer teenaged daughter here – My daughter, when she was around 15/16 wrote (and insisted she was correct to write) “can’t be asked” – Her mother and I both pointed out the mistake but she’d have none of it so it may be the child in question has read the phrase in online chat.

    In the south east of England, asked is pronounced with the long /a:/ and the /k/ of the cluster is often elided so it sounds like /a:st/. in the north there is a much clearer distinction between the a in ‘asked’ (short) and the a in ‘arsed’ (long) so I we’re really dealing with a southern British egg-corn.

  9. Gordon Bennett. Have you plonkers finished ? Can’t be arsed is literally ‘ I can’t be bothered to get up off my arse to do it ‘ . S’obvious innit? … if yer fink abart it.

  10. In all this discussion about arsed and asked – long A’s – North and South – and etc … no-one so far has stopped to consider that the phrase ‘I can’t be ASKED ‘ about something is entirely meaningless. The fact that you were ( supposedly) being asked about something automatically negates the rejoinder. Like I say … fink abart it will ya!

    1. Whereas “to be arsed (with/about/to X)” makes perfect sense? “To arse” isn’t a verb on its own, and the closest candidate, “to arse about” (intransitive; the “about” is that of “lounge about”), means to be lazy, and is thus the exact opposite of the hypothetical positive “being arsed to do s/th” that CBA negates (someone who spends his time “arsing about” is likely to be a heavy user of the phrase “I can’t be arsed with that”).

      Meanwhile “I can’t be asked to [do X]” has a relatively sensible potential reinterpretation of “I don’t want to do it, so don’t bother asking me”. Does it make *perfect* sense? No, but more than the original phrase (which relies entirely on the inherent grammatical flexibility of expletives), and certainly enough to be eggcorned.

  11. “Can’t be arsed” was the subject of Graham Norton’s guest in the red chair this week on BBC America (last week in the U.K.), a lawyer from Brazil specializing in financial services for the last 11 years in England. When she frequently heard this at work, assuming there was no swearing in the workplace, she heard it as “can’t be asked.” She caused quite a stir when she used in reply to a proper British Dame at some party years later. Her story was so good that she got to walk (instead of being flipped backward in the chair).

    Aside: I haven’t received an email notice of posts in this blog in so long that I thought it had been abandoned. I’m going to have to find out why.

  12. “‘arris’ which is a corruption of ‘arse’ purely because it sounds like ‘harris’”; not according to Anthony Burgess (forget which book but probably one of the early ones, perhaps The Doctor is Sick). He explains it as double rhyming slang: arris is rhyming slang for bottle (Aristotle), which is rhyming slang for arse (bottle and glass, which rhymes with arse in many forms of BrE).

  13. Kids in Britain have been saying “can’t be asked” for about ten years. When I innocuously enquired as to the meaning, the reply was, “Just don’t ask me” as, I guess, the answer would be a refusal. It tickled me, rather.

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