Merger, she wrote

The Attorney-General: There is a legal reason for that. They say that the law is an ass; but sometimes it is logical even in being an ass.

Deemster LaMothe: A logical ass.

Isle of Man, Legislative Council, 1931-10-20

“The law is an ass” kept popping up as I dug through Commonwealth government transcripts, and, interestingly to me, not once did the speaker deem it an unparliamentary expression.

Some may recognize it from Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, in the scene where Mr. Bumble, beadle of the poorhouse where Oliver is raised—and husband of a domineering wife—is interrogated:

“That is no excuse,” replied Mr. Brownlow. “You were present on the occasion of the destruction of these trinkets, and indeed are the more guilty of the two, in the eye of the law; for the law supposes that your wife acts under your direction.”

“If the law supposes that,” said Mr. Bumble, squeezing his hat emphatically in both hands, “the law is a ass—a idiot. If that’s the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is, that his eye may be opened by experience—by experience.”

The expression is much older, though, appearing in Revenge for Honour. A Tragedie, published by George Chapman in 1654 and attributed to playwright Henry Glapthorne:

Osman: Was it for nothing else, and please your Grace? ere he shal lose an eie for such a trifle, or have a haire diminish’d, we wil lose our heads; what, hoodwink men like sullen hawks for doing deeds of nature! I’me asham’d the law is such an Ass.

Referring to the donkey’s (possibly undeserved) reputation for being both stupid and stubborn, “the law is an ass” describes a law that defies common sense, and parliamentarians can utter this fixed expression with nary a consequence.

But we all know ass has a more vulgar meaning, particularly among North American English speakers.

Ass, the donkey, comes from the Latin asinus, which is also where we get asinine, and the Oxford English Dictionary attests this usage as early as c. 1000, when English was still Old. Ass, the “buttocks, posteriors, or rump,” comes from arse, which, outside of Canada and the U.S., is still the preferred form. Arse itself is quite old, derived from the Germanic ars.

The OED’s earliest citation of arse written as ass is from H. Stuart Seaman’s Catech, published in 1860:

The ass of the block is known by the scoring being deeper in that part to receive the splice.

(Sailors referred to the lower end of a block or pulley as the arse.) But we can find signs of the merger of arse and ass much earlier. Some scholars think Shakespeare was already playing with these words in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (c. 1590), in which the appropriately named Nick Bottom transforms into a donkey:

This is to make an asse of mee, to fright me, if they could.

The transformation of arse to ass may have been one of the earliest instances of the loss of the /r/ as a dialectal variation in English. Dropping the /r/ before coronal consonants (such as /s/, /ð/, and /ʃ/)  in informal language began in the fifteenth century, a phenomenon that gave us from curse and bust from burst. In fact, ass may have begun as a euphemism, helping people avoid what was then the more indecorous arse—but, just as heroin was developed to treat morphine addictions, the cure seems to have become worse than the disease.

Luckily for us, ass’s double meaning allows for hilarious misreadings of historical quotes, such as these from the OED:

An Ass laden with Gold will go lightly up hill.

from Thomas Shelton’s translation of Cervantes Don Quixote, 1620

The way of riding most used in this place is on assback.

from Tobias George Smollett’s Travels through France and Italy, 1766  

If this be rightly called the bridge of asses, He’s not the fool that sticks, but he that passes.

from Epigram, c. 1780

Ass-flesh, as food, is far preferable to beef and even to veal.

from Thomas Mitchell’s translation of Aristophanes’s Wasps in Comedies II, 1822

I am but an ass in the trick of bringing about such discourse.

from Sir Walter Scott’s Fair Maid of Perth, 1828

They witch the world with noble assmanship.

from the June 24 issue of Punch, 1882

12 thoughts on “Merger, she wrote

  1. Jonathon Owen August 26, 2015 / 11:58 pm

    I find it interesting how much the “butt” and “donkey” senses of ass have merged in North America. I think most people would see the “butt” sense, the “jerk”/”idiot” sense, jackass, smartass, and asshole as all being variations on the same word.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Iva Cheung August 27, 2015 / 12:01 am

      Agree completely. I don’t know how many people would consider the “donkey” sense even for jackass.


    • Iva Cheung August 27, 2015 / 12:37 am

      Thanks for linking to the OUP post!


  2. Warren Maguire August 27, 2015 / 8:46 am

    Yes, /rs/ is different than general loss of rhoticity (though maybe a first step in it). In my rhotic Tyrone dialect, you find (traditionally at least, several of these are obsolete) ass, bust, cuss, fust, hoss for arse, burst, curse and horse. Common in English dialects of course.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. dnwake August 27, 2015 / 3:51 pm

    Good article, but I think it confuses two distinct phenomena. The loss of /r/ from the /rs/ cluster (a historical relic whose by-products are today found mostly in North American accents, where it is a dead process) was an earlier and quite seperate development from the general loss of post-vocalic /r/ (found in England and Southern Hemisphere accents, where it is still very much a live process).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Iva Cheung August 27, 2015 / 4:40 pm

      Thanks for pointing that out. I’ve adjusted to clarify!


  4. AndrewC August 27, 2015 / 10:48 pm

    This reminds me of a curious phenomenon in New Zealand from back when the TV show Jackass was popular.

    NZ is influenced a lot by both the US and the UK, but in a strange fit of post-colonial loyalty, there’s a tendency to perceive British English as more correct than American English, and so Jackass is sometimes self-consciously hypercorrected to Jack-arse, even though the etymology is completely different.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Adrian Morgan August 28, 2015 / 2:29 am

    Something about the spelling of “arse” looks a lot dirtier than “ass”. I’m not sure why, but the “r” somehow adds a harshness to the word, and I’ve always thought of the silent “e” as representing a small fart. (What’s the visual equivalent of onomatopoeia?)

    I think it obligatory to mention the famous limerick about the girl from Madras. You know the one: “‘Twas was not rounded and pink as you probably think; it was grey, had long ears, and ate grass.

    (That limerick, by the way, serves as the type specimen for my theory that there’s a meaningful distinction to be drawn between jokes with dirty set-ups and clean punchlines versus jokes with clean set-ups and dirty punchlines. Add two more categories for jokes that are dirty all over and jokes that aren’t dirty at all, and you’ve categorised all the world’s jokes. Someone should study how these categories correlate with the audiences that are most amused.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • John Cowan August 29, 2015 / 12:50 am

      Or “as Americans think”, which I like better. Of course, most people from Madras are not pink.

      From Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L. Sayers:

      “Do you,” demanded Miss Meteyard, in a suddenly harsh and resonant voice, “recollect the old lady’s advice to the bright young man?”

      “Why, I can’t say that I do. What was it?” [said Mrs. Johnson]

      “Some people can be funny without being vulgar, and some can be both funny and vulgar. I should recommend you to be either the one or the other.”

      Liked by 1 person

      • Adrian Morgan August 29, 2015 / 4:10 am

        Most people who read the limerick are thinking of Madrid, anyway.

        It can be fun to mention in public that so-and-so expressed an interest in engaging in an activity with me that involves using our bodily orifices to give each other pleasure. Anyone with at least half a brain will recognise this as a de re reference to conversation. As for someone without half a brain, I don’t know what they’d think.

        Liked by 1 person

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