Strong Language

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