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The History of Ass

November 18, 2012
English: Irish Donkey Pictured at Lough Gill

What did you expect? If you’re disappointed, just scroll down a bit further. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I was a kid, I thought I could get away with saying the word “ass” in front of my mom because everybody knew it meant “donkey.”  But I got my mouth washed out with soap anyway.  I didn’t think that was fair.  Was my mom a mind reader?  How could she tell if I meant “buttocks” or “donkey” when I said the word “ass”?

I couldn’t say the word “b*tch” either, even if I saw a female dog.  I couldn’t even say the word “shih-tzu” without getting my mouth cleaned.

I was the only kid in the neighborhood who wasn’t allowed to say “shih-tzu.”  I still think it was unfair.

I knew that “ass” could mean “donkey” and that it could also mean “buttocks” (that was the word the dictionaries used in their definitions), but I could never see the connection between “buttocks” and “donkey” (I didn’t lose any sleep worrying about it).

It’s not unusual in English for a word to have multiple meanings (it’s unusual if a word in English doesn’t).  But very few vulgar words in English have non-vulgar multiple meanings.  So how did this happen?  After a little research (good old Merriam -Webster), I discovered that the multiple meanings came from multiple original languages.

For example, the donkey version of “ass” comes from Latin “asinus” which means “an African mammal, the ancestor of the donkey.”  The Old English version is “assa, and the old Irish version is “asan.”  The first known use of “ass” is before the 12th century.

English: Female buttocks

Whether you think this is awesome or offensive, it’s done for the sake of etymology. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The “buttocks” version of “ass” comes from the German and Old Norse word “ars” which meant “buttocks.”  “Arse” is a cool word, so cool that Middle English adapted it (ars), and somewhere along the way, “arse” became “ass.”  “Arse” is way cooler than “ass,” but I probably would have gotten my mouth washed out for saying it.

A potential problem with “ass” is that it has so many compound word combinations that a listener might not know if the speaker means “donkey” or “buttocks.”

Context can help.  If the speaker says “a**hole,” then the speaker’s meaning is clear.

But what about “dumbass”?  That could mean either “dumb donkey” or “dumb buttocks,” and context might not be helpful.

“A**hole” is pretty clear.  “Horse’s *ss” is pretty clear.  “Piece of *ss” is pretty clear.  “Kicking *ss” is pretty clear.  “Kissing *ss” is pretty clear. “Shove it up your..!”

I think everybody gets the idea.

“*ssface?”  “*ssbite?”   “*sslick?”  Those could go either way.

Even movies are pushing the envelope by using the word “ass” in some titles.  The Jack-Ass movies refer to the donkey, but they act like a**holes.  My kids are forbidden from saying the word “jack-ass” and from seeing the movies (until they’re 30).  The movie Kick-*ss is a decent super-hero movie if you can get past the extreme violence and an 11 year-old girl that slaughters people. Again, my kids are not allowed to watch it.

I’m sure my own kids will say some of the same things I said (I’m surprised it hasn’t happened yet).  I don’t think I’ll wash their mouths out with soap (it’s probably illegal now), but there are still words they cannot say.  They are not allowed to say “b*tch.”  And they are not allowed to say “ass.”

They will be allowed to say “shih-tzu” as long as it’s in the correct context.

I haven’t decided yet if my children will be allowed to say “arse.”

From → Etymology

  1. On occasion, I’ve been known to say someone is being “assy.” Yeah, it’s probably a made up word. Made of awesome.

  2. lol lol lol!!!! Hell was another one I tried getting away with. Great blog!

  3. I think the ass is very nice.
    Great job on the artical .

  4. Anonymous permalink

    Ass is not bad unless your being rude about it. Like, ” I’ll kick your ass” is rude but “Oh, ass” is not.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. 英語のスラング Arse 、Ass 、Donkey その意味と由来

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