May 6, 2010

Ass vs Arse

Piers Kelly writes: ...let me explain why I like ‘arse’. For me it’s all about the ‘r’. It leaps off the page with a meaty trill, evoking at once the hairy bum of a commando-kilted highlander and the war cry of a Cornish pirate.

Piers Kelly writes:

The esteemed editrix of Crikey has asked me to comment on the increased usage of the spelling ‘ass’ over ‘arse’ in phrases such as “come back to bite you in the ass”.

I’m a confirmed ‘arse’ man from way back but I have no intention of pushing this preference onto others. Diversity is a lovely thing after all.

Having said that, let me explain why I like ‘arse’. For me it’s all about the ‘r’. It leaps off the page with a meaty trill, evoking at once the hairy bum of a commando-kilted highlander and the war cry of a Cornish pirate. By contrast, ‘ass’ packs virtually no punch. To my mind it bleats in a plaintive falsetto, conjuring nothing more than a pair of sculpted ’tocks in spandex hot pants, waiting to be drop-kicked by a muddy boot.

The issue is probably more about spelling than language and I would wager that it’s a uniquely Australian dilemma. I very much doubt that ‘ass’ will be introduced into Britain any more than Americans are likely to adopt ‘arse’. Why? Linguistic jingoism aside, perhaps it has something to do with pronunciation. To the extent that written English words have at least some relationship to the way they sound, an Australian English ‘ass’ will probably sound pretty close to an Australian English ‘arse’. This is because Australians typically don’t make use of the so-called post-vocalic (or after-vowel) ‘r’, which means that for us the words ‘balmy’ and ‘barmy’ are pronounced identically. Contrast this with an American pronouncing ‘car’ as ‘carrgh’ (known as the rhotic ‘r’) or a Scot rolling the ‘r’ in ‘person’ (known as a trill or tap, depending on its length).

But the post-vocalic ‘r’ is alive and well in the arse ends of Britain, and outside a few r-less enclaves it predominates in the US.

Show us your pink bits: r-less zones of the US
Show us your pink bits: r-less zones of the US

(And that’s before consideration of the difference in the vowel-sounds associated with each spelling, which I won’t go into.)

The a-word, in all its various representations, has a long pedigree. In about AD 1000 it was written as ‘ears’ and the spelling ‘arses’ appears by 1480. Not until 1860 does the ‘ass’ spelling come onto the scene — in England, no less — to denote the bum-crack-like groove on a shoulder block, used by sailors  for hauling heavy loads.

If dictionaries are anything to go by it doesn’t seem to be the case that the ‘ass’ spelling arose through a figurative convergence of ‘arse’ (bum) and ‘ass’ (donkey). But a convergence in these meanings may be retrospective: in origin, the expression ‘to make an ass of yourself’ was to behave like a donkey, ie foolishly. Today we’re not so sure. Google comes up with  2,570,000 for “an ass of yourself” but a not insignificant 227,000 hits for “an arse of yourself”.

I reckon one of the most interesting new uses of ‘ass’ is as a substitute for an object pronoun.

Here’s just a couple of examples of ‘my/your ass’ in US hip hop:
My wandering
Got my ass wondering
— Chuck D, ‘He got game’

(‘My wandering got me wondering’)

Cos when she leaves yo ass
She gonna leave with half —
Kanye West, ‘Gold digger’

(‘When she leaves you she is going to leave with half [of what you own]’)

You could think of the pronominal ass as an example of synecdoche, or a part the stands for a whole. For example, when you use the expression “I gave them a hand in unloading the equipment” it implies that you assisted them with your whole body, not just your hand. Likewise ‘my ass’ stands for me or my whole self, not just the posterior portion.

To a large extent this poetic use of ‘my ass’ (which appeared in print as early as 1958) stands in the stead of the standard English ‘me’ and ‘myself’, and the same goes for all the -self words: yo ass (you, yourself), his ass (him, himself), they ass (‘them’, ‘themselves’).
The -elf sense can be reflexive:

Better move yo ass
Outta the path fast
— L’il Wyte, ‘My cutlass’

(‘Move yourself out of the path fast’)

But unlike in standard varieties of English it won’t work as an adverb or as a means of emphasising somebody’s role. You can’t, for example, say “I’ll do it my ass” (for “I’ll do it myself”) nor does it make sense to say “I my ass have been damaged by this” (for “I myself have been damaged by this”).

So despite my love of ‘arse’ I can certainly think of a few scenarios where I would personally opt for ‘ass’, especially if I were consciously making use of a US idiom. I would never, for example, accuse a sorry-arse mofo of being lame-arse prior to opening a can of whoop-arse. Likewise, I’m sure Paul Keating would not have thought to describe Australia as “the ass end of the world”.

You can, of course, by-p(ass) the issue altogether by opting for the good old-fashioned ‘bum’ which has the added advantage of being local. Perhaps one of these days some smart-arse will even try to make it work as a pronoun.

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32 thoughts on “Ass vs Arse

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  3. brad evans

    The points on language were very interesting, before the invention of tv and the internet. People today are getting their accents from the amount of time they spend watching tv, youtube and computer games, all in American accents and language. And it’s not just exposure that influences language, many Aussie’s over the years have suffered from cultural shame and Euro envy and consciously adopted a stereotypical English accent to cover their natural Australian accent.
    Diversity is a wonderful thing, so the next time you hear an Aussie using American language (or doing American rituals like halloween), welcome the American tourist to our country and offer to introduce them to our culture.

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  6. Piers Kelly

    Thanks tblspn, this is certainly an interesting topic. I will enquire at the Australian National Dictionary Centre next time I’m there. All this calls to mind the term “laughing jackass” for Kookaburra.

  7. tblspn

    I’m fascinated by the recent (ie. this century) emergence, only in Australia I imagine, of ‘jackass’ being pronounced ‘jackarse’. It emerged very quickly when the US tv show of that name happened, and I was shocked by the near-universal adoption, and even more shocked that whenever I’ve brought it up since, with just about anyone I know, no-one seems to remember a time when Australians pronounced the word ‘jackass’. In fact most people have huge difficulty even grasping the concept that Ass and Jackass were words (for a type of donkey, or whatever) before ‘ass’ became the US pronunciation of ‘arse’. If this fascinates anyone enough to pursue the matter (and write an article I mean), please do, thanks.

  8. nerk


    Romeo and Juliet contains the following line: “O that she were an open-arse and thou a poperin pear”.

    The two fruits, poperin pear and medlar or ‘open-arse’, were in the 16th century apparently used inter (genit)alia as slang for male and female sex organs, and the latter more commonly for the anus. The open-arse appears to have been named, cryptically, after its resemblance to an open arse. Thus the bard’s usage is rather circular, given that it employs as a euphemism a fruit named after the very object of the euphemism. If such a direct reference can even be called word-play, it does at the very least rely on the common usage of ‘arse’.

    I do nonetheless agree with you that, considering Shakespeare’s ample cheekiness, the arse does not feature more centrally.

  9. robpensalfini

    Yes I’m months late to this thread, but I’m relatively new to this Forum, and this thread is such a good one, kicke-ers, as Chaucer might say.

    I’m feeling especially pedantic (I have to teach syntax this afternoon, so probably warming up), so I thought I’d check the claim (above) that “The word arse is Shakespearean English at it best”

    Did a search… the word ‘arse’ makes exactly ZERO appearances in the works of Shakespeare. It might well be Elizabethan or Renaissance, but not Shakespearean.

    Of course “ass” appears all over Shakespeare, but arguably usually refers to a mule/donkey. Though perhaps both meanings were already available.

    By contrast, go back about 3 centuries and Chaucer had no problem using the word, though he tended to spell it “ers”, as in “with his mouth he kiste hir naked ers” (Miller’s Tale).

  10. Meski

    This subject isn’t being treated with the gravitarse it deserves.

  11. skander

    However asinine one may be, one can always make a tit of oneself.

  12. Sophie Black

    Piers, this comprehensive analysis of arse v ass surpARSed all my wildest dreams… superb

  13. anggarrgoon

    @Vanise; this is not an example of “American middle-class euphemism gone mad” — it’s an example of African-American slang borrowed into wider US English which has then spread outside the country.

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  15. Holden Back

    People who expect consistent orthography and pronunciation in English were clearly not paying attention at school.

  16. Venise Alstergren

    ABARKER: That was you I corrected! Hi there!

  17. Venise Alstergren

    How extraordinary. I had cause to remonstrate a Crikey commenter this week past on exactly this topic.

    The word ass is the use of American middle class euphemisms gone utterly mad.

    Also it is an insult to a fine animal.

    The word arse is Shakespearean English at it best. And as it always will be if the PCs out there don’t strangle it. It’s clear concise and gives vent to one’s feelings.

    I love limericks DAMIEN: I just remembered this….

    An unfortunate lad from Calcutta
    Vibrated all through from his stutter;
    To eat, walk or speak
    He would shake for a week
    But he was rather good as a rutter.

  18. Goobles

    Gee, I wish they bothered to teach me anything about this in high school.
    Maybe if I had done latin instead of art.

  19. Stilgherrian

    Piers, your comment about “arse” having a “meaty trill” reminds me of that lovely little linguistics lesson from Monty Python’s Plying Circus, viz Woody and Tinny Words. “Arse” is a suitably woody word, whereas “ass” is so pathetically tinny.

  20. Damien

    “There was a young girl from Madras,
    who had a magnificent ass.
    Not pretty and pink,
    as you probably think;
    but grey, had long ears, and ate grass”

  21. Piers Kelly

    @Jessica: Very good point! I suppose I have always mentally translated ‘my ass’, ‘yo ass’ etc as object pronouns not possessed nouns since this is closer to my own variety of English (I think of *me* wandering, not my mind; she leaves *you* not your body etc), so I can concede that this ass business may be a case of a possessed noun doing the work of an object pronoun, hence its poetic-ness. In the same vein I think it’s interesting that people are now beginning to analyse ‘myself’ as ‘my self’, ie as a possessed noun, especially in imperative constructions. Eg, “Give your donation to Teagan or myself” (rather than ‘me’). I’m pretty sure this is constrained by context though – I doubt you could run on to a footy field and shout “Kick it to myself! Kick it to myself!”. You’d get your arse kicked.

  22. Skepticus Autartikus

    Pig’s arse, you assholes.

  23. Gibberer

    Do doubt you are talking about NOO South Wales, Socratease.

    No need to rhyme glass, pass and class with ass at all.

    Sometimes the same combination of letters is pronounced differently in different words.

    Consider: “-OUGH”. thrOUGH, enOUGH, cOUGH, furlOUGH, bOUGH, etc etc etc…

    I’m Australian. we say “arse” here. No need for a global, homogeneous language: vive la difference!

  24. Jessica Denniss

    Nice point about synecdoche Pi-arse, but strictly speaking I don’t think that ‘ass’ is syntactically a pronoun in these examples, but a possessed noun. So instead of ‘My wandering got my ass wondering’ it could be ‘my wandering got my mind wandering’, and in that situation you definitely wouldn’t want to claim that ‘mind’ is a pronoun. The whole phrase ‘my ass’ can occur in object position, but so can any other genitive (possessive) phrase, so

    I saw [him]
    I saw [my man]

  25. Socratease

    If you insist on the ‘ass’ pronunciation, then you had better be consistent and make glass, pass and class rhyme with it and, having achieved that, you can become Premier of NSW.

  26. JaneShaw

    I read too many Enid Blyton books as a child to be able to feel any satisfaction in calling someone an ass. Calling someone an ARSE however, rolls of the tongue with so much more weight and gravitas.

    When referring to my own buttocks (or the buttocks of those dear to me) I usually use “bottom”. Not as you might suppose, because I am horrendously prissy, but because I can’t use bum without hearing my mother’s voice sternly reminding me that a bum is an unkind word for people who may be homeless through no fault of their own. I can live my entire life ignoring almost every thing she told me to do, but I cannot stop myself being as infuriated as she was by people who do not understand the difference between imply and infer.

    I must be sure to implant similarly irritating character traits in my own children. *nods*

  27. Hamish Coffee

    The English say ‘ass’ when they mean stupid person, (like donkey ass). And they say it with far more s.

    But yes, arse is far more pirate.

  28. abarker

    I just got picked up on this the other day.

    Either way. I say ass. I dunno why maybe because it’s only three letters instead of four.

  29. 1from5

    Thank you. This is dear to my ass.

  30. Mel Campbell

    Oh boy! I feel such a sense of relief that this topic has been raised. It’s one of my pet hates.

    For me the key is not the post-vocalic R but the long versus the short A. Even when referring to pop culture, even when they would write ‘ass’, Australians will still pronounce it with the long A.

    eg the TV show Jackass (I have heard so many people pronounce it “Jackarse”) and the recent movie Kickass (which, incidentally, was written by Brits as a self-conscious homage to American comic-book culture).

    Also, the slippage (as it were!) between ‘donkey’ and ‘bum’ (as in ‘to make an ass of yourself’) really annoys me. You wouldn’t say “arsinine”!

  31. copywriter

    Yet another spelling breakthrough from the yanks.

  32. marktwain

    Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s arse.

    Bum bum bumpity bum.

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