Monday, August 14, 2006

arse, ass and other bottoms

Howard at the UK/US forum e-mailed to request discussion of BrE arse and AmE ass. It seems Howard has come across at least one American wondering why the British "put an /r/ in ass", when, of course, the real question is why Americans have taken the /r/ OUT of arse. There are many useful discussions of arse/ass available, so I'll lazily quote Wikipedia:
Until the late eighteenth century, "ass" presumably had no profane meaning and simply referred to the animal now mostly called donkey. Because of the increasingly non-rhotic nature of standard British English, "arse" was often rendered "ass". However indirect evidence of the change from arse to ass traces back to 1785 (in euphemistic avoidance of ass "donkey" by polite speakers) and perhaps to Shakespeare, if Nick Bottom transformed into a donkey in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (1594) is such a word-play. This usage was also adopted in America, which is why the word "arse" is not usually used in the United States. The age of Victorian propriety resulted in the rechristening of the horse-like animal, changing the name to "donkey" (not recorded in English before 1785, slang, perhaps from dun "dull grey-brown," the form perhaps influenced by monkey, or possibly from a familiar form of Duncan, cf. dobbin) to avoid any improper inferences. Some people in Britain have adopted the American version in writing. Although before World War I they were similar, the British pronunciations of "ass" /æs/ and "arse" /ɑːs/ are now quite different. While arse is commonly used in Atlantic Canada, west of the Ottawa river, ass is more idiomatic.
So, the /r/ in arse used to be pronounced, but now it's not pronounced as an /r/ in many (particularly southern English) British dialects, including Received Pronunciation. Nevertheless, it's spel{led/t} with an r no matter which British dialect one speaks. So why do some Americans think that the /r/ has been added in, rather than taken out?

My hypothesis is that it's because most Americans are familiar with dialects that add /r/s after certain vowels, even though the r is not present in the spelling. They're used to seeing the written form without an /r/, and so figure/reckon that any other form is a corruption, just as they consider it a corruption when people pronounce idea as idear and washing as warshing. Some British dialects have an intrusive r, so it's not unreasonable to guess that the word that is familiar as ass is the victim of /r/-adding.

Adding or dropping /r/s is a definite marker of geography and social class. In the US, people often consider added /r/s to be a mark of a hick or "white trash". (It's done in many parts of the country, including rural Pennsylvania and the Ozarks.) Thus in one on-line discussion one participant said "English people are cute. They say 'arse' instead of 'ass'", to which another American hotly replied:
"Arse" is not cute. "Arse" just makes me think of welfare moms living in low-rental housing and wearing sweatpants, running babysitting operations out of their ghetto apartments and threatening the kids into behaving themselves by shrieking "I'll tan yer arse!" with a Virginia Slim hanging out the side of their mouth.

Arse. So not cute.
So, here we have an American judging BrE arse in much the same way that many Britons judge the American pronunciation of herb. Even though it's the older pronunciation and the one that is natural to the dialect, it's judged on the basis of class-based assumptions that don't translate over international borders.

In BrE, arse can also a verb. Can't be arsed to means 'can't be bothered to'. I see that another blogger (Troubled Diva) is promoting an acronym to be used when you want to admit you're too lazy to back up the claims you're making on your blog: CBATG, or 'Can't Be Arsed To Google'. Another verbal use of arse, to arse about is vaguely equivalent to AmE goof off. The OED includes some examples of ass being used as a verb in ass about, but this just isn't a common usage in the US. I actually could be arsed to Google that, but the results were contaminated with lots of examples of give a rat's ass about, and I couldn't be arsed to sort those out.

And while we're on our rear-ends, a few other sources of international confusion over the gluteus maximus:

Perhaps I just had a poor vocabulary in my pre-passport days, but it was only after leaving the States that I learn{ed/t} that pratfall literally means 'falling onto the rear-end'. In BrE, prat is known to mean 'buttocks', but is mostly used as an epithet for a dolt or a (orig. AmE) jerk--much as ass is used in AmE.

Americans should be warned strongly against referring to one's fanny while in proximity to British persons. In the UK (and other parts of the English-speaking world), fanny means a woman's genitals. Either hilarity or deep embarassment (depending on the company) ensues when American tourists refer to their fanny packs. In the UK, these items are known as bum bags. Bum is, of course, another BrE word for the buttocks, which is a bit less crude than AmE butt. Thank goodness that Americans gave up on naming babies Fanny in the 1940s, but the Swedish still love it (though they pronounce the 'y' as a fronted 'u'; see Think Baby Names).

Bottom only means 'buttocks' in AmE, and while it can be used in the same way in BrE, a distinction can be made between the front bottom (i.e. the [female] genitals) and the back bottom.

Since I've just hit bottom, I'll make this the end (ha-ha) of this instal(l)ment.

26 comments:

dagger aleph said...

There's also "arsey" which I gather means "impudent" or "stroppy" or something like that.

I remember mentioning to one of my English co-workers that there was a brand of cola called "RC", and he thought that was hilarious. "Arsey cola."

sumrandom said...

As an Australian English speaker "front bum" is also possible as a reference to female genitals. But the interesting part is, I've heard it used as a derogatory term for groups of females, e.g. "a bunch of front-bums".

I haven't looked it up in the dictionary so I'm not sure if this is a recognised usage. All I've got is anecdotal evidence.

Oh and great blog by the way, it's become one of my favorites to read.

barnoid said...

There's an episode of the Simpsons in which Marge buys Bart and Lisa matching "fanny packs" and then goes on to exclaim "Now your fannies match!". Tee hee hee.

Howard said...

That's wonderful, Lynne, thank you very much!

I should have thought about looking the matter up in Wikipedia, but it just hadn't crossed my mind that it would be covered there (therefore not strictly a case of CBATW* in this case! :-) )

* if that's not an Internet shorthand, it is now!

Rebecca said...

I would always pronounce the R in arse, but that might be because of my accent. I've used CBA as an acronym for years, especially on IM programmes.

lynneguist said...

Thanks for the comments--they're arriving at record speed. Now I know what really interests people!

Front bum seems to be used in the UK too--I see a Leeds teenager has chosen it has her myspace name (charming...). 1370 .uk hits, 287 .au hits, 124 .nz hits. Taking into consideration the populations of these countries (and assuming they're equally wired), New Zealanders are the most prolific users of the term. Australians come bottom (heh-heh), but since the UK is full of Australians and NZers, perhaps they're boosting the UK numbers. (Did you know that 20% of NZ's population lives overseas?) On sites that seem to have British authorship, there's a sense that front bum is babytalk--something said by or to children.

lynneguist said...

Hm. It seems the way to guarantee a slow-down of comments is to comment on how fast the comments are coming in!

Jen said...

There was a British tv show called Bottom in the mid-90's (I think). I'm not sure what the title referred to exactly. Maybe it was just that the characters were hard-luck cases and so were at the "bottom" in terms of society. But I always wondered if it wasn't a wink to the other meaning as well (knowing the British love of scatological humor).

lynneguist said...

There's definitely a scatalogical link. This is what the BBC says about Bottom:

"Bottom was intentionally and unashamedly juvenile, with even its title pointing to the schoolboy nature of its humour. Mayall and Edmondson had originally named the show Your Bottom and delighted in the double entendres that it might present (eg, 'I saw Your Bottom on television last night'), but, eventually, they settled on the more succinct Bottom and instead derived pleasure from the suffixed episode titles (eg, Bottom: Smells, and Bottom: 's Up).)"

Janet said...

I didn't know that "arse" could be used as a verb.

And of course, as happens (I guess?) to all us Americans, I've made the "fanny" error...and was swiftly corrected by my now-husby, looking at me with a slightly red face!

Janet

Twisted DNA said...

Coming from Lori's blog.

I knew Fanny means something in BrE but didn't know exactly what. Thanks for the enlightenment :)

I wonder who Fanny Mae would advertise in UK:
"Fanny Mae: We accommodate everything. Big,small or balloon [loans]"

Cameron said...

As a Scot I am constantly regretting the reality that "ass" seems to be steadily repacing "arse" over here; I find "arse" to be a FAR superior swear word, what with its extra consonant and everything. I also much prefer the Scottish (and north east of England) "shite" to the relatively feeble "shit."

As far as "fanny" is concerned, I learned Scottish Gaelic at school, and my teacher, a highlander, always clearly used "fanny" to mean "arse", and greatly enjoyed teling red-faced twelve year old boys to "sit on your fanny," to which he would often be told angrily "I haven't GOT a fanny," the clear assumption being that Mr. MacVicar was an old hick who had no idea what he was saying. Anyway, my assumption from that was that "fanny" was once used here with the same meaning as it now has in Leftpondia, at least in the Scottish highlands.

Anonymous said...

on the subject of why americans may think that it is the brits who have added, rather than them who have taken away, it is probable to me that many americans (of course not yourself, nor any of your well travelled countrymen) believe themselves and their country to be the originator of everything. this is something we all know not to be true, however, i have borne witness on several occasions to american tourists asking guides whether 'boston' (UK) is named after 'boston' (US), 'bristol' (UK) is named after 'bristol' (US) and perhaps most alarmingly whether 'york' (UK) is named after 'new york' (US) (!)

John Cowan said...

arse > ass is one of just a few survivors of an 18th-century incipient sound-change rs > ss that mostly got reversed in AmE.

The others I know of offhand are:passel (AmE informal) 'a large amount' < parcel, cuss < curse, and bust < burst, where the sound-changed form differs in meaning or at least in register; hoss < horse and a good many others have been lost.

There are British dialects that (probably independently) have this feature too; borrowings from them into the standard language account for bass, the fish < OE bærss, and (by way of hypercorrection) the intrusive r in parsnip.

John Cowan said...

Sorry, that second s in bærs doesn't belong there. One r, one s.

judy Wyatt said...

A new American reader here, making my way through your interesting and entertaining blog from the beginning after being pointed here from Language Log.

I'm now up to reading about fanny packs. Well, I've known for years, thanks to British friends as well as TV shows imported to PBS, that fanny is an embarrassing word in British English, but I can't bring myself to call my useful bag a butt pack, as butt is an embarrassing word in American English. So, although I wear one every day, I am at a loss as to what to call it. I'm living in Germany now, where it's known as a Bauchtasche (stomach bag) or Gürteltasche (waist bag), but neither of these sounds like a pleasant translation for use in English. Any suggestions?

Lance said...

Stanford professor Bob Sutton has just written a book titled The No Asshole Rule. He's had a few problems in the US: Harvard Business School Press would only publish it if he changed the title (he wouldn't) and The New York Times won't use the word asshole even in a review.

Sutton found when he was interviewed by the BBC that they were happy for him to say "asshole", but preferred he didn't use "arsehole". His account here.

Ray said...

Now I want to know about 'bollocks' as in "Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols." I did my Wikipedia duty and found this: "Owing to its versatility, bollocks has been called the Swiss Army knife of andrological profanities, in that it is the most versatile word in the English language." I thought it was another word for arse, but this entry suggests, among other things, that it means testicles. Even more commonly, apparently, it can mean nonsense, or, at least, one court was once so convinced, thus allow the Pistols to promote their, uh, seminal album.

http://writinginthewild.com/

Ginger Yellow said...

Lots of interesting stuff here.

First, though, I have a question for Lynne. Is it possible that in Shakespeare's time and locale "ass" was pronounced in a similar way to "arse"? It seems unlikely, but I can't remember all the specifics of the great vowel shift.

While I definitely prefer "arse" as a standalone word, I find I use "ass" quite often in phrases like "sweet ass" ("sweet arse" would mean something altogether different) or "let's go kick some ass" ("kick arse" is preferred as an ejaculation), or ass-backwards/back-asswards. On the other hand, it's definitely "arse over tit".

There's another verbal usage of "arse", to wit the Eustonites refrain: "The invasion of Iraq was the right thing to do but Bush arsed it up."

Re: "bollocks". It certainly doesn't mean "arse", except as a synonym for the expression of disbelief "my arse!" I don't think it's as versatile as Wikipedia makes out, to be honest. "Shit" has a much better claim. But there is one major potential source of confusion. If you say a film was "bollocks", you mean it was rubbish. If on the other hand you say it was "the dog's bollocks", you mean it was excellent.

lynneguist said...

Ray, I think you were confusing bollocks and buttocks. Definitely not the same thing.

GY, I'm unclear as to whether you're asking about the pronunciation of ass meaning 'bottom' or ass meaning 'donkey'. The former didn't exist in Shakespeare's day [OED has it only from the 1800s], and the Great Vowel Shift had probably already happened in his environs by then (usually pegged at 14th-15th C). The [r] in arse could have been on its way to being lost by Shakespeare's time, though, making it a more likely pun on the animal name than an r-ful version would be. Hope that helps.

jenna said...

As far as I'm aware, in NZ English, "front bum" is extremely derogatory slang for a woman — but it doesn't refer to her genitals, but rather to her breasts. A pair of breasts are thought to resemble buttocks, but they're in front.

The word is not widely used since it is a little démodé (and highly offensive). It came back to prominence a few years ago though when a backbencher got drunk with a journalist and used the term liberally in describing the prime minister and her supposed lesbian cabal.

outerhoard said...

Lots of discussion on the 'r' in "arse" but nothing on the 'e'. I've always thought that the silent 'e' at the end adds a "not exactly onomatopoeic but similar" quality to the word, in that the (silent) letter can be thought of as representing an (invisible) fart. The word "arse" can almost be smelt.

lynneguist said...

I think the 'e' is to reflect the fact that it's pronounced [ars], not [arz].

mark said...

sumrandom - in that case, front bums is a euphemism for c***s.

Front bottom seems to me to be quite recent - I thought it was a television invention for comedic purposes.

Jen - there's also a character in Shakespeare called Bottom - caused a lot of boyish mirth in my schooldays.

Ray - bollocks is definitely a word for testicles. It's meanings as "nonsense" and as an expression of contempt are secondary.

dan said...

I love bollocks.
"He kicked me in the bollocks!" Ouch.
"What a load of bollocks" Talking shite.
"Bollocks!" Painful or irritated exclamation.

n0aaa said...

Reading through the comments there seem to be interesting variations even within AmE. 'Butt' is a neutral and useful word here, simply descriptive (and useful), and 'arse' simply doesn't exist, in any context. It'll just get you a blank look. (It took me a while to realize that Brits intended the 'r' in 'arse' to be pronounced (if only by modifying the initial vowel to distinguish it from 'ass'.)