Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Why Americans should be arsed to say “arse” instead of “ass”

I really enjoy the American version of the English language, whether spoken or written. True, there are certain phrases I wish they'd never invented (to die for and he's good people, for example) - but on the whole I reslish the differences between our language and theirs. But there's one (fundamental?) English word I wish they hadn't altered - and that's arse. I simply can't figure out what has been gained by changing it to ass.

For a start, ass - meaning the equine animal, obviously - appears 154 times in The Bible, so that would be 154 fewer excuses for children to snigger in church. (The word donkey, which Americans use as a substitute, does not appear in the King James version.)

It would enable Americans to use the excellent phrase I really can’t be arsed as well as I don’t give a rat’s ass (of which I'm quite fond).

It would save English film-goers and TV viewers from the cognitive dissonance created by tough characters growling “You’re an ass”, which really should be followed by “…Jenkins, and a frightful little blister to boot.” (This used to spoil whole episodes of House for me, where it was regularly used as a substitute for jerk, and where it always sounded anaemic and weedy as an insult.)

It would allow Americans to fully appreciate the line from the introductory voice-over of the 1960 film, The Pure Hell of St Trinian’s:  “There’ll always be trouble when there’s arson around.”

It would also help them to understand the shock – and laughter - caused by Richard Attenborough’s use of the word in the 1948 film The Guinea Pig (known as The Outsider in the States). Attenborough, playing a working class boy awarded a scholarship to a public school, objects to being assaulted by the other boys after being asked to bow before a statue of the school’s founder. An interview with the headmaster ensues:
HEADMASTER: Did you know that Henry VIII founded this school?
BOY: Yes, sir.
HEADMASTER: Isn’t that a good enough reason for paying your respects?
BOY: That isn’t why they do it. They just want you to bend down so they can kick you up the arse.

These lines - which can be found at 10.20 – still make me laugh:

And, of course, it would illuminate the splendid series of “Bob Fleming” sketches from The Fast Show:

Let’s admit that Britons haven’t always successfully distinguished their asses from their arses. As a boy, I believed that the novelist Evelyn Waugh had been guilty of crudeness   during his 1960 Face to Face TV interview, when, having been asked how he reacted to criticism he responded: “I’m afraid if someone praises me I think ‘What an arse’, and if they abuse me I think ‘What an arse.’” Waugh was actually describing his critics as donkeys, but using an upper-class long “a” to do so - just as people used to talk of attending Mahss rather than Mass. (The interview can be found here, and the relevant exchange is at 25’28”).

See? Start talking about arses, and you’ve stepped into a minefield!

Of course, Americans have always had a habit of dropping “r”s from words – bust and cuss and hoss are obvious examples - but most modern Americans (judging mainly from TV) have subsequently re-inserted the missing letter (in the last two examples, at least). But when it comes to ass, it seems, they have – for some reason or other – resisted the desire to repent. It may have some connection with the fact that most Americans are rhotic speakers, like the Scots, while most of us who live in South-East England have non-rhotic accents. That means Americans – apart from New Englanders – sound the “r” in words like barn and cart, while I, for instance, say bahn and caht. We’re used to saying ahss – but saying arse with the “r” intact may just be too much of an effort (although it doesn’t seem to stop the Scots, despite their extreme rhoticism).

Maybe we could reach a compromise. Asshole is a different matter altogether – it’s not a patch on arsehole, mind you, but it does imply a certain menace, a barely-suppressed violence, which the English English version – being far more comic – lacks.

I’d be happy to leave America’s asshole alone, as long as I could get my hands on its ass: it's just too small and weedy and un-earthy and not in the least bit funny. I realise bum is a lost cause (pity, that) because they use it for other purposes, and, besides, have replaced it with the fairly effective butt. But I'd beg then to renounce bootie and keester (both of which I'm allergic to) and, instead, to start arsing around again.


  1. It also creates problems of translation that are not easily overcome. I have no way of knowing if this is true but a Turkish friend once told me that the Turkish subtitles for one of the 'Shaft' films rendered the phrase 'Ah'm gonna whup yo' ass, Mutha' as 'I intend to beat your mother's donkey'.

    It's good that this blog tackles the big issues of the day head-on. In time, this will be cited as the authoritative piece on the matter. I now feel more confident in using the word 'arse' as a term of disparagement (I don't feel comfortable with anything much stronger) knowing that Evelyn Waugh was a fellow user.

  2. Could I make a case for the retention of "asswipe" while the British continue using the milder "snotty wipe"?

  3. To be honest, I've never heard anyone use the phrase "snotty wipe" - "asswipe" is perfectly acceptable: "ass" seems to work well as part of a compound word - just sounds a bit silly on its own.

  4. It's taken me a minute or two to get over here but...now I'm here.

    Wait a minute here...there is no American English. It's only ever existed in the minds of New England school marms and the missionaries they sent South during The Occupation.

    Because our hereditary, cultural and economic ties were to Britain...we spoke and spelled the language correctly. We were, and still are, Sothrons...taken from the Scottish term for the English. It was the Mississippi GrEys that left Oxford to fight the invader...the coloUr of their uniforms was GrEy.

    Then we suffered the Occupation of mongrels (I'm kidding...sorta :) ) and were told to lose the Us. Unnecessary you see...not an efficient use of letters. So we got a new dictionary out of the deal.

    On R's...we too have a complicated relationship with the R's. Most obviously in southeast Louisiana...where there are only 25 letters in the alphabet. Text book non rhotic. Georgia, where my family is from, has a trouble with the letter...it's Gawga. One of the funnest example of this is at the end of the original version of Dirt Road Anthem...when Brantly Gilbert sings "I'm hittin easy street on mud Toweehs (meant to be tires). It's odd combination of rhotic and non rhotic...because we are mostly English Northerners, Irish..and then Scottish. On top of that, the elite in the South wanted nothing more than to be English country gentlemen...no r's there.

    It's a mess...when I say car, the r is pronounced but it's sorta beveled off and mingled with a w sound...it sounds somewhere between car and core.

    The American accent is the midwestern, nonaccent, newsreader accent...it's only defining quality is an incessant enunciation.

    In my experience...Ass is used almost affectionately. Asshole on the other hand is not.

    Good people is, thankfully, almost never heard around here...dreadful.

    1. “Good people” and “dirty pool” are phrases I associate with Nixon. Thirty years ago I wrote a novel set in the US (it was my main market) and I’m ashamed to say I made the main character – a New Englander – use both these phrases, and have felt guilty about it ever since, as he was supposed to be the hero.

      Interesting about “standard” American – i.e. Midwest newsreader-speak. Here the equivalent used to be known as Received Pronunciation or a “BBC accent”. Oddly, David Cameron uses it, but Prince William and Prince Harry don’t – the aristocracy has often had a tendency to sound more common than the middle classes, thereby, oddly, managing to sound fantastically posh. It’s an intriguing subject here, because of the class thing. My father spoke English with a hybrid Canadian-Norwegian accent, and I remember being ribbed at school when I first arrived in England for saying things like “awe-nj” with a swallowed “r”.

      How is the Southern accent (of which, I realise, there are probably dozens of variants depending on class, region, upbringing and choice) regarded there these days after Carter and Clinton? When Carter got in, I remember a woman being interviewed who proudly declared “Now we got a President sounds just lahk us”. I remember being surprised it was even an issue. As you probably discovered when you were over here, the standard, neutral American accent doesn’t really do much for Brits (we’re so used to it via TV and movies) – Southern accents, however, sound wildly exotic and appealing in comparison. Works both ways, it seems - I particularly enjoyed booking into a distinctly camp hotel in New Orleans with my wife only to be told we were getting a sizable discount. I asked why. “Because,” the fey young man behind the desk languidly explained, “you have ache-say-yunts”. Loved that place!

      I was intrigued to hear Julie Miller singing – a strong case of rhotacism, i.e the inability to pwonounce Rs. It’s extremely common here – I’ve known dozens of people who weally can’t do it. But I can’t wemember (sorry, I’ll stop) many adult Amewicans (damn!) displaying the condition. I wonder why not.