Word Nerd: Donkey kicked that arse out of the lexicon

Donkey Foals

In January, I listened to a podcast at lexiconvalley@slate.com that discussed the proclivity of New Yorkers to drop their Rs in speech. This phenomenon is known to linguists as non-rhoticity and is common to several English accents in North America and abroad.

Podcast host Mike Vuolo by way of example of this speech pattern played this line by Woody Allen’s neurotic character Mickey in the movie Hannah and Her Sisters: “Oh God, there’s a tumour in my head the size of a basketball.” Of course, when Woody’s character delivers the line, the italicized growth is rendered R-less as too-muh.

As traumatic as this event may have been to the hypochondriac character, all we see with this non-rhoticity is a change in pronunciation. There is an example where this process led to a new word.

Nowadays the word “arse” is seem by some to be a euphemism for “ass,” but in fact the former word for the posterior precedes the latter being first recorded in the year 1000, whereas the latter use is not found until the 19th century. Of course, the word “ass” to refer (as the OED phrases it) as a “quadruped of the horse kind” also is found as far back as the 11th century, and herein lay a problem.

As non-rhoticity became prevalent in the 18th century, it just would not do for any wholesome “lass” to rhyme with the newly pronounced “arse,” as “ass,” and it became proper to avoid using this term around 1760. Hugh Rawson relates in his Dictionary of Euphemism and Other Doubletalk that “pre-Victorians became nervous about calling the barnyard critter the ass by its rightful name, because the three-letter word sounded like the bad four-letter one when the “r” was dropped.” Enter donkey.

But donkey did not emerge as the definitive ass substitute immediately. For 50 years, the word “neddy” was used as frequently as donkey. By 1830 donkey was ensconced as heir apparent. The usual etymological explanation of donkey is that it descends from the word “dun,” meaning brownish grey, and that the “k” in donkey was added to make it rhyme with monkey, which it did originally.

The donkey was not the only animal created because of language sensitivity. A rabbit originally referred to the young, whereas an adult was called “cony” or “cunny”—rhyming with “honey.” Cony was used as a term of endearment for a woman by the 16th century and a reference to her genitalia by the next century.

So cony was deemed to have too much of an “adult” sense and it was replaced in the 19th century by the word “rabbit.” There still remained the problem of what to do when reading the Bible, where cony was firmly entrenched. In 1836 Benjamin H. Smart found a solution. The OED tells us that for “solemn reading” Smart ordained that what previously rhymed with “honey” would henceforth rhyme with “bony.”

Needless to say, the word cock to refer to the male fowl has been unceremoniously ousted by rooster. Even more insulting, however, is the fact that many words featuring cock have been bowdlerized. Apricots were once apricocks or apricox, haystacks were originally haycocks, and weather vanes were once weathercocks. Even names were subject to the expunging. Nineteenth-century author Louisa May Alcott was so named because her father had changed the family name from Alcox.

Unfortunately the proud cock developed figurative associations. Shakespeare had more in mind than the bearing of arms in Henry V when Pistol yells at Nym: “Pistol’s cock is up.” When cock’s allusions became widely enough known among puerile males, the term became indecent and unspeakable in polite company. Open the barn door for rooster.

The first citation of rooster in the OED is an American reference from 1772. It was still unusual enough in England 50 years later that James Flint in his 1822 Letters from America had to explain to British readers that “rooster … is the male of the hen.”

So in place of the evocative onomatopoeic word cock, we have the mediocre word rooster, (i.e., he who roosts). And unlike Jesus, who may have been denied three times by Peter, we are denied three proud Biblical words: ass, cony, and cock.

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