December 30, 2012

The ass and the arse

There's an interesting ambiguity, in America at least, behind what we mean when we call insult someone for being an "ass."  Famously, a Dickens character says "the law is a ass--an idiot."  What sort of an ass is the basis of the character's metaphor?  It is most likely the four-legged beast of burden, not the sitting-end of a person.   Dickens, in a crude mood, would probably have called his nether-end his "arse": this is the British word for the body part because, until the nineteenth century, "ass" was reserved just for the animal.  However, for me the situation is different.  As a modern, urban American I don't have much experience around the animal, the "ass."  An ass is still a stupid person, but the metaphor is anatomical: When I use the word I most likely have the image of the buttocks of a person (or some animal--think how "horse's ass" = "fool") when I call you an "ass"--it's the end without the brains in it, for sure. 

In the nineteenth century (according to spellings in Bryan Garner's Dictionary of Modern American Usage, to the Oxford English Dictionary, and to Jonathan Lighter's Historical Dictionary of American Slang), in Britain and America "arse" began to be pronounced as what would sound to an American like "ahss" or "ass."  The second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary says that "arse" became "ass" as a "vulgar and dialect sp[elling] and pronunciation of arse"; other dictionaries aren't too helpful as to the source of the change; certainly the British change at that time of most syllable-end rs to the schwa sound (the vowel in "good") must have had something to do with it.

Etymologically, "ass" the animal and "arse" the body part are very different words.  The word for the animal in Old English was "assa/asse," (masc./fem.) with the alternative "esol" (see also the supplement; Germans still say "Esel").  There's a forest of cognates in the Germanic and Celtic languages that are dealt with in good etymological dictionaries like the OED, C. T. Onions' Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, and the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology; they trace the word all the way back to a Sumerian (!) cognate anšu, with the Latin "asinus" as the direct source. 

I'm of course far more interested in where "arse" comes from.  It's Old English, and the standard Old English dictionary Bosworth-Toller supplies the spelling "ears" and various delightful compounds like "ears-ende" for buttocks and "ears-gang" for latrines and their contents.  The Middle English Dictionary has a lengthy and fascinating entry on "ars." The other older Germanic languages had cognates and there's a Greek cognate ὄρσος which evolved into ὄρρος; Eric Partridge's Origins points to a Hittite cognate arraš.  There's apparently a proto-Indo-European cognate as well.

OK.  So what's the difference between an ass and a donkey?  Nothing, apparently (I think Americans, in view of the anatomical "ass," will always say "donkey"); it's a dialect or slang word first recorded in 1785 in George Grose's Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.

December 24, 2012

"Professionalism" in America

Brian Garner complains in his Dictionary of American Legal Usage about how so many jobs are now said to be done by "professionals"--hairstylists, the "professional military," and so on--as opposed to the traditional three professions of law, medicine and the clergy.  Knowing a trade, or doing something for a living, does not make one a professional--that comes from the intellectual content of one's work.

There's a lot of what I think of as title drift, too: making work seem more sophisticated or, I hope, dignified, by giving old jobs more impressive titles.  Think of the "associates" at stores like Walmart or Target, who aren't associated with the store except as hourly employees.  I've heard employees at such places referred to as "partners," which twists beyond recognition both the commonly understood meaning of "partners"--individuals who jointly engage in some enterprise for the common and, I think, more or less equal betterment of both, or the legal definition of partners as joint owners with personal liability for the debts of the partnership.  The word "clerk" is a very old example of title inflation.  It's connected to the word "cleric," and suggested especially someone who could read and write because such skills were found only rarely outside those of the second estate.  This emphasis on reading and writing means "clerk" no longer signifies someone with a scholarly or religious background, but someone who keeps the books or other records in an establishment--think of clerks of court.  But "clerk" has been extended to people who have no advanced skills at all, particularly to those working at the counter at convenience stores.

Sometimes new names can be made up to enhance a profession.  H. L. Mencken's The American Language reports on National Association of Realtors trademarking the name "Realtor" for their real-estate-agent members (they still own the trademark) and undertakers beautifying themselves with the term "mortician."  It's a joke to call a garbage hauler a "sanitation engineer," but did you know that 9-1-1 dispatchers seem to really be called "public safety telecommunicators?"

December 17, 2012

Your word of the day: publican

"Publicans" in the New Testament are ostracized and hated, and Christ gives them the special attention all the ostracized receive.
And it came to pass, as Jesus sat at meat in the house, behold, many publicans and sinners came and sat down with him and his disciples.  And when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto his disciples, Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners?  (King James Bible, Matthew 9)
Calling the owner of a "public house" or "pub" a publican must be a pun based on the various references to publicans in the Bible.  (By the way: H. L. Mencken in the 1930s, according to The American Language II, thought the American word for pub was "saloon"; in 2012 in America it's almost certainly a "bar.")  In the Greek bible these people were τελῶναι (/telonai/, related to our word "toll") and in Latin, publicani.  They were "tax farmers"--people who extorted from the population a set amount for the Roman government's tax revenue, and kept any surplus for themselves.  "Publican" has been used often as a general term of abuse.

December 16, 2012

By any other name...

I just heard an NPR announcer mention Japan's "conservative Liberal Democratic" party.  I confess I don't know what makes a Japanese political party more or less conservative; but at least in Britain they do you a favor and call their right-of-center party "Conservatives" and their left-of-center party "Liberal" (the Lib-Dems; I haven't forgotten Labor, for most of the 20th century the leftist party).  Canada and Australia also have self-evidently named parties, which is nice for us less-informed foreign observers.  The Germans have "Christian Democrats" and "Social Democrats," which at least hint at the party's ideological bases.

I suppose that having a name paradoxically opposed to one's place on the ideological spectrum allows Japan's Liberal Democratic political party to hedge its bets and change its points of view.  Why else do America's mainstream parties have names that are content-free (like much of our political debate); "Democratic" and "Republican?"  Parties in the United States have often had empty names.  Surely some party names hinted at their members' beliefs, as with the Federalists and the Populists.  (The Wikipedia pages concern themselves with terminology.)  But who can tell from the name what a "Democratic-Republican" stood for?

Having empty names like Democratic and Republican and the Japanese "Liberal Democratic" makes it much easier to attach ideologies to a specific name.  I think Americans often, in very casual discussion, call left-wing ideas generally "Democratic" and right-wing ones "Republican"; since the 1960s this is where both parties have fallen along the ideological spectrum, and these positions are now pretty ossified.  For instance--even I find it jarring to think of people named  "Democrats" (in Japan) being called "conservative"; it's just not how my political terminology works.