Monday, 4 May 2015

Donkey - An Asinine Etymology

An exceptionally handsome donkey
(photo by Keoki Seu)


Noun. Late 18th century.
[Origin unknown; in early use pronounced to rhyme with monkey, whence the proposed derivations from DUN noun and the male personal name Duncan.]

1 Ass. noun. L18

2 A stupid or silly person. M19

3(a) In full, donkey engine.
A small auxiliary engine, especially on a ship. M19

3(b) In full, donkey pump. A small or auxiliary pump. M19

4 A simple card-game often played with special cards. E20

5 A low stool used by an artist at an easel. M20

Donkeys have been working with us for a very long time - at least 4,000 years, according to the Encyclopaedia Brittanica. Despite these thousands of years of faithful service, however, we don't treat donkeys that kindly, linguistically speaking. Donkey, for example, is a favourite insult for someone who is stupid, silly or inept, donkeydom is a noun for stupidity in general, and donkey-work is menial, hard and unattractive labour (but that which requires little intelligence to perform); there is also asinine, of course, a favourite of cultural snobs and naff teachers.

We do at least seem to respect their hardiness, however, as apparently being able to talk the hind legs off a donkey is quite a feat, and donkey's years is a very long time indeed (a well cared for donkey can live for 30-50 years, while the life-expectancy of the average working donkey is a much more modest 12-15 years). And, finally, it's worth pointing out that donkeys are exceptionally sure-footed, despite their association with ineptitude and clumsiness, which allows them to live and work in areas completely inaccessible to the much more respected horse.

Regarding the etymology of donkey, it's a little bit of a mystery - ass is much older, from Old English assus, itself derived from the Celtic and Welsh asyn. It's possible that donkey comes from the colour dun, a dull greyish-brown. Of particular note, however, is that donkey originally rhymed with monkey - I don't know why that tickles me, but it does, and I think it probably made you smile too.

Do please get off your ass leave a comment in the box below.


  1. I did have a quick look through the Anglo-Saxon Dictionary to see if I could find anything etymologically "donkey+ass" related and stumbled upon the adjective "asse-dun" which I thought might be promising seeing as it was glossed in Latin as: "dosinus vel cinereus, equus asinini pili' ("like ash, ass hair colour") but the dictionary seems undecided whether the qualifying "ass" of "ass-dun" is derived from "asse" (Latin: asina) or "asce" (ash, tree)?
    I found it mildly amusing in a schoolboy fashion that the first recorded quotation for "donkey" is from the 1785 Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue: "Donkey or Donkey Dick..." (snigger) but the "donkey dick" here isn't in the modern slang sense of the term, rather it's referring to 'a male donkey' or jackass.

    1. Any term with the word 'dick' in it has to be worth a titter ...

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