|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.
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