Monday, 4 May 2015

Donkey - An Asinine Etymology

An exceptionally handsome donkey
(photo by Keoki Seu)

DONKEY

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.

96 comments:

  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.

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