Everyone is out to protect their own ass

A scanned letter from thelondonliteI spotted this letter in thelondonpaper the day before yesterday (click the image for a larger version).

The letter-writer may have been North American, but I suspect this is an example of the creeping ass-isation of British English.

For those who don't know, 'ass' in British English usually refers to the animal, whereas 'arse' (not 'ass') is used to refer to "a person's buttocks or anus" (Concise OED).

Whenever I see the word 'ass', I think first of all of the animal. Which leaves me wondering why everyone in the City is out to protect their own ass. Perhaps they need it to cart their stuff away after they've been made redundant?

(If you can't see the image, the letter reads in part: "At least there are people like you in the City who really care about the welfare of your colleagues. From what I've found, everyone is just out to protect their own ass. ALICIA")

UPDATE 8.10PM: On reflection, I realise that the letter-writer may have chosen 'ass' because it is less offensive in British English than 'arse', and therefore more likely to make it into print. It's even possible that thelondonpaper made the change for the same reason.

11 comments:

Doug P. Baker said...

I think you have completely misunderstood. All you English are so quick to assume that we Americans are crass. But here in the good ol' USA we often use burros as a source of transportation. Haven't you ever seen John Wayne movies? Or the Lone Ranger? Or Treasure of the Sierra Madres?

Everyone's just making sure they still have a ride home. Nothing anal about that!

As for "creeping ass-isation" in your beloved queen's English, our burros don't creep. They plod. They tromp all over the world never noticing whose little language they are going to the bathroom on. They are dumb animals, and they only stop when you want them to go and only go when you want them to stop. That's just how they are. We can't help it.

If you really want to save your queen's English for God and country, all you English need to get off your asses (burros) and write something worth reading. Shakespeare made English the most potent language on Earth. What will you do with it now?

JD said...

I didn't suggest that Americans were crass (well, not here at least). And I'm really not fussed about saving the Queen's English, whatever that is. It's just interesting to notice how language is changing, and what consequences those changes are having.

I suppose "creeping ass-isation" does sound rather negative. Perhaps I should change that to "slow assification"...

Jonathon said...

And here in America, people don't even realize that words like "jackass" and "dumbass" aren't actually related to the "buttocks or anus" sense.

garik said...

It's worth adding that "ass", or at least the pronunciation it represents, probably has a reasonably long history in Britain. Some people think Shakespeare was making a pun when he turned Bottom's head into an ass's head. Certainly the (originally) euphemistic "donkey" doesn't feel especially American, and it's been around for a fair while in Britain, so "ass" must have sounded at least a little rude to British ears for a little longer.

So it may be the case that the pronunciation with a shorter vowel and a shorter, higher, fronter vowel has been the norm in some British English dialects for a long time, probably in the north of the country. "Ass" probably feels the more natural spelling to such speakers.

I may be wrong — this is not based on much evidence. Maybe all British speakers used a long back vowel until American films became popular, but I suspect "ass" is more native to parts of England than often realised.

garik said...

"with a shorter vowel and a shorter, higher, fronter vowel"

By which I mean: "with a shorter, higher, fronter vowel". Just "shorter" would probably have done.

THE GRAMMARPHILE said...

Wow, I didn't realize that people still use (on a regular basis) the word "ass" to refer to the actual animal. I mean, yes, I know that an ass is technically an animal, but if there's a donkey around, people (at least on this side of the pond) refer to it as a donkey. Not an ass. (Sometimes I refer to these creatures as burros, just because I like that word better.) :) Would someone British be confused if they were traveling in the USA and overheard some of our quaint little phrases like "All he wanted was a good piece of ass," "I'm gonna give him a good ass-kickin'," or "Kiss my ass"?

JD said...

Grammarphile, I don't think any of us would be confused by those phrases - not least because we've heard them all hundreds of times in American films and TV programmes.

My girlfriend, who is from the Midlands, says she would probably use 'ass' in these phrases anyway. I'm from the South-East and would probably use 'arse' - which agrees with what Garik says.

Gareth said...

I wouldn't be confused by the use of the word "ass" (though, like JD, I'd definitely use "arse" instead).

However I've never heard the word "burro". I'd probably have assumed it was a variation of "burrito", and got very confused.

the_editrix said...

It's interesting that "ass" is less vulgar than "arse" in British English. I think the opposite is true in the U.S. (where *I* live in the U.S., at least). For example, I'd probably use "arse" in front of my parents, but I wouldn't dare say "ass."

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