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Brandon Robshaw: English Usage #23

Ass or arse?

Has anyone else noticed that our good old English word arse is being usurped, at least in writing, by the US alternative ass? I guess that most British people who write it in this form are simply making a spelling mistake – they'd still pronounce it "arse". Actually, "ass" isn't just a different spelling, it is a different word. As Anthony Burgess pointed out in Language Made Plain, "ass" was a euphemism, adopted by puritanical colonists – a synonym for donkey replacing a part of the body that was too rude to mention.

Times have changed and "ass" is no longer a euphemism; in fact it tends to sound more offensive than "arse". "Arse" is rude, but "ass" is dirty. One result is that the old meaning of "ass" has pretty much gone for good, and it jars when one comes across it; Bertie Wooster, when describing this or that acquaintance as "a silly ass" sounds incongruously foul-mouthed, and Biblical stories in which asses feature – like Jesus riding into Jerusalem on his ass – evoke entirely the wrong image.

Americans seem to be more fixated on the bottom than we are, and use "ass" where the British equivalent would never be considered. It can mean reputation ("Your ass is on the line here"); self ("Get your ass down there right away"); women ("He's out chasing ass every night"); or life ("He saved my ass back there"). To follow someone closely is to stay on their ass; to discipline or punish someone is to bust their ass; to leave in high dudgeon is to invite someone to kiss your ass goodbye.

All of which is fine, of course. Every language culture has its own way with swearwords. The French think prostitutes are rude. The Spanish always have to drag your mother into it. I don't object if Americans are obsessed with their asses; why should I? But there is no reason for us to follow their lead. When you tinker with the swearing system of a language, you tinker with its soul. Let's resist this particular piece of linguistic imperialism, if we can. Arse is the British word, and, to my ears at any rate, it is a nicer word; it sounds friendlier, funnier, rounder, even in a strange way sexier. Let's hang onto our arses.

Dr Brandon Robshaw lectures for the Open University in Philosophy, Creative Writing and Children’s Literature. He has written several children’s books including a philosophical YA novel, The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers. He and his family starred in BBC2’s Back in Time for Dinner. You can find his website here.

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