Arse vs. ass

Arse is the British slang word referring to (1) the human or animal posterior, or (2) a stupid person. Ass is the American equivalent.

Arse is an old word, with origins going all the way back through Old English to the language’s Germanic roots. It was originally an inoffensive and even polite term for the body part, but it eventually became slangy and somewhat vulgar. Today, it has a variety of uses and is embedded in a number of colorful phrases and idioms.

Ass, as most people know, originally referred to a group of of horselike animals. This sense lives on, but ass developed in the 19th century as a primarily America variant of arse. 

28 thoughts on “Arse vs. ass”

  1. Wrong. I’m British, and ‘arse’ is used for the buttocks, and ‘ass’ is used for a stupid person (a “silly ass”), as asses are considered to be stupid animals.

      • Disqus PYt9Sld9t – Wrong – In the first instance rhoticity is irrelevant, they are quite different pronunciations in rhotic or non-rhotic English accents/dialects, and secondly, as the contributor is “AngloWelsh”, they are likely to be highly rhotic!

        • Nonsense. First, rhoticity is absolutely relevant to the pronunciation of arse vs. ass. From your argument, I can only assume you misunderstand what rhoticity means. Second, Welsh English is generally non-rhotic as the Welsh accent derives from non-rhotic southern English dialects. Perhaps you have Welsh confused with Irish.

          • I’m from North Somerset and often go to Wales (mainly southern Wales) and like us they have a rhotic dialect. It’s the south east and the north that have more non rhotic dialects.

      • I’m a Southern-Englander living in Wales, and I would pronounce ass (as in the animal) to rhyme with ‘mass’, and arse to rhyme with ‘farce’; so, they sound quite different! By the way, I may have a ‘non-rhotic’ accent, but my Mother’s family, who are from Bristol in the South-West of England, are quite rhotic!

    • Hi, AngloWelsh, I’m English and I don’t think it’s so simple:
      the animal is always ass;
      buttocks are properly arse in the UK, but under the influence of the Americans, people often pronounce it ass;
      the people can be asses (stupid like animals) or arses (unpleasant or unkind people)

      • … although, again under the influence of the Americans, assh*le is often also used for the unpleasant or unkind people

  2. It has nothing to do with “r” and whether or not it is pronounced and everything to do with American puritanism.

    The word is “a r s e”, from German Arsch (and Dutch aars), note the presence of the “r”.

    The puritan Americans, uncomfortable with the basic earthiness, changed it to the similar but safer “a s s” which is simply a euphemism.

    It has the same origin as the American terms “bathroom” and “restroom” (when no bath or rest is necessarily available) for the simple toilet (itself already a euphemism!) or loo.

    • Perhaps it was the English puritans. You know that the Puritans came to America from the large English population of English puritans, right? You may also know that the Puritans colonized Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire, and the other colonies were not Puritan at all. The reason Americans say “ass” for “arse” is because it sometimes happens that the ‘r’ sound becomes swallowed by a following consonant. It’s a common phenomenon in the development of many languages. It is reinforced because “ass” and “arse” have similar and overlapping meanings when used as insults. Moreover, non-rhotic pronunciation probably have reinforced it, as already mentioned. The fact is, “arse,” pronounced rhotically survives in many places in America. I’ve heard both my parents say it. I sometimes say it; and I distinguish “ass” and “arse” in spelling, even if I don’t usually do so in speech. It had nothing whatsoever to do with Puritan sensibilities about the human body or anything like that. Otherwise it would have happened in England, where there were many, many more Puritans.

      • Thought provoking, but . . .

        First, the English Puritans arrived in the 17th century whereas the first use of “ass” is in the 19th century some 200 years later. I think we can safely assume therefore that it is an American thing.

        Second, if the rhoticity were an issue, then it would appear elsewhere too as other shifts do, “car” would be a example where southern English do not pronounce the R. However this has not happened. It is therefore safe to assume that rhoticity is again not the answer.

        Given that there are indeed other examples of American puritanism (e.g. using “bathroom” for toilet and the fact that they still can’t show Janet Jackson’s nipples on TV), the most probable, and easiest explanation (remember Ockham’s Onion – the easiest answer is most likely the correct one) is that this is an example of American puritanism. I realise Americans are not chuffed at this explanation but in reality it is the most likely.

        • Actually, my point is that it had nothing whatsoever to do with Puritans or Puritanism. That’s just too far-fetched a cause. The effect of sound shifts need not be consistent throughout a locale. The American accent, being rhotic, can have seen effects produced by the loss of rhoticity in another region. In the case of ass/arse, all that needs to happen is that “arse” be subject to the loss of rhotic ‘r’ in England, and re-enter American English at some point later, such that many Americans, instead of relating it back to “arse,” which may have fallen into disuse, take it as a novel form, conflated with ass (the donkey) or taken as a homonym. I think that’s more likely.

          • Perhaps I should have used the word puritanical rather than puritan, i.e. not necessarily relating to black garbs and funny hats but more of a moral strictness. And there are many examples where Americans are stricter, e.g. bathroom (for toilet), Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction (always pixelated), twin beds for married couples in Hollywood movies until the 50s, etc..

            However I stand by my arguments on rhoticity. Rhoticity is the pronunciation (or not) of the R, but arse would still rhyme with farce as the R would be rhotic in both words. I think you may be confusing rhoticity with the trap/bath shift where bath is pronounced in Southern English to rhyme with hearth (note – other areas of Britain pronounce it the same way as Americans).

            But the existence of the R in arse makes any shift implausible as both British and American English pronounce AR the same way whether or not they pronounce the R. Such a shift would have to occur in other words as well such as farce as it is very rare for a shift to occur in one instance only and not elsewhere.

            You suggest that if arse were subject to the loss of its rhotic R it could re-enter American as ass. However ass was not used in British English until the last few decades under the influence of American. Ass was only ever used in American so the shift, if any, must be American. What you seem to be suggesting is two shifts, one dropping the R from arse but continuing to pronounce it aass and then change the long A to a short A for ass.

            Ass is so different from arse both in pronunciation and spelling that it cannot be because of a pronunciation shift. Again, I stand by my argument that the earthy vulgarity of arse was too much and Americans, and only Americans, used a euphemistic alternative.

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