Steve Bell’s cartoon on Tuesday showed Tony Blair singing a version of “my Way” which rose to the final line “I gave Bush Myyyyyy ass.” This raised
an important question of principle. Why not “arse?”. Tony Blair is a British Prime Minister. When he was a boy, he had a bottom. When he grew up, he
acquired an Arse; not, as an American would, an “ass”. An Arse is one of the distinguishing marks of an Englishman. Has Blair’s mysteriously
changed nationality as a mark of presidential favour, or is there some more subtle semantic point at issue?
Sometimes the American and English spellings make useful distinctions of meaning. It’s obvious that Radio 3 makes programmes, whereas computers run
With “arse” and “ass” the distinction also seems clear. An arse is an essentially comic organ, wholly devoid of dignity. It is something to be
kicked, or to land with a bump on. At a pinch, soldiers can do something at “split-arse speed”, as Bill Deedes regiment planned to do in the war.
But even here, there connotations are of undignified haste.
An “ass” is an organ with a much wider range of uses. It can flatter, for one thing. A person may have “a great ass” and be complemented by this. “A
great ass”, in English, is an old-fashioned idiot. “A great arse” is an Anglo-Saxon term, meaning a large bum.
In American, a great “ass” is not just a beautiful body part. It expresses the inner beauty of its owner. An “arse” is always at most a part of the
body. If we want to express an opinion of the whole man, we have to say he’s an “arsehole”. But your “ass” is a much more comprehensive organ, and
almost always a synecdoche for the whole American.
When Americans get their “asses” in gear, or have them put in a sling, this is no mere posterior accident. It is a life-changing event. If an
Englishman is trying to escape form a sticky situation, and gets to the point where his arse is out of there, it means he’s stuck half-way through
the window. An American, with his ass out of there, is away and running free.
The only time that “ass” is used in an English, anatomical sense, the connotations are not comical but humiliating. To own someone’s ass has
unmistakable overtones of prison rape — a crime which occupies an extraordinarily prominent place in the American imagination, as if all
relationships of power could be reduced to this one act. This proves, I think, that Steve Bell knew exactly which of “ass” and “arse” was, in the
circumstances, the mot juste.