A whole other question

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
programs.

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._

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1 Response to A whole other question

  1. Rupert says:

    You speak an enormous amount of arse.

    Taking the general arse/ass issue first: arse is a fine word full of meat and capable of almost infinite elongation in the utterance thereof, whereas ass is a simpering little monosyllable with no more bottom than a catwalk model on a cocaine and Marlboro diet. Can you imagine Father Jack without his Rs?

    You can – I do – compliment people to their face and behind their (baby’s got) back with “What a fine/superb arse”, without necessarily implying physical vastness.

    Asshole is just as vituperative as arsehole, but with a rather unpleasant overtone of American prissiness. And as for ‘ass in gear’ being an American term – a quick spin through Google reveals that there are around 27 million asses on the Web compared to a mere 900 thousand arses – a 30:1 ratio, and much lower than you’d expect. But there’s only a 4.6:1 ratio between ass in gear (11500) and arse in gear (2450), meaning that pro rata that phrase is actually considerably more common in British English than American. This is reflected in “I left my arse in San Francisco” (Google hits: one) and “I left my ass in San Francisco” (hits: 4).

    “I own your ass” is entirely cognate with the rest of the (enormously antique) concept of the giver of anal penetration being hierarchically above the receiver thereof, and there are plenty of arse-inine equivalents. And how else to explain the deep fear of the fundamentalist Christian of buggery, except as a hierarchical upsetter?

    Anyway: the Steve Bell cartoon? It was an American song, sung by an American singer. Although as any hax0r would kn0, 81aIr is 0wn&d.

    He has teh gay.

    R

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