assanine--a new eggcorn?

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Wed Apr 9 00:26:00 UTC 2008

At 3:07 PM -0400 4/8/08, Herb Stahlke wrote:
>_asinus_ is a doubtful etymological source for "ass," unless it was a late
>Gmc borrowing.  "Assinine/assanine" is rather like "awkword," which is in
>the database, where apparent sense is made by turning part of the word into
>a word that seems, at least by folk etymology, to make sense.   A further
>problem with the _asinus_ etymology is that for most modern American English
>speakers "ass" has nothing to do with "donkey," except, perhaps, in
>"jackass," and even then it's a stretch.

OK, one more stab at this.  (I seem to be feeling disputatious
lately.  Must be lack of sleep.)  First, I'm going by both the OED
and AHD4, both taking "asinine" back to "asinus"; for the OED, "ass"
is 'apparently ad. Lat. "asinus", for the AHD, "ultimately" from
"asinus".  The details may be doubtful, but the overall connection
with various IE etyma seems pretty likely to me.  Now, is it in fact
the case that "for most modern American English 'ass' has nothing to
do with [the word for] 'donkey'"?  I think whether or not speakers
connect asses with donkeys (Isn't this supposed to be a country where
everyone reads the Bible, usually in the King James, if not
"Midsummer Night's Dream"?  Wouldn't they get their fill of asses
therein?), there's a recognition on the part of many (most?) speakers
that "ass" in the sense of 'fool' is a distinct word (or at least a
distinct sense) from "ass" < "arse", and that only the latter is the
"four-letter word".  This despite the occasional incident like the
one I reported here a few years back (I see now it was 9 years ago
this month) in which a middle school teacher in nearby West Haven, CT
was (temporarily) suspended after being denounced by a "disgusted"
parent for trotting out the stale but hardly obscene "ASS-U-ME"
adage--"When you say 'assume', it makes an ass of you and me'".  (I
like to think that my letter to the editor appearing in the New Haven
Register helped defuse the crisis, but I doubt it.  In any case, the
teacher was reinstated eventually.)  If I'm right, the
"assinine"/"assanine" reconstruction is more like the reconstructed
<b> in "debt" (< Fr. dette < Lat. debitum) than a true eggcorn.  Of
course we'd need to be mind-readers, but it doesn't strike me as
obvious that the reconstructionists are connecting "asinine" with the
"arse" variety of 'ass', even if the metonymic source of the relevant
"ass" is opaque and all they know is that it refers to fools.


>On Tue, Apr 8, 2008 at 11:07 AM, Laurence Horn <laurence.horn at>
>>  ---------------------- Information from the mail header
>>  -----------------------
>>  Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
>>  Poster:       Laurence Horn <laurence.horn at YALE.EDU>
>>  Subject:      Re: assanine--a new eggcorn?
>>  At 10:47 AM -0400 4/8/08, Herb Stahlke wrote:
>>  >In today's Right Matters on the Washington Post web site a participant
>>  >writes:
>>  >
>>  >That's an assanine statement!
>>  >
>>  >Google give 25,100 hits for "assanine", but I haven't seen it in the
>>  eggcorn
>>  >database.
>>  >
>>  Well, there are also 216,000 hits for "assinine".  The reconstruction
>>  of "ass-" is essentially etymological (given the origin of "ass" <
>>  _asinus_, so that there really is an ass in asinine), and the
>>  assinine > assanine shift seems fairly non-eggcornish, since there's
>>  no invented morphology involved there as far as I can tell.  Of
>>  course, speakers might understand the "ass" part as the 'fundament'
>>  rather than 'donkey' lexical item, but is that really an eggcorn or
>>  just a (mental) folk etymology?
>>  L
>>  ------------------------------------------------------------
>>  The American Dialect Society -
>The American Dialect Society -

The American Dialect Society -

More information about the Ads-l mailing list