know from

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Fri Dec 27 18:41:21 UTC 2002

At 1:08 PM -0500 12/27/02, James A. Landau wrote:
>In a message dated 12/27/02 11:33:19 AM Eastern Standard Time,
>laurence.horn at YALE.EDU writes:
>  > You'd expect "He doesn't know from a hole in the ground" (or what
>>   I assume is the unexpurgated version, "He doesn't know from a hole in
>>   his ass")  to represent the original version, and I suspect this
>>   doesn't occur at all.  These expressions (cf. also "He doesn't know
>>   shit from shinola") allude to imperfections in the referent's powers
>>   of discernment,
>The original expression was "He doesn't know his ass from a hole in the
>ground".  I don't know of any variants.

Actually, there is one (euphemistic) variant that I must have had in
the back of my mind when I was (mis)writing earlier: "doesn't know
his ass from his elbow".  I was thinking of the "doesn't know his ass
from a hole in the ground", though.  Sorry for the confusion.  (I
wonder why "elbow" was chosen for the euphemism--as a non-hole, it
seems as though an elbow would be a lot easier to distinguish from an
ass, or a hole in the ground.)

>Why these two items are juxtsposed
>is less than obvious---I would guess the originator had a scatalogical image
>of a man's anus and the hole in the ground he is defecating into.

I think it's just two holes that one should be capable of distinguishing.

>"shit from shinola" is an interesting expression, since the name "Shinola" (a
>brand of shoe polish, well known in the mid-20th Century but no longer on the
>market) is sometimes used as a euphemism for "shit".   Interpreted literally,
>the person in question is unable to distinguish between a four-letter word
>and its euphemism.  More plausibly, I suspect the expression "shit from
>shinola" originated purely from the phonetic similarity between the two words.

I'd guess that both factors are involved:  the color (typically
brown) and consistency of the product and the initial consonant.

>PS.  It is interesting to note that the suffix -ola, used in "Shinola",
>"Motorola", "pianola", and "payola" (the last dated by MWCD10 as 1938) no
>longer seems to be productive.  Does anyone have an idea why, or did that
>particular suffix just fall out of fashion?
>(One should not forget that it was the gunboat Indianola that was destroyed
>by the USS Deluded People Cave In.)

Could it be the payola scandals of the 50's?  I agree that "-ola"
does sound strangely quaint.


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