Is the old trick the source, or does life imitate language?

Dennis R. Preston preston at PILOT.MSU.EDU
Sat Dec 28 14:36:36 UTC 2002

Does the expression precede or come from the trick? In the trick, as
we played it long ago, the unwary was told that he or she did not
know his or her ass from a hole in the ground. When they protested,
the trickster (ah, we were such clever wags then!) took a stick and
drew two circles in the ground. The first was pointed to, and the
trickster declared it to be "your ass-hole." The second was called "a
hole in the ground." The clever trickster then asked the unwary one
to point to  his or her ass-hole. When the correct drawing was
chosen, the trickster pointed to the duped's backside and declared
that his or her true ass-hole was located there, thus confirming the
original accusation.


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.  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.

An Annapolis midshipman once wrote "Sancho Panza, sitting on his burrow..."
The instructor wrote back "a burro is an ass.  A burrow is a hole in the
ground.  As a future Naval officer, you are expected to know the difference."

"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.

        - Jim Landau

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.)

Dennis R. Preston
Professor of Linguistics
Department of Linguistics and Languages
740 Wells Hall A
Michigan State University
East Lansing, MI 48824-1027 USA
Office - (517) 353-0740
Fax - (517) 432-2736

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