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

Beverly Flanigan flanigan at OHIOU.EDU
Sat Dec 28 18:53:04 UTC 2002

Wow, what clever kids!  But my father used the phrase totally seriously, as
the ultimate slander, long before you and I were born.  So, here's one for
Barry Popik to research.

At 09:36 AM 12/28/2002 -0500, you wrote:
>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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