Ars(e) Poetica – An Irishman’s Diary about things that get lost in translation

The missing word   is “ass”

The missing word is “ass”


On foot of a recent column (“The Stylebook of Leviticus”, February 8th), in which I questioned the historical wisdom of Americans in adopting “ass” as a politer version of the Anglo-Saxon “arse”, a reader referred me to the California-based website,

The latter claims to be “the world’s largest” poetry site, publishing old and new work alike. And among the many classics on it is Patrick Kavanagh’s epic, The Great Hunger.  

This is a grim portrait of the Irish rural condition, circa 1942, seen through the words and thoughts of unmarried farmer Patrick Maguire. But for our purposes, the relevant extract is where Maguire – as quoted by the website, asterisks and all – says this: “Is that Cassidy’s *** out in my clover? Curse o’ God/Where is that dog?”

The missing word there is “ass”. And as a careful reading of the poem reveals, Kavanagh is referring to an ass of the four-legged, braying variety.  

More to the point, the ass is eating his clover, hence Maguire’s wish to set the dog on it.

But the poetry editor clearly decided the word referred to human anatomy. In which light, I suppose, the spectre of Cassidy’s ass being “out” – in the clover or wherever – could be rather alarming. You might forgive the prudishness.

Except that The Great Hunger is one of the few classic poems – perhaps the only one – that includes both versions of the a-word. And in the case of the other, Kavanagh was even more explicit.  

Summing up the protagonist’s narrow worldview, he writes that Maguire’s happiest dream was “to clean his arse/With perennial grass/On the bank of some summer stream”. And guess what? That part is unexpurgated on the Californian website. No arseterisks (sic) anywhere.

Could it be that the old spelling is now unknown in California, and so, not recognising the word, they guessed that “arse” was some kind of farm implement? In any case, it escaped the “profanity” censor, which given etymological history, seems ironic. 

Kavanagh fans may be wondering, meanwhile, if another of his donkey-mentioning poems features on the site.  

Alas, I couldn’t find it. For now at least, we can only guess what a Californian editor would make of a verse beginning: “We borrowed the loan of Kerr’s big ***”. 

There is, it has to be said, some debate about whether it was prudishness that led to the “arse/ass” divergence. It would be in keeping with the US tendency to euphemism in “restrooms” and the like. But the history is muddled by the question of rhotic (r-rolling) versus non-rhotic accents, so I’m not sure.

If “ass” was originally an attempt to be polite, Americans have since gone to the other extreme, thanks to their widespread adoption of an even more specific anatomical reference, “asshole”, as a term of abuse.

In a book on the subject a few years ago, Ascent of the A-Word, the Geoffrey Nunberg suggested this was an indirect consequence of the second World War. Brought back from Europe by American soldiers, “asshole” infiltrates literature via Norman Mailer, and was then further popularised by 1970s feminists as a “stock rebuke for male insensitivity”.

But it certainly can’t have been from the French the GIs learned it. Neither form of the a-word has any significance in France, which is why the parents of a now London-based football manager could have safely christened him “Arsène” without worrying what other kids at school would say.

There was an even more dramatic illustration of English/French divergence at last weekend’s under-20 rugby international in Donnybrook, where the predominantly young Ireland fans around me derived enormous enjoyment from the name of one of the visiting team, Faraj Fartass.

That he was a winger, with (as they say in rugby) “serious gas”, only added to the entertainment. So it was funny when he scored France’s first try. And it was still fairly amusing when he got a second.

Had he completed a hat-trick late on, when Ireland were clinging to a narrow lead, that would probably have exhausted even the local sense of humour.

Happily he didn’t.

Anyway, it struck me that young Faraj was lucky to have gone to school in a French-speaking country. Indeed, for a schoolboy there, the real misfortune would be to be called “Peter”. Given an accent on the first ‘e’, that’s the verb “to fart”. And if you’re ever being romantic with a French person, be warned – the related noun is “pet”, with a silent (but deadly) “t”.