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Unlike this questioner, I'm not asking what my phrase means (in case anyone doesn't know and can't guess, it means to talk incessantly).

But I don't know anything at all significant about donkeys' hind legs (apart from the possibility of them being metaphorically talked off).

I doubt we can find an actual origin for the phrase, but perhaps someone can come up with a plausible reason for how it came about, and/or why it continues to be used.

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If the donkey was tethered by that leg, it could mean that the donkey would gnaw its own leg off to escape the drivel it was being forced to listen to. O:) –  user37588 Feb 13 '13 at 15:25
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5 Answers 5

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The phrase originates in Ireland. Donkeys (or "asses" or "jackasses" as they are called in other parts of the world) do not naturally sit down on their rear ends. In fact, it is an extraordinary achievement to get one to do it. "Talking the hind legs off a donkey" is a literal translation of the Gaelic, which actually means "making a donkey sit down on its rear end". Thus, when a person can talk the hind legs off a donkey, they can talk so much, they can do extraordinary things.

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This one has the ring of truth. Got anything to back it up? –  FumbleFingers May 27 '11 at 22:47
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I very much doubt the linguistic part of this answer. Liam hasn’t been online for nearly three years, so we’re not likely to get much by way of expounding, but I have never heard any such saying in Irish, and looking through Google, Dinneen’s dictionary, and various versions in the Cora Cainte series reveals nothing whatsoever. Besides, even if it does originate as a direct translation from Irish, it doesn’t explain why talking the hind legs off the poor donkey would mean to make it sit down. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 2 at 18:12
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This is undoubtedly not the real etymology, but it's too amusing not to mention, and I doubt anybody will find anything better. From Google books (1888):

In addition to the customary halts--about every quarter of an hour--for conversation, innumerable other delays were occasioned. Three or four times the small donkey was flattened down by his burden, and his little legs spread out sideways, so that he looked like a tortoise. This disaster, as might be supposed, set up much chatter; as if they thought that because they could talk the hind legs off a jackass, they could talk them on again.

This actually suggests a plausible etymology. Imagine that your donkey is loaded, and you are ready to go somewhere. Then somebody comes up and starts talking to you, and they end up talking so long that your donkey's hind legs fall off.

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I like it! As you say, not the real etymology, but it does suggest a possible rationale. –  FumbleFingers May 7 '11 at 23:32
    
Shor: I've just done a bit of Ngramming, and sadly I have to say your postulated rationale isn't looking so good. Apparently several other things might have their legs talked off (including, bizarrely, "iron pots"), but so far as I can see, it all started with dogs. And the earliest I've come up so far is actually a pack of hounds... books.google.com/… –  FumbleFingers May 7 '11 at 23:41
    
@FumbleFingers: yes, the case for my rationale is looking dim. But note that your pack of hounds is really just hind legs off a dog in disguise. Paraphrasing, what that quote is saying is that, while many people can talk the hind legs off a dog, this guy can talk all the legs off a whole pack of hounds. –  Peter Shor May 8 '11 at 11:13
    
Well, maybe not so dim after all ... Here is a reference from 1858 for a horse. I also saw one for an elephant, which I think must be along the same lines as the pack of hounds -- talking the hind legs off an elephant should be much harder than doing it for a horse. –  Peter Shor May 8 '11 at 11:28
    
Shor: I can't view the text of your 1858 link, but horses & hounds certainly can be 'beasts of burden', so the theory goes up a bit. Although dogs turn up pretty early, so do cast-iron pots and iron tables. I'm thinking the core imagery is of 'solid, integral parts of a whole, not normally detachable' (whimsically outrageous hyperbole excepted). –  FumbleFingers May 8 '11 at 15:38
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Since we can assume this is nearly always a negative comment, I would suggest that perhaps it has to do the burden caused by the speaker. Donkeys are known and have been known to handle quite the load. This statement could imply that the burden placed upon the listener by the speaker is greater than that which a loader or traveler would place on a carrying donkey.

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I totally agree with your negative comment point. A person thus described talks tiresomely (for too long), not persuasively. I'm less sure about linking the burden of listening to weight on a donkey's hind legs. But once the jokey asides and fruitless search for etymology are discounted, your answer seems at least as good as Peter Shor's. Plus it has the merit of brevity, so unless anything better comes along I'll probably end up taking yours even though it doesn't exactly answer my question! –  FumbleFingers May 8 '11 at 23:30
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I have no authoritative reference to offer, but online discussion here and there offers a plausible etymology: it reportedly referred to a persuasive talker, who would talk well enough to convince a donkey to go without his hind legs, and the meaning evolved over time.

Donkeys’ hind legs have nothing specific about them either, and it should be noted that lots of variants exist, including:

  • Talk the hind legs off a horse
  • Talk the bark off a tree
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Despite the discussion in your links, to me the hind leg of a donkey phrase only means that the person talks a lot, not that they're persuasive... –  psmears May 7 '11 at 15:03
    
Agree with the "much talking, not persuasive talking" meaning. I always interpreted it to mean that the person talked so much that they could be more of a burden than a donkey's heavy load. –  Wayne May 7 '11 at 20:43
    
I've heard a fuller version "Talk the hind legs off a donkey and then make it walk": I've assumed that that was the original form, but it might just as well be a later elaboration. Jake Thackeray has something like "never mind donkeys, she can bore the balls off a buffalo". –  Colin Fine May 7 '11 at 22:26
    
@Colin Fine: Sometimes it's hard to be sure you're not just inventing memories, but now you mention it I'm pretty sure I've heard "then make it walk" too. I'd bet any money it's a later addition though. –  FumbleFingers May 7 '11 at 23:47
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@FumbleFingers: In the "Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy" trilogy, for the predecessor to Deep Thought? Something along the lines of "X could talk the back legs off a Y, but only I could then convince it to get up and take a walk"? –  Andrew Grimm Sep 7 '11 at 12:53
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Basically the donkey would run out of energy, and collapse before the person would stop talking. Meaning a donkey can pull and walk for ages, but person is still talking. Kind of like the expression donkeys years. Same as talk the bark off trees, trees live hundreds of years, so the tree would be dead and the person is still talking..

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Good Answer! I never heard that. –  medica Apr 2 at 19:01
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