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From a comment here, in frequent usage, arse and ass are often interchangeable when used to refer to buttocks or to a person of dubious charms. However, although “to arse about” has a vague connection to “make an ass of oneself”, many of the threads of meaning derived from arse are not present in ass. Likewise, ass has a donkey-referring component that arse does not.

Despite common perception, are these words more deviant than common usage indicates?

Edit: It appears they have (someone look this up with an authoritative dictionary please) different origins, asinus (Latin) for ass, and ærs (Old English) or orros (Greek) for arse.

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+1 for sheer amusement value. :-) –  Steve Melnikoff Oct 27 '10 at 23:21
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Not entirely relevant, but I once had an email of mine rejected by a PC "profanity checker" for using the word "butt" as in "the butt of the joke". I found that changing "butt" to "arse" made it apparently more acceptable. –  Tony Andrews Oct 28 '10 at 14:09
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@tony but was spelling checker screaming at you? –  mfg Oct 28 '10 at 15:01
    
A small correction: asinus is Latin, not Greek. –  Ebenezer Sklivvze May 3 '11 at 20:26

5 Answers 5

up vote 29 down vote accepted

Rather than getting confused, let me post an answer:

  • In both British and American English, the word "ass" is used for "donkey".

  • For "buttocks", British English uses "arse", while American English uses "ass".

  • In British English, the two words are not interchangeable. "Arse" means only "buttocks", while "ass" means only "donkey".

  • In American English, there is only one word, "ass", so the question of interchangeability does not arise.

  • The idiom about "making an ass of oneself" is present in both varieties and refers to the "donkey" sense. (Also, "don't be an ass", etc.) Unrelated to this, there is "arse about" in British English, but no "ass about" in American English.

  • Usage: The word "ass" is in practice less acceptable in American English than in British English, even when referring to donkeys, because of its other sense, considered vulgar.
    (Aside: A similar but different situation occurs with "cock", sometimes considered vulgar in American English which prefers "rooster" for one of its senses. The British phrase "cock up" is not used in American English.)

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Vulgarity does not explain the distribution. We do, for example, say "fuck up" in American English; that is, we have plenty of obscene or offensive idioms. It's not that "cock up" is used more rarely in American English — it is simply nonexistent here. Another example of the reverse situation: in US English we do not say "take the piss" to mean "make fun", even though "piss" is the same in British and American English. –  Kosmonaut Oct 27 '10 at 21:31
    
@Kosmonaut: Thanks, that's an interesting point. I wonder if it's true in general that British English has more idioms using mildly vulgar words (cock up, arse about, take the piss…) (Though there's nothing vulgar about "cock up".) –  ShreevatsaR Oct 28 '10 at 4:25
    
@ShreevatsaR, "arse about" as in "arse about face"? :) –  Benjol Oct 28 '10 at 5:08
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It's probably worth pointing out that ass although an americanism is being used increasingly by british people –  Willbill Oct 28 '10 at 12:12
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In British English, even in Elizabethan times, the words ass and arse were close enough that Shakespeare used them in a pun; in Midsummer Night's Dream, the character Bottom is turned into an ass. –  Peter Shor Jun 27 '12 at 17:30

In British English (I'm English, although that's no qualification!) it would appear that whether something is or is not rude depends not only on context regarding the subject but also phraseology. Ass or Arse is both regional and also potentially a class distinction.

  • You cock — very rude
  • Cock up — not really that rude
  • You complete arse — rude
  • Arse over tit — quite rude
  • Make an arse of myself — (yes we do say that)
  • You silly arse — (this is strangely not rude at all)
  • Arse end — slightly rude.

To confuse things further we might also call someone a 'donkey' which isn't always too offensive, usually when they have done something stupid rather than clumsy.

There is a strong regional difference too with people of the north using ass and the south using arse. This follows similar lines to pronunciation of 'bath' etc. with northerners using a short 'a' ala ass and southerners using a long 'a' as in arse.

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Ass and arse are completely separate words. I believe the version of ass meaning bottom is nothing more than an americanised pronunciation of arse, and then a suitable spelling thereof.

When Northerners, or anyone, says silly ass!, I think they mean a donkey, not an arse.

Brit speakers always pronounce ass (donkey) with a short initial vowel but they increasingly use ass (arse) in the Am sense and pronounce it with a long vowel to mark the difference. Do americans mark the two versions of ass by varying the pronunciation? I think they use a long vowel in both cases.

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How can you tell if a British speaker is pronouncing arse without the 'r' or pronouncing ass with a long vowel? Don't they sound the same?. Americans use a short vowel for both words. –  Peter Shor Jul 1 '12 at 11:02
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You're partly right. "Ass" meaning bottom, is American dialect for arse. As for using ass in the American sense, I haven't heard British people do that. If it happens, it must be rare and limited to a few people. –  Tristan Jul 1 '12 at 11:05
    
Peter Shor. Ass and arse sound distinctively different, in the UK, whatever British accent they are spoken in. –  Tristan Jul 1 '12 at 11:09
    
@Tristan: I think what Barry means is that people are dropping the 'r' in arse when speaking rhotic dialects (since it seems he's a Northerner). It now sounds just the same as somebody speaking a non-rhotic dialect, which is still different from ass. –  Peter Shor Jul 1 '12 at 11:31
    
What do you mean, Peter? Ass and arse sound distinctively different, even when non-rhotic. Maybe this is hard to notice for Americans who are not used to non-rhotic speech. –  Tristan Jul 1 '12 at 12:03

I think that there is also a difference in "feel" between the British English word "arse" and the American English word "ass" in its "buttocks" sense. The British version is vulgar but does not have the sexual overtones of the American version. No British man would never describe a desirable woman as a "nice piece of arse" (I hope).

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Sorry Tony. I'm pretty sure that some British men would. Especially ones who went to private school. –  glenatron Dec 1 '10 at 23:11

Arse is the British word, and ass is the American/Canadian word. Idioms formed from arse are going to be British idioms, while idioms formed with ass (referring to buttocks) are American/Canadian. The dictionary entry you link to says "arse or ( US ), ( Canadian ) ass". So, these words don't often overlap in usage.

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If the only difference is in the regional spelling of the word why the differences in usage? Also, is 'arse' a word used to refer to a donkey? In the US you will hear 'ass' used in reference to a donkey matter-of-factly without vulgarity, whereas socially it is always vulgar. According to the definition, 'arse' is not vulgar and has no donkey usage in the UK. Is that part not accurate? –  mfg Oct 27 '10 at 20:02
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Thanks for referring me back to the dictionary, I hadn't checked the etymology; it appears they have (someone look this up with an authoritative dictionary please) different origins, asinus (Greek) for ass and ærs (Old English) or orros (Greek) for arse. –  mfg Oct 27 '10 at 20:09
    
"Idioms formed from arse are going to be British idioms, while idioms formed with ass are American/Canadian" — I disagree. "Making an ass of oneself" is both British and American, and has to do with donkeys, and is unrelated to buttocks. –  ShreevatsaR Oct 27 '10 at 20:12
    
@ShreevatsaR: "These words don't often overlap in usage". Certainly there are shared idioms between British and American English. –  Kosmonaut Oct 27 '10 at 20:18
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@mfg, I get the impression from your comments that you believe that "ass" and "arse" are pronounced the same. In UK English this is definitely NOT the case. (I don't know for US English.) –  Benjol Oct 28 '10 at 5:10

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