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The word "ass" (usually marked as "vulgar"; the one that means "buttocks," "butt," etc.) comes from Sanskrit, one would think, since the old Germanic version is not a stand-alone, but has its colleagues in Latin, Greek, and Armenian.

Anyway, the Germanic original is ars; the modern German arsch; the current British pronunciation (to the best of my knowledge) is "arse."

I would have continued to assume that "ass" is an Americanism had I not encountered the word "asshole" in one of Douglas Adams' installments of the "Hitchhiker Guide." Now Adams was, when it came to language, a British patriot. He pronounced schedule "shedyule," was steadfastly opposed to splitting infinitives, called trucks lorries (and, I suspect, avoided words such as "elevator" and "faucet" as hopelessly Gallic, favoring instead such absurdities as "lift" and "tap"), and so forth. (I happen to agree with him on the infinitives, but that's beside the point).

What gives? The vowel is altered; the consonant is gone. To what end? Why? How?

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  • The consonant wasn't a consonant except in rhotic dialects (unlike RP, which is non-rhotic). As for the vowels, they didn't shift much; just back to front, no other change; happens all the time. Commented Nov 10, 2015 at 3:15
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    @John Lawler: I've read somewhere that all dialects were rhotic until very recently (by historical standards, anyway).
    – Ricky
    Commented Nov 10, 2015 at 3:19
  • Must be true, then. Commented Nov 10, 2015 at 3:26
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    You never know.
    – Ricky
    Commented Nov 10, 2015 at 3:27
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    "Arse/ass" doesn't come from Sanskrit, it's even older than that. Are you reading an edition from a British or American publisher? The spelling may have been Americanized.
    – herisson
    Commented Nov 10, 2015 at 3:49

1 Answer 1

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From the Online Etymology Dictionary:

ass (n.2) slang for "backside," first attested 1860 in nautical slang, in popular use from 1930; chiefly U.S.; from dialectal variant pronunciation of arse (q.v.). The loss of -r- before -s- attested in several other words (such as burst/bust, curse/cuss, horse/hoss, barse/bass, garsh/gash). Indirect evidence of the change from arse to ass can be traced to 1785 (in euphemistic avoidance of ass "donkey" by polite speakers) and perhaps to Shakespeare, if Nick Bottom transformed into a donkey in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (1594) is the word-play some think it is. Meaning "woman regarded as a sexual object" is from 1942. To have (one's) head up (one's) ass "not know what one is doing" is attested by 1969. Colloquial (one's) ass "one's self, one's person" attested by 1958.

It appears that the consonant was lost due to dialectal pronunciation of the word that eventually became popluar. Hope this helps!

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  • It does. But it doesn't answer the question.
    – Ricky
    Commented Nov 10, 2015 at 2:59
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    @Ricky How doesn't it? :) Commented Nov 10, 2015 at 3:07
  • Fine. It does. It certainly does.
    – Ricky
    Commented Nov 10, 2015 at 3:09

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