It’s been quite a while since I found the time to post a Wednesday Word, but I’m struggling with the words I’m supposed to be writing today and this particular post has been rolling around in my head for sometime. So, I thought, what the heck? Maybe writing a blog post will shake loose other writing.
A while back, I read a Regency-set erotic romance. While the story had its strong points, it nearly became a wallbanger for me when I read the first love scene. Why? Because the author used the word “ass” to mean “buttocks.” And that, my friends, pulled me right out of the historical, English setting. It also made me giggle and squick out at the same time, because I wondered when and how the donkey had gotten into the bedroom.
In a British historical, the proper word for this context is always “arse.” From one of my favorite references, the Online Etymology Dictionary:
slang for “backside,” first attested 1860 in nautical slang, in popular use from 1930; chiefly U.S.; from dial. variant pronunciation of arse (q.v.). The loss of -r- before -s- attested in several other words (e.g. burst/bust, curse/cuss, horse/hoss, barse/bass). 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. Asshole first attested 1935.
Now, I’ll admit, the above suggests that the spoken word had begun to lose the -r- sound well before 1860, but even so, I still cringe if I see it spelled that way in a historical novel, especially one set in Britain. It’s just the wrong word.
Even today, I believe British English speakers use “arse” more often than “ass” as the dirty term for the human backside, although I’m more than happy to be corrected if that’s not the case. (My favorite modern slang use of the word is as a verb meaning “take the trouble,” as in, “I can’t be arsed to post to the blog more than once a week.” Those Brits do have a way with the English language!)
YOUR TURN: Are there any words you find used in historical novels that can have the effect of pulling you out of the setting? What are they? Why do they bother you?