Arse or ass.? A linguistics question

So, last night , we were watching one of my favourite Canadian TV shows - Murdoch Mysteries - set in the very early 20th century. Two of the characters are talking in a diner (so not entirely off-topic for this forum) and one uses the phrase “went arse over tit”. Now that’s a common British expression meaning someone fell. But it raised a question in my mind as my understanding was that modern day Canadians say “ass”, rather than “arse”, as do Americans. My presumption from the scripting is that “arse” may have been in contemporary use in the early 20th century. So, my question is, in both Canadian and American parlance, when did “ass” come in to common use and if there’s any known, or perceived, reason why it did (my guess being that it’s some 19th century “politeness” thing.

By the by, I recall a previous attempt to use the word “ass” was in a Tripadvisor review of a restaurant in Italy. It wouldnt post, automatically deeming the word inappropriate. But, FFS, I was only trying to save a few keystrokes in describing the donkey ragu, I’d had for dinner (they also had a couple of horse dishes on the menu)

etymologists seem to trace the U.S. mutation (at least is common parlance) to the 1930’s. now i’m curious if 19th C. American writers used one over the other, i don’t recall Mark Twain ever using the word ‘arse’.

“backside,” attested by 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- is not uncommon (burst/bust, curse/cuss, horse/hoss, barse/bass, garsh/gash, parcel/passel).

Indirect evidence of the change from arse to ass can be traced to 17c. By 1680s arse was being pronounced to rhyme with “-ass” words, as in “Sodom or the Quintessence of Debauchery”: “I would advise you, sir, to make a pass/Once more at Pockenello’s loyal arse.” It is perhaps as early as Shakespeare’s day, if Nick Bottom transformed into a donkey in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (1594) is the word-play some think it is.

I must to the barber’s, mounsieur; for me thinks I am marvellous hairy about the face; and I am such a tender ass, if my hair do but tickle me, I must scratch. [Bottom]


Another interesting question to ponder (I never know where HO is going to take me).

So I found this:
Arse was the original word for the bottom and/or anus (Old English ærs) with cognates in German (Arsch) and Dutch (aars) today.

Ass (from Latin asinus) is an animal of the horse family, the domesticated variety of which is called a donkey.

In the 19th century, American usage started to favour “ass”. There are two possible reasons, perhaps combined.

1. Americans were more prudish and the Anglo Saxon earthiness of arse perhaps proved too much so they turned to a similar sounding euphemism. Similarly Americans use bathroom for a room without a bath but with a toilet (despite toilet already being a euphemism).
2. The R was dropped in a similar way to how curse and horse became cuss and hoss in certain American dialects.

Ass is used in insults when comparing someone to a donkey (“silly ass”; “don’t be an ass”). Arse is used in cruder terms, “arsing about”.

This doesn’t address the Canadian aspect of the word usage, but I’m not surprised that America’s Puritanical background plays some role in it.

Interesting, as I now hear “ass” as cruder than “arse.” Perhaps it’s that American mindset that attributes a British accent to being “more sophisticated?”


Ah, that’s a whole different subject. Yanks will correct me if I’m wrong but I have it in mind that “bathroom” is a relatively recent introduction - at least in regard to, erm, facilities in public places, such as a restaurant. I’m sure when I first visited the States (first trip was 1980), there were “rest rooms”, or, perhaps, “mens rooms”.

My first trip to Canada was some years after 1980 and I recall asking light-heartedly,on a non-food forum I used back then about differences between the two countries. The summary from the various Canadian contributors was that the national sport is ice hockey not baseball, it’s “zed” not “zee” and you go to the washrooms, not restrooms.


Yes, I’m old enough to recall ladies room\mens room and I believe most restaurants still use “restrooms.” Funny, since most don’t go to that room to rest. With one exception–years ago I attended a function at the Union League in Philadelphia; each “stall” had a full cot\single bed in addition to the toilet. I suppose it was built at a time when ladies needed to rest from the exertion of an evening out and had not been renovated? I believe it was renovated in the past 10 years or so, and I doubt the “rest” portion of the rooms survived.

Interestingly women were not allowed membership until the 1980s. Black men were permitted as early as the 1970s (only 100+ years after it was founded to support Lincoln and the Union). It’s still a largely WASP institution regardless.


this is fascinating. i find that the use of ‘restroom’ versus ‘bathroom’ is relatively interchangeable in reference to public accommodations, with a bias towards ‘restroom’. one might ask a server at a restaurant ‘where’s the restroom’, but no one would look askance if the phrasing was altered to ‘where’s the bathroom’. however it is also the case that there is coding in the usage when it comes to public v. private spaces. one might say ‘i’m saving up to to renovate my kitchen and bathrooms this years’, but never ‘i plan to renovate my restrooms this year’.

re: the Union League, i’m reminded of the restrooms that were built into the movie palaces and theatres of yore, in which a large salon was appended to the the business end of the space in which one could indeed ‘rest’, or more likely smoke and converse.

Radio City Music Hall:


That’s a truth I had never thought of. I have a master bath, main bath and powder room and three bedrooms, but no restrooms in the house.

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Right. Private homes have bathrooms. Public spaces have either restrooms or ladies’/men’s rooms. I tend to ask for the ladies’ room at a restaurant, rather than the restroom.


We just enjoyed:

and don’t forget that the big piece of furniture that can set 3 or more people side by side is a Chesterfield, as opposed to a couch or a sofa.

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The best bit in the episode with the “arse” was that a photographer had a minor role. Towards the end of the show, Mrs Murdoch shows her husband slides that show the baby in a variety of situations - like in the cockpit of a plane. Murdoch asks how on earth she was able to do that. She replies that she got help from the photo shop. Photoshop, eh. V funny.

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Would that photographer be related to you?

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Witty stuff. One could go on and on about the show’s clever historic references, so for the sake of food site, we’ll just single out the chuckle of the Murdochs’ new house’s closet cum “potato cooker”, and dinner guest Tesla:

Canadian here. I use arse more than ass, maybe 70/30. Arse over teakettle is the expression we always use, which doesn’t make much sense at all! Oh, and it’s always just hockey. No need to qualify it, unless you’re talking about field hockey (and we rarely do).


A chesterfield is a particular shape/style of sofa - scroll down a few pages for a chart

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Ass could be the donkey as you say, but when you add a “hole” it surely isn’t.
Here in my country we use bathroom even when it doesn’t have a bath, or even a shower. That comes from the colonial era as the British bungalows had an actual bath in their bathrooms.
Talking about bungalows, in my country a bungalow is the house of a nobleman, a big shot, even if it’s two or three storeyed. Because during the colonial era the estate owners built bungalows, and the labourers thought that the word was about the social status not the architectural style of the building.


I knew the the word came from India, so it’s interesting that it’s morphed into something else, so close to its origins.

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Ass is much more common in my experience but plenty of Canadians use arse and arsehole, often for emphasis. To my ear, when I hear someone with a Canadian, especially someone with a Ontarian or Prairie accent say arse or arsehole, it can come across as harsher or angrier than when the same person chooses to use ass or asshole. If I heard someone with a Nfld or Maritimes accent use Arse or Arsehole, it wouldn’t come across as harsh as when someone with a Toronto or Edmonton accent says it. When I hear someone with a British or Irish accent use the term, it translates to asshole in my mind, and doesn’t seem more harsh or angry.

Besides ex-pats and Canadians with British ex-pat parents, I have born-in-Canada cousins with no connection to Britain who prefer to use arse, when they’re angry.

One difference wrt Canadian speech is that the word that is lengthened to See You Next Tuesday comes across as a very harsh word, and is usually used in a misogynistic way. It doesn’t mean fool over here. I know it’s a common term in the UK. I hate the word and never use it. Again, when someone British uses the word, it doesn’t come across as harsh and angry as when a Canadian uses it.

This is anecdotal, but the 2 people in my family who prefer to arse live in the Prairies. I think it also may be more common in Newfoundland, NS, NB and PEI.

In terms of linguistics, I’ll add that the word in German is Arschloch.


I still call them restrooms.

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It doesnt mean fool over here, either. It is generally a harsh term of abuse.

But here’s the famous “ass” sketch from Stephen Fry & Hugh Laurie

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