I like David Crystal’s The Story of English in 100 Words.
Chapter 15 discusses the use of Arse.
I’d suggest this is an essential shibboleth.
First, you don’t get very far in (British) English without appreciating its many applications. Crystal has that one:
Lard-arse, which has displaced heavy arse in British common usage, seems to have crept in from Australia (the OED has its first citation from the Sydney Morning Herald of 27 August 1988). Having noted that, there’s lard-arsed in Thomas Heggen’s 1946 novel, Mister Roberts. My recollection has it that, ten years on, filmed by John Ford, with Henry Fonda and James Cagney, Frank Nugent’s script bowdlerising it to “lazy”.
We might wonder how the word became Obs. in polite use (as the OED has it): Crystal suggests:
It was inevitable that, as the word began to be used for the human posterior, the association with animals and with excrement would turn it into a ‘dirty word’.
Second, it illustrates what Bertrand Russell argued for the Saturday Evening Post, back in 1944:
It is a misfortune for Anglo-American friendship that the two countries are supposed to have a common language.
In passing, that’s the most likely candidate for the truism often blamed on George Bernard Shaw:
The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language.
However, as far as I know, nobody has located that expression in any of Shaw’s works.
Crystal considers how we have evolved two variants: the British arse, and the very-different American ass. Obviously another form of bowdlerising. That prompts two thoughts:
- There was the convincing US bumper sticker: Democrats are hot! Ever hear of a fine piece of elephant!
- My American son-in-law was squeamish about his first-born being introduced to Walter the Farting Dog, until The New York Times had it on their best-seller list.
All that’s left for this post is:
- Are you an ass-man, or an arse-man?
- Right arse and righter arse: is Kelvin MacKenzie a bigger arse than Richard Littlejohn? Or are they just two cheeks of the same one?