Hyphenating my little ass-car

There’s an xkcd cartoon popular among copy-editors because it combines fussiness over hyphens with gently risqué humour:

Language Log, meeting language lovers’ most niche desires and then some, has a bibliography of suffixal –ass as an intensive modifier. In this vein, you’d expect the hyphen in little ass car to go between the first two words unless you were being seedy, or xkcdy. But there’s an exception, and it’s not rude at all.

Irish author Pádraic Ó Conaire, in his short story collection Field and Fair (Mercier Press, 1966; tr. Cormac Breathnach), refers several times to his ass-car, by which he means his donkey and cart. One story, about how the author came to befriend the donkey, is titled ‘My Little Black Ass’. It’s hard to read that now and not find alternative meanings rubbing up against the intended one.

‘In the Wood’ begins as follows:

The sun was setting as I reached the wood in my little ass-car, and it did not take me long to select a place to spend the night. It would be hard to find a more suitable spot. There was a murmuring rivulet in which to bathe my feet, and a spring well near by from which to get water for tea; and there was, moreover, the glory of the forest with its great old beech trees re-adorning themselves to greet a new summer, with its dark ash-buds, and its patches of amber light coming and going between the arms of the old trees.

I was very weary. I unyoked the little ass.

Since Ó Conaire spent much of his life wandering around Ireland on his own steam, or that of the donkey, several stories in Field and Fair mention his little ass-car. So pastoral are these tales of natural beauty and countryside encounters that it’s hard even to imagine the writer in a little-ass car – though this is how such phrases would usually be hyphenated.

Ass ‘donkey’ is over a millennium old and appeared in Aelfric and Chaucer. It was used by Shakespeare not only in the ‘donkey’ sense but also, in The Merry Wives of Windsor, as a general insult (‘I am not altogether an asse’) – a usage then some decades old, having emerged in the early 16thC. Ass ‘buttocks’ arrived in 1761, according to Green’s Dictionary of Slang. The word has multiple other slang senses.

One other item from Ó Conaire, of semi-linguistic interest, concerns woodland birds. In ‘The World’s Daily Oblation’ the author wakes up one night beneath the ‘bare arms’ of an ash tree, the Milky Way a ‘silver road across the sky’ above him. A chestnut, ‘the last one on the tree’, falls onto a stone beside him and the sound disturbs some local residents:

A little bird was awakened in a bush near by. The poor creature shook itself; gave a jump from its branch to another branch where it found a place for rest and sleep. I did not see it, but I know I am telling truthfully what happened because it uttered two little squeaks, one on each branch, before it went to sleep again. Another bird, one of the owl tribe that is rarely seen or heard, uttered a barbarous note. He spoke sleepily and wearily in his own dialect just as if he were trying to convey to the beasts and birds of the night his affliction of heart at the fact that his race was now but seldom heard in the land of Ireland. But no heed was paid to his groan nor his woe – no more than was paid to a blackbird in the wood that had just uttered its first note of joy.

If you don’t mind the anthropomorphising, it’s a winsome passage, well suited for reading aloud. In school I studied stories by Ó Conaire in the original Irish, but this was not among them, so it was a pleasure to revisit his world of stoic and sympathetic life after so long. A replica statue of the writer was replaced in the centre of Galway last year.

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7 Responses to Hyphenating my little ass-car

  1. astraya says:

    Dictionary.com (citing Random House and Collins) gives the buttocks/anus sense a different etymology (interrelated with arse) than the donkey/stupid person sense. Without further checking other sources, I don’t know whether that’s true or not.

    • Stan Carey says:

      It is true. I didn’t mean to suggest they had the same history, but I could have been clearer about it. Ass ‘donkey’/’fool’ is from Old English assa (via Middle English asse), while ass ‘buttocks’ is from a dialect form of arse, from Old English ears (via Middle English ars), of Germanic origin. They have separate entries in the OED; Etymonline has a summary.

      • astraya says:

        I’d thought I’d stumbled on something unknown. At least it was unknown to me.

        Re-reading, I noticed ‘My Little Black Ass’. Many years ago I went to a pub with a friend. I probably ordered a beer and he ordered a what sound like ‘a black’s arse’. He noticed my reaction and said ‘You’ve obviously never heard of black sarsaparilla’. Obviously.

  2. Goatllama says:

    “[Y]ou’d expect the hyphen in little ass car to go between the first two words unless you were being seedy, or xkcdy” made me smile. Always fun to see where things lead. I’m sure Randall would be amused that his comic took you to Ó Conaire.

  3. […] and assclowns and asshats, among other-ass things – or other ass-things, if you prefer the xkcd hyphenation. (See Language Log for a lit-ass –ass lit […]

  4. […] to tie the phrases together and increase clarity, thus two-day interval, wide-angle lens, little-ass car. Multiple hyphenation, though journalists are often suspicious of it, is a useful tool that enables […]

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