[lit-ideas] Re: The Donkey's Ears

  • From: Jlsperanza@xxxxxxx
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Mon, 25 Nov 2013 09:55:39 -0500 (EST)

In a message dated 11/25/2013 12:40:34 A.M.  Eastern Standard Time, 
profdritchie@xxxxxxxxx writes about his "Sunday  Twofer"

"On Monday the jacuzzi man stopped by our house.  I've  limped along for 
donkeys' years, improvising like a Boy Scout, holding the old  filters in 
place with bits of nut and wire and dib dib dobs."

and  comments:

"I wasn't sure where the apostrophe goes, whether one or more  donkeys are 
considered to have been involved."

Apparently, when the  expression was first used in 1916, it was spelt (or 
spelled if you  mustn't):

'donkey's ears'.

I.e. the (two) ears (plural always) of  one donkey being involved. I'm not 
sure what the original context was, or more  importantly, what the intended 
addressee. Since "within ten years or so" the  expression started to be 
spelt (or spelled), 'donkey's ears' the idea is that  the 'phrase' was somehow 
'in the air', unless we assume that the user of the  phrase in 1927 (say) was 
_aware_ of the very first occurrence in 1916.

D.  Ritchie is right that the plural is a trick here. In the original 
'pun', only  one donkey was involved and a reference to his 'two ears' (with 
the 
implicature  being 'long'). I.e. it would not do to use the expression as a 
mere pun on  'year' but on 'long year' (which is a philosophical concept, I 
hold, alla  Bergson, in terms of 'psychological duration' of this unit of 
time defined in  terms of rotations of the earth). 

Note that there is no surviving  expression or pun for 'short year', even 
if there are animals with short ears,  we can safely assume.

Now, D. Ritchie indeed pluralised the 'donkey' in  his passage:

"I've limped along for donkeys' years". 

with  hyperbolically magnifies the duration of the time unit, since, as at 
least TWO  donkeys are involved, that would arithmetically entail FOUR 
(long) ears (or  years).

My idea that it is Cockney Rhyming Slang is possibly wrong, since  Quinion, 
in the cited site, just refers to it as a 'pun' -- but 'puns' of this  type 
tend to be labelled 'Cockney' rhyming slang (cfr. 'dog and bone', or  
'Bristol city'). 

But there seems to be a _semantic_ connection. A  telephone may be said to 
iconically resemble a dog (the main apparatus) and a  bone (the appendix 
which is attached to it); it is more difficult to trace  iconicity in Bristol 
City.

So, the 'pun', 'donkey's ears', or 'donkeys'  ears' (for a more extended 
period) is not just phonic but semantic -- and  pragmatic. 

The spelling 'donkey's ears' or 'donkey's ears' (i.e. with  'year' rather 
than 'ear') allows no comparison with 'dog's days'. But the  spelling with 
'year does: we have a the dog's days, and the donkey's year. I  assume there 
are similar expressions for other units of time. Or  not.

Cheers,

Speranza  

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