I was reminded that I’d been meaning to write about this one by a Facebook friend who linked to an ad posted on Craigslist, 4/24/12: “I am in need of someone who will cook (not microwave) and dangle bacon in front of my starving face while running to the YMCA. The objective is to trick my arse into working out. ”
The OED’s first citation for arse, with that spelling, to refer to a person or animal’s posterior is from 1480. There are multitudinous variations over the years, including this exchange from Ben Jonson’s 1602 “Poetaster”: ” Cris. They say, he’s valiant. Tvcc. Valiant? so is mine arse.” Ooh, snap.
The common and traditional U.S. term, of course, is ass. The OED says of this word: “vulgar and dialect sp. and pronunciation of arse. Now chiefly U.S.”
Its citations for ass are nearly all American, one exception being this from William Golding’s 1959 Free Fall: “You sit on your fat ass in your ‘ouse all the week.”
Arse and ass look different in print. However, in Britain, where non-rhotic (that is, silent r) pronunciation is the standard, they would sound the same. This site offers British and American pronunciations of arse. The former is non-rhotic. The latter is risible in the exaggerated New York accent it affects.
In My Fair Lady (Broadway: 1956, film version: 1964), written by the American Alan Jay Lerner, Eliza Doolittle famously shouts out at the racetrack scene, “Come on, Dover, move yer bloomin’ arse!” That, anyway, is the spelling one finds on the internet; I don’t have access to the libretto or screenplay. I also don’t have access to the Broadway or soundtrack record albums. I would suspect that Julie Andrews, the original Liza, says it non-rhotically; probably Audrey Hepburn in the movie version as well. Someone please let me know if that’s not the case.
Arse has been around for a long time in the U.S. as a sort of literary novelty item. Donald Barthleme’s first novel, “Snow White,” contained a chapter titled THE FAILURE OF SNOW WHITE’S ARSE. A 1971 letter by the anglophile S.J. Perelman noted that some New Yorker contributors ”tend to have a ramrod up their arse, acting as though they invented the paper.” (I would say that paper, to refer to a magazine, is a Britishism as well.)
Moving up to the present, arse has become a vogue term in the U.S. in recent years, very much analogous to shite. A 2010 comment on a New York Times blog post by someone who signs him- or herself “AmericanYankee” says: “The last thing I want is for bin Laden and his sycophantic arse kissing illiterate supporters to think they are somehow special.”
Just two days ago, blogging his displeasure about the New York Times at Esquire.com just two days, Charles Pierce comments, “This is all my arse.” And bringing it all back home, a commenter on his post writes, “The Times is, for the most part, irrelevant, and this sort of link-trolling crap should be ignored. It only encourages more shite.”