Writing for Business

Aug 14 2013   6:49PM GMT

Donkey’s years or donkey’s ears?

Ivy Wigmore Ivy Wigmore Profile: Ivy Wigmore

Which is correct?

interrobang “Wow, an Amiga 500! I haven’t seen one of those in __________.”
a. donkey’s years
b. donkey’s ears

Answer: b, for purists.

How can “donkey’s ears” be the right choice, you ask? Well, it’s Cockney rhyming slang, my old china! (From china plate, meaning mate, then dropping the china to further obfuscate.) Similarly, if someone tells you they’ll have a butcher’s, that means they’ll have a butcher’s hook. Still don’t know? Butcher’s hook = look.

Donkey’s ears = years. Like most Cockney rhyming slang, it doesn’t necessarily have much to do with the meaning of the words. However, some connections have been traced.

From the Phrases and Sayings discussion forum:

It is quite likely that donkey’s ears was the earlier form and that it originated as rhyming slang, in an allusion to the length of the animal’s ears. Donkey’s ears/years is often shortened just to donkeys. That is characteristic of rhyming slang, as in syrup (of figs) – wig or plates (of meat) – feet.

Donkey’s ears works as rhyming slang whereas donkey’s years doesn’t. In rhyming slang the last word of a short phrase is rhymed with the word that gives the slang meaning; for example, trouble and strife – wifeapples and pears – stairs, etc. It makes little sense for the phrase to have originated in slang form as donkey’s years, as that would rhyme ‘years’ with ‘years’.

You can read more about the Amiga here. For more once-happening styles in not only hardware but also clothes and hair, see: Computer Weekly’s Computer fashions (it was acceptable in the ’80s). (And yes, FYI, the ’80s really looked like that. I know, I was there. I’m still in recovery.)


Thanks to Lucy Hay (@Bang2write) for the FB post that inspired this one.

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