Donkey's years!

supermarioutd

Senior Member
Persian
Hello,

I found this in a dictionary :

We've known each other for donkey's years.

Is this a common saying or is it some old-fashioned thing only found in idiom dictionaries?

Can you think of a better idiom with the same meaning?
 
  • Şafak

    Senior Member
    I've just heard the idiom "for donkey's years". The meaning was crystal clear thanks to the context but what surprised me the most was that a friend of mine, an American to the marrow of his bones, didn't know the expression either and got confused. He asked me to repeat what the person we were watching had just said and I said: "we've known each other for donkey's years". His reply was priceless: "donkey's years? huh, interesting".

    What I really want to say is I've just finished my little research into the idiom and found out that the internet, featured dictionaries, common sense, tonight's constellations, my coffee cup reading and, of course, this thread suggest that the expression is chiefly used in the UK and, apparently, not widely understood by our American fellows.

    You live and learn.
     
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    Uncle Jack

    Senior Member
    British English
    Incidentally, although "for" appears to be required grammatically with "donkey's years", it is usually omitted, in my experience. Most other similar expressions generally include "for".
     

    Şafak

    Senior Member
    Incidentally, although "for" appears to be required grammatically with "donkey's years", it is usually omitted, in my experience. Most other similar expressions generally include "for".
    Interesting. Later I'll rewind the presentation we were watching to make sure what exactly the host said.
     

    Logos14

    Senior Member
    USA
    English
    I've heard 'in a dog's age' in Texas a few times, but it's such a big state I'm sure their are regional differences. The first recorded use was in 1836 in a New York magazine. I don't think 'donkey's ears' has much currency anywhere in the US.
     

    kentix

    Senior Member
    English - U.S.
    Keith’s 3 to 1 ratio referred to donkey’s years, not donkey’s ears – which nobody uses. :)
    That's what I'm referring to. I'd be surprised if any version of that phrase is anywhere near 3 to 1 in regular conversation in the U.S.
     

    Andygc

    Senior Member
    British English
    My understanding is that donkey's ears originated as cockney rhyming slang.
    No. See post 10 and also the OED
    donkey's years n. (also donkeys' years (occasionally donkeys' ears with punning allusion to the length of a donkey's ears and to the pronunciation of ears as years)) colloquial a very long time.
     

    Logos14

    Senior Member
    USA
    English
    I don't see how anything in that OED definition contradicts the cockney origin hypothesis. It's listed in the Cockney Dictionary of Rhyming Slang published by Random House, which goes on the describe the same allusion to the length of a donkey's ears. It claims that at first the phrase was indeed 'donkey's ears' but over time it was corrupted to 'years.'

    Similarly, from dictionary.com:
    First recorded in 1895–1900; probably originally donkey('s) ears, as rhyming slang for years, with years replacing ears once the rhyming origin was forgotten
     
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    heypresto

    Senior Member
    English - England
    And then there's 'yonks', about which the OED says 'Origin unknown", and Chambers says "ORIGIN: Poss years, months and weeks; or perh compressed from donkey's years."
     

    abluter

    Senior Member
    British English
    I don't for one moment deny the cockney rhyming slang origin of the phrase, but it is a fact that donkeys generally live longer than horses, commonly reaching 25 years and sometimes as much as 50.
     

    Andygc

    Senior Member
    British English
    If the original expression was "donkey's ears", it would be reasonable to expect to find it in books from the late 19th and early 20th century. Of course, "donkey's ears" can mean those long furry things on a donkey's head, so an ngram search would best be restricted to "for donkey's years/ears".
    Clearly "for donkey's years" is not rhyming slang.
    A Google Books search does little better. For the period 1850-1940 the search finds only 7 examples, one of which refers to actual donkey's ears. The one in Punch is a song title. Two books by one author use the same text and put the words in the mouth of a gypsy (not a cockney). Neither Sun nor Storm (1940) was written by an American (Miss Michael Stone) and is not a story about Londoners. Airy Nothings was a radio play (1927) and the words are part of a dialogue about whether slippers should be called mules - probably not a typical conversation in East London. The snippet from the Calcutta Municipal Gazette in 1931 seems rather flowery for an expatriate working-class writer.

    The OED has another that Google Books missed:
    1916 E. V. Lucas Vermilion Box lxxvii. 86 Now for my first bath for what the men call ‘Donkey's ears’, meaning years and years.
    That's a book about Scottish loch fishing. I'd be very surprised to find boatmen brought up from London - but you never know.
     

    Uncle Jack

    Senior Member
    British English
    I don't see any reason why it should not have come from rhyming slang, although it has mutated along the way.

    The rhyming slang would, of course, have been
    years = donkey's ears​
    This fits the usual pattern of rhyming slang, except that the last word ("ears") is rather closer in sound to the word it represents ("years") than is usual. As with most examples of rhyming slang, it would not have made it into print very often.

    Following the usual pattern of rhyming slang, we might expect "donkey's ears" to be shortened to "donkey's", and we do in fact see this. Examples are hard to find because it is a difficult thing to search for, but this card (Haven't Seen Ewe In Donkeys Greeting Card by Artist Thomas Joseph) would make no sense if "donkey's" on its own wasn't a recognisable usage. Certainly I am familiar enough with "donkey's" on its own.

    Somewhere along the line, though, "donkey's ears"/"donkey's" changed to "donkey's years".

    If it does come from rhyming slang, then "donkey's ears" being long and "donkey's ears" referring to a long time appears to be a coincidence. There is usually no connection between the rhyme and what it represents.
     

    Chasint

    Senior Member
    English - England
    I don't see any reason why it should not have come from rhyming slang, although it has mutated along the way.

    The rhyming slang would, of course, have been
    years = donkey's ears​
    This fits the usual pattern of rhyming slang, except that the last word ("ears") is rather closer in sound to the word it represents ("years") than is usual. As with most examples of rhyming slang, it would not have made it into print very often.

    Following the usual pattern of rhyming slang, we might expect "donkey's ears" to be shortened to "donkey's", and we do in fact see this. Examples are hard to find because it is a difficult thing to search for, but this card (Haven't Seen Ewe In Donkeys Greeting Card by Artist Thomas Joseph) would make no sense if "donkey's" on its own wasn't a recognisable usage. Certainly I am familiar enough with "donkey's" on its own.

    Somewhere along the line, though, "donkey's ears"/"donkey's" changed to "donkey's years".

    If it does come from rhyming slang, then "donkey's ears" being long and "donkey's ears" referring to a long time appears to be a coincidence. There is usually no connection between the rhyme and what it represents.
    This is all very hypothetical. Without substantial evidence, I am disinclined to believe it.
     

    Logos14

    Senior Member
    USA
    English
    With a google books search I find, 'I have not set eyes on him for donkey's ears [i.e., long years].' -- In Gipsy Tents (1880), by ethnographer Francis Groome

    The explanation in the brackets is the author's own, showing that this slang phrase was then sufficiently uncommon (or underground) to need clarification for the author's (presumably educated) readership.
     

    Logos14

    Senior Member
    USA
    English
    After further reading, it seems more probable that the basis of the phrase is a dialectical pronunciation of both words as 'yurrs'.

    From Dorchester Parish Magazine (1896):
    I am over 60, and the expression is familiar to me as in use there as long as I can recollect anything. I am quite satisfied that it is not a piece of modern slang, but a proverbial expression of long standing. It invariably ran “Years and years, and donkeys’ years ago.” There is a tendency in the Isle of Wight dialect to prefix a y to words beginning with a vowel, e.g. “yarm,” the arm; “yeal,” ale; “yeaprun,” an apron; “yet,” to eat.

    He then cites a 1596 inventory of goods: “2 basons wᵗʰ yeares to them”.

    A cockney origin seems implausible since the earliest citations come from rural districts. One would also expect more 19th century instances, given London's population and cultural predominance.
     
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