Continuing with animal-themed idioms, the next one I’m going to investigate is ‘donkey’s years’. This idiom is perhaps the most nonsensical one I’ve looked into yet; it makes no sense! I wonder how a non-native speaker of English would react if they heard this phrase in passing? I know I certainly wouldn’t understand it.
What does ‘donkey’s years’ mean?
So before I delve into its origins, let’s first of all explain what it actually means. Simply put, ‘donkey’s years’ means “a very long time”. It could be used in a variety of ways, for example, if you want to explain that you’ve known someone for a long time; “I’ve known Bob for donkey’s years!”. Or, you could be describing that something has lasted a while; “I’ve been using this same paintbrush for donkey’s years.” Essentially, this idiom exaggerates the fact that whatever the subject, it’s lasted for an extended period of time.
The meaning of this idiom is simple enough, but how did these two seemingly unrelated words come to mean “a long time”? Looking through various resources, there is a common denominator amongst them all – one that really surprises me.
‘Donkey’s years’ origins
It turns out that originally, the phrase ‘donkey’s years’ was actually ‘donkey’s ears’; without the “y”! According to Michael Quinion, writing for worldwidewords.org, the phrase was first recorded in 1916, where it originated from the UK but was also used throughout the US and elsewhere (unfortunately the author doesn’t go into detail about the other locations!)
That said, there are references to this phrase being used in works by Shakespeare, as documented by C. J. Sisson in his book New Readings in Shakespeare. Sisson explains that the phrase ‘donkey’s ears’ was used in an earlier formation in The Comedy of Errors, written c.1594: “I am an Asse indeede, you may proove it by my long eares”. Sisson explains that, during this time (and particularly in the West Midlands), the spelling of “ears” was often written as “years” (I know, I’m baffled as well, but apparently this wasn’t the only instance; “eating” was often spelt “yeating”!) With that in mind, if you take the words “Asse” and “long eares”, this quote from Shakespeare is, according to Sisson, a very early example of ‘donkey’s years’ being used as a joke to meaning “a very long time”. I do find this notion to be a little farfetched, but I think I’m mostly convinced, and certainly very fascinated!
So far it seems that ‘donkey’s years’ became so because of its similarity in pronunciation to ‘donkey’s ears’. That may be so, but that still doesn’t explain why either would mean “a very long time”. In her book Little Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins, Julia Cresswell reiterates the fact that ‘donkey’s years’ was an old pronunciation of ‘donkey’s ears’, but goes on to explain that the meaning of “a very long time” was derived from the combined aspects of donkey’s ears being long physically, and a play on words from the interchangeable pronunciation of “ears” and “years”. It looks like we’re getting closer to an answer!
, writing for itknowledgeexchange.techtarget.com, explains that ‘donkey’s ears’ is actually Cockney rhyming slang for ‘donkey’s years’. Gary Martin, of phrases.org, explores this idea more, and suggests that ‘donkey’s ears’ was a jovial alternative to ‘donkey’s years’, and was used in this way in E. V. Lucas’s Vermilion Box in 1916: “Now for my first bath for what the men call ‘Donkey’s ears’, meaning years and years.” This certainly matches up with today’s usage. Martin suggests that further evidence that ‘donkey’s ears’ originated from Cockney rhyming slang is that the phrase is often just shortened to “donkey’s”, which is consistent with the way other Cockney rhyming slang phrases work, such as “whistle [and flute]” meaning “suit”, and “barnet [fair]” meaning “hair”.
I didn’t expect to find such a rich background for such a small phrase, and it’s interesting that it can be consistently traced back through time from as far back as Shakespeare, to more modern day Cockney rhyming slang. I guess ‘donkey’s years’ has been used by people for donkey’s years then, eh?
Julia Cresswell – Little Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins – 2014
C. J. Sisson – New Readings in Shakespeare – 1956