Q: Recently I read the phrase “donkey’s years” in one of Lawrence Block’s books. Given the context, I assume that he was referring to a long period of time. I’d never heard of this phrase and I hope you can shed some light on its history.
A: The mystery writer Lawrence Block has used the expression several times in his works, including this example from Telling Lies for Fun & Profit (1994), a book about writing fiction:
“I don’t write many short stories these days and I haven’t perpetrated a poem in donkey’s years.”
The phrase “donkey’s years,” meaning a long time, originated in the early 20th century, apparently as a pun on the long ears of a donkey.
In fact, the first published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary uses the phrase “donkey’s ears.” Here’s the citation, from The Vermillion Box, a 1916 novel by E. V. Lucas:
“Now for my first bath for what the men call ‘Donkey’s ears,’ meaning years and years.”
It’s not certain, though, which came first: “donkey’s ears” or “donkey’s years.”
We found “donkey’s years” in another 1916 book, With Jellicoe in the North Sea, by Frank Hubert Shaw:
“This isn’t a battleship war at all; it’s a destroyer-submarine-light cruiser show. They’ll never come out in donkey’s years, not they. They know jolly well we shall scupper ‘em if they so much as dare to show their noses outside the wet triangle.”
The OED defines “donkey’s years” (also “donkeys’ years”) as a colloquial usage meaning a very long time.
It describes the phrase as a “punning allusion to the length of a donkey’s ears and to the vulgar pronunciation of ears as years.”
Gary Martin’s Phrase Finder website speculates that the usage originated as rhyming slang.
In rhyming slang, the last word of a short phrase is rhymed with a word that the phrase stands for. So an expresson like “trouble and strife” (“trouble” for short) stands for “wife.”
The earliest OED citation for the actual phrase “donkey’s years” may indeed be, in the dictionary’s words, an example of “a vulgar pronunciation of ears as years.”
In Hugh Walpole’s 1927 novel Wintersmoon, Mrs. Beddoes tells Mr. Hignett about a wedding she attended:
“I was at the wedding, you know, Mr. ’Ignett, ’ad a special card all to myself, ’aving worked for Miss Janet and her sister donkey’s years.”
The most recent OED citation is from a March 19, 1961, article in the Observer: “American influence and financial participation have been strong here for donkeys’ years.”
Although we occasionally hear Americans use the expression, all of the OED citations are from British writers, and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) describes the usage as chiefly British.
We recently sighted the “y”-less version, “donkey’s ears,” in Jutland Cottage, a 1953 novel by the British writer Angela Thirkell.
In the novel, one of Thirkell’s Barsetshire books, Mr. Wickham, an estate agent, interrupts a toast by asking a fellow naval veteran, Tubby (a k a Canon Fewling), for his first name:
”Well, here’s to Horatio Nelson coupled with the name of—what the hell is your name, Tubby? I’ve known you for donkey’s ears, but we always said Tubby.”
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