The Grammarphobia Blog

Did Marco Polo ride a donkey?

Q: I wonder about the use of “donkey” in place of “ass.” I’ve seen both in various English translations of Marco Polo’s travels, though he probably used whatever the term was in his native Venetian. My question is, what’s the origin of “donkey” in English?

A: We’ve discussed the history of “ass,” but we haven’t looked into the etymology of “donkey” until now.

Although “ass” dates from Anglo-Saxon times, “donkey” is a relative newcomer. Yet we know less about the origin of the newer term.

The earliest written example for “donkey” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Francis Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785): “Donkey or Donkey Dick, a he or Jack-ass.”

The OED says the word is “apparently of dialect or slang origin,” but as John Ayto notes in his Dictionary of Word Origins, “No one really knows where it came from.”

“The usual explanation offered is that it was based on dun ‘brownish grey’ and the diminutive suffix -ey, with the intermediate k added in imitation of monkey (donkey originally rhymed with monkey),” Ayto writes.

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology offers another possible explanation—that “donkey” originated as “perhaps a nickname for Duncan, a man’s name, from Gaelic, brown head (cen head).”

By the way, the book describing Marco Polo’s travels in the late 13th century was written in Old French by Rustichello da Pisa, based on accounts from Polo while the two men were imprisoned during a war between Venice and Genoa.

Rustichello probably spoke Pisan and Polo Venetian. The Florentine used by Dante in the 14th century evolved into Italian, where the usual word for “donkey” is now asino.

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