Do young people still say ‘donkey’s years’ when they mean a long time? I’m not sure they do… I must ask some young people… if it’s a phrase unknown to them, they might ask where the saying originates.
It’s something I’ve never given much thought to, but now I’m wondering… do donkeys live a long time? It seems that they can live quite a long time in fact, many make it to over fifty, although it generally seems that thirty-ish is more common. The Guinness Book of Records gives the oldest ever donkey age as fifty-four, but there are stories of other donkeys living to be sixty – a Blackpool donkey named Lively Laddy was supposedly sixty-two when he went to the great green pasture in the sky.
So donkey’s years… it seems to have originated at the back-end of the nineteenth century, and to have come from rhyming slang; originally because of the length of their ears, it was donkey’s ears which rhymed with years – and I have heard people just say ‘donkeys’ for a long time, dropping the years part. (Thinking of back-ends, there is also the phrase ‘talking the hind legs off a donkey…)
Another explanation I saw was that it came from dockyard slang – a donkey being a winch which lifted things but did it very slowly, and took a long time, actually called a donkey engine, or steam donkey. A donkey puncher in the USA is not a cruel person who hits donkeys, but someone who operates a steam donkey.
Over here in Britain, a donkey jacket, originally a thick, hard-wearing, long-lasting, woollen three-quarters coat with waterproof reinforced shoulders of leather or some cheaper synthetic material, and five buttons down the front, was a donkey jacket. Originally worn by working men, it became fashionable for young people … in fact my husband has one!
Donkeys are interesting animals; domesticated for over five thousand years, the name ‘donkey’ is only quite recent, and no-one really knows where it came from, except it replaced the word ‘ass’ about three hundred years ago. There are estimated there to be forty million in the world, including a few small groups of wild ones including onagers, and kiangs – also some feral animals.
Donkeys have bred with horses to produce mules and hinnies, and mules are renowned for their strength and endurance. While my dad was in the army as a paratrooper, he was in Italy at Monte Cassino – and at some point he was in charge of a mule called Moonlight who he was very fond of.
So donkey’s years… maybe rhyming slang, maybe steam winches, who knows?!