Janet Maslin's New York Times review of Death by Leisure by Chris Ayres, a British journalist who reported on Hollywood for the (UK) Times, contains this puzzling passage:
The book also conveys his efforts to get in the Californian spirit (i.e., buying a plasma television he can't afford) or to trade on Anglophilia when it suits him. The snobbish pronunciation of his name may sound like a British synonym for derrière, but it helps him finagle his way into the gala opening of the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall. On the other hand, he makes sure to Americanize the R in “Ayres” and go native when crashing a movie-business party.
There's really no way to figure out what Maslin means here without consulting the book itself, and even then things are a bit murky.
From Maslin's summarizing of the two incidents from the book, you might have been able to work out that the usually non-rhotic Ayres rhoticizes his surname when it is convenient for him to do so. But what is the reader of the review supposed to make of the statement that "the snobbish pronunciation of his name may sound like a British synonym for derrière"? If you're familiar with the verbal somersaults that typify the taboo avoidance strategies practiced by the New York Times, you might be able to discern that "a British synonym for derrière" must refer to arse. But then how is arse supposed to represent a "snobbish pronunciation" of Ayres?
Thanks to Amazon, we can read the passages in question. First, here he is trying to get a ticket for the Walt Disney Concert Hall opening:
The voice was harried and sour.
"Ah, yes. Hello. I'm looking for Bianca."
"This is she."
Think posh. Think posh.
"This is Christopher Ayres."
I pronounced Ayres like Aay-ahs, with a lingering "s," and followed the introduction with the name of my newspaper, ending it with "of London," for maximum snob appeal.
"Ah, Mr. Arse. Hello."
"Aay-ahs. It's Aay-ahs. I'm calling about my tickets to the gala."
And here he is crashing the movie-business party:
"Name?" he asked.
"CHRIS AYRES," I boomed, leaning over the handbrake and being careful to pronounce the "r," like Americans do.
So as best as I can determine from the phonetic respellings in the first anecdote, the "posh" pronunciation that Mr. Ayres used with Bianca was something like [ε:ɑs], though we would expect him to say his name under normal circumstances more like [ε:əz]. Bianca repeated it back to him perhaps as [ɑ:s], for which Ayres uses the non-rhotic pronunciation spelling of Arse. Of course, such British pronunciation spellings are often lost on rhotic Americans: see my post "Pinker's alma mater" for similar examples, such as A.A. Milne's use of Eeyore to represent the sound of a donkey (i.e., [h]ee[h]aw), or Led Zeppelin's use of D'yer Mak'er as a jokey misinterpretation of "Jamaica" (much more on the latter here).
It seems a little odd that a British writer would use this sort of non-rhotic pronunciation spelling in a book from an American publisher (Grove Press) for an American audience. But Ayres, like many of his compatriots, may simply be unconcerned with the fact that pronunciation spellings of the Eeyore/D'yer Mak'er variety don't translate well across the pond. And his editor may not have wanted to question the choice. But even if he or his editor had felt the need to make a change, what would be the alternative to Arse? A phonetic respelling like Ahhs would have lost the intended humo(u)r here, namely that Bianca's reinterpretation of this "posh" pronunciation ended up sounding like the decidedly un-posh arse. Ass, meanwhile, might have preserved the joke for an American audience, but would represent a different pronunciation: [æs].
Here it's worth recalling that American ass [æs] is actually a merger of two British forms: arse [ɑ:s] (referring to the body part) and ass [æs] (referring to the animal). This point was actually discussed by William Safire in a 1994 "On Language" column in the Times, despite the taboo avoidance of arse that we see in Maslin's review:
[A]ss [is] a word not permitted in The New York Times unless referring to a donkey.
Editors have lifted this restriction when quoting Presidents, as in some usages on the Nixon tapes and in George Bush's remark (intended to be private) after a debate that he "really kicked ass."
Horses are the genus equus; a donkey is an equus asinus, source of ass and the adjective asinine. (A jackass is a male donkey; to call a woman a jackass is a solecism.) In "The law is a ass," Charles Dickens was using the sense of "donkey," an animal that is thought to be dull-witted.
The other ass, the absence of which is not a major loss to any medium, is a variant of a different etymon, arse; the r was dropped in common usage, just as parcel became passel and curse became cuss.
So it would seem that ass (the body part) is off-limits in the Times, with exceptions made for metalinguistic discussions like Safire's and newsworthy uses by important people like presidents (see my posts "Taking shit from the President" and "Music Review: ********" for similar exceptions made for shit and fuck). Does the same go for arse, which doesn't even have the ambiguity of American ass, since it can only refer to the body part and not the animal? The Times does seem to restrict arse usage to what it deems relevant quotes from newsmakers or works of literature. A search on the Times archives finds various literary examples, such as Eliza Doolittle's "Move yer bloomin' arse!" (in a 2004 article on a production of "My Fair Lady"), but also Prince Harry's memorable observation, "There's no way I'm going to put myself through Sandhurst [Royal Military Academy] and then sit on my arse back home while my boys are out fighting for their country."
In Maslin's review, for whatever reason, arse was deemed beyond the pale. That made an already difficult-to-decipher bit of dialect play just about impenetrable. If taboo avoidance strategies throw up one veil too many, how about just avoiding the avoidance to begin with?
(Hat tip Jesse Sheidlower.)