Putting on Ayres

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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:

"Hello?"
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."
(p. 76)

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.
(p. 195)

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.)

[Update, 2/16: Chris Ayres refers to the discussion here in his latest column for the (UK) Times. And he’s kind enough to drop by to help explain the Arse passage in the comments below.]



21 Comments

  1. Coby Lubliner said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 6:11 pm

    I wonder if Ayers’ “Aay-ahs” sounded to Bianca like a Deep South pronunciation of ass and she repeated it in the “Californian” way as [æs], which he in turn took (correctly) as the American pronunciation of arse and transcribed it accordingly. I would guess that if he heard an American say [pæs] he would transcribe it as pass, which to a Londoner sounds the same as parse.

  2. GAC said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 6:52 pm

    Interesting. In any case, if the situation is as you describe it, I don’t see any better word than “arse”. Those acquainted with BrE would get it. Other would be puzzled. Asi es la vida.

    @Coby

    Don’t look for zebras. I think Occam’s razor would choose Dr. Zimmer’s theory.

  3. Dan T. said,

    February 14, 2009 @ 12:12 am

    Is Ars Technica a site for technical arses?

  4. Philip Spaelti said,

    February 14, 2009 @ 12:35 am

    I am thinking that you don’t have the pronunciation quite right. I suspect what Ayres means by posh pronunciation is the monosyllabic triphthong [aɪə] (discussed in for example Ladefoged’s “A Course in Phonetics”), and used in words like “fire” etc. “Pronouncing the ‘r'” to him probably means making a clear disyllable.
    An American monosyllabic pronunciation will invariable become monophtongal and as a result sound to a Brit—but not to an American—uncomfortably like “arse”.

  5. KCinDC said,

    February 14, 2009 @ 12:37 am

    My interpretation was the same as Coby’s. Hearing [ε:əs] as [æs], which Ayers then wrote as “arse”, seems much more likely than his saying [ε:ɑs] or its being heard as [ɑ:s].

  6. Philip Spaelti said,

    February 14, 2009 @ 12:39 am

    So the title of this post is wrong. He is “putting on ires” not “putting on airs”.

  7. Felix said,

    February 14, 2009 @ 1:05 am

    I’m wondering if putting on Ayers is the same as palling around with terrorists. (Fun post!)

  8. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    February 14, 2009 @ 1:32 am

    @Coby, @KCinDC: If Ayres heard Bianca say [æs], why wouldn’t he just write it as ass, which would be a more accurate representation in both British and American English?

  9. KCinDC said,

    February 14, 2009 @ 8:49 am

    It would make sense for Ayres to write “arse” for [æs] if he viewed that as being the British spelling of the same word. In the “Waldorf Salad” episode of “Fawlty Towers”, when Basil starts (mis)using the word “ass” in copying the obnoxious American, he pronounces it “arse” and presumably thinks of that as being the same word. So Ayres might even hear [æs] as “arse”.

    I’m having a hard time imagining a way he could have pronounced “Ayres” that the woman would have heard as [ɑ:s]. The suggested [ε:ɑs] doesn’t seem like something he’d say for “Ayres” or something that would be heard as [ɑ:s], since the stress would presumably be on the [ε:].

  10. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    February 14, 2009 @ 9:14 am

    OK, I’m somewhat convinced by Coby/KCinDC’s argument. The Basil Fawlty corroboration is compelling.

  11. Coby Lubliner said,

    February 14, 2009 @ 9:32 am

    @ Ben: If Ayres heard Bianca say [æs], why wouldn’t he just write it as ass, which would be a more accurate representation in both British and American English?
    Because it wouldn’t be as funny? (For British readers, anyway. We know all about sloppy American editors.)

  12. language hat said,

    February 14, 2009 @ 9:47 am

    I suspect what Ayres means by posh pronunciation is the monosyllabic triphthong [aɪə] (discussed in for example Ladefoged’s “A Course in Phonetics”), and used in words like “fire” etc.

    But Ayres does not have the vowel of words like “fire.”

    I agree that the Basil Fawlty analogy is compelling.

  13. Nigel Greenwood said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 5:09 am

    I don’t suppose Ayres tells us how many syllables there are in Bianca, does he?

  14. Marc Naimark said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 1:28 pm

    If he wanted something from Bianca, he should have said he was Ricky.

  15. Chris Ayres said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 3:03 pm

    Perhaps I can help clear this up. I believe that Bianca simply ignored my lame attempt at received pronunciation and instead greeted me in standard rhotic American, which, much to the amusement of Brits who travel with me in the United States, sometimes turns ‘Ayres’ into as ‘Arse’ (or, alternatively, ‘Ay-Rees’). The reviewer (perhaps understandably) misinterpreted this. I did consider changing this exchange for the US edition of the book (there was debate) but in the end concluded that it wasn’t plausible that Bianca would turn ‘Aay-ahs’ into ‘Ass’, and thus left it as originally written. Fascinating that the New York Times might consider ‘Arse’ too strong for its readers. Wonder what the policy is on ‘Bollocks’.

  16. Killer said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 3:53 pm

    @Chris Ayres: Are you saying that Bianca was pronouncing your name based on the way it looks to her in print? Which is to say, she pronounced it to rhyme with the way an American would say “farce”?

  17. Chris Ayres said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 5:39 pm

    Killer: Exactly!

  18. Lane said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 5:52 pm

    Chris, I’m also confused as to the chain of pronounciations that could plausibly get us from

    Aay-ahs (said by you, non-rhotically, with two syllables, including the first vowel, rhyming roughly with “say”)

    to

    Arse (repeated back by Bianca, with one syllable, rhotically, in a typically American fashion, rhyming with something like “parse”). The two just don’t really sound anything alike at all. Different number of syllables, different first vowel, different rhoticity…

  19. Chris Ayres said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 6:14 pm

    Lane: Bianca had already met me once before, so she was already vaguely familiar with my name. She wasn’t responding to my attempt at high society pronunciation, she was ignoring it, and going with what she remembered.

  20. Killer said,

    February 20, 2009 @ 2:07 pm

    Lane: Yeah, what’s so confusing about this whole story is that Ayres’s emphasis on his own pronunciation of his name is a red herring as how Bianca arrived at her own pronunciation.

    As far as I can tell, Bianca didn’t get to “Arse” because of how his pronunciation SOUNDED; she based her own pronunciation on how the word “Ayres” LOOKS to her, in print.

    She hears the man say a name, and it doesn’t register on her. He’s asking about tickets, so perhaps she scans a guest list and sees the name “Ayers,” or else she recalls having met him before and pictures his name in her mind. So when she says the name aloud, she pronounces it the way the spelling looks to her, irrespective of how he had said it aloud moments before.

    Chris, that’s the chain that doesn’t come through in your story (at least to us Americans).

  21. James Wimberley said,

    February 20, 2009 @ 7:26 pm

    No wonder the Aussies have reverted Ayers Rock to its Aboriginal name Uluru (uluɻu according to Wikipedia.)

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