So many words for "donkey"

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Almost as many as Eskimo words for "snow".  (hee-hee haw-haw) (see below for a sampling)

I've always been a great admirer of donkeys, and I love to hear them bray and make all sorts of other expressive sounds, some of which I am incapable of adequately expressing in words — especially when they are being obdurately stubborn and are unwilling to move, no matter what.  Anyway, their vocabulary extends way beyond the basic "hee-haw":

The bray is one of six sounds a donkey makes, the others being growl, grunt, squeal, whuffle and snort. The bray is the loudest, and can be heard over long distances. Each donkey’s bray is individual to that donkey.

(Donkey sounds)

When I worked in the remote villages and oases of Eastern Central Asia (ECA) during the 90s, I had a lot of contact with donkeys.  From time to time, I would happen upon large bazaars that had hundreds of these critters for sale in their donkey markets.  They were like the jeeps of places where there were no motor vehicles.  Indeed, they went where motor vehicles could not go, and they have done so for thousands of years.

    Jerusalem pony
    back burro
    domestic ass
    Rocky Mountain canary (cf. Rocky Mountain oyster)
    Missouri* hummingbird
    Equus asinus


*wonder why so many funny expressions are related to the "Show -Me State", e.g., "move out of Missouri" (here)

I have great affection and respect for donkeys.  It seems that now even scientists and archeologists are taking them seriously.

At Long Last, a Donkey Family Tree

In a new study, genetics and archaeology combine to reveal the ancient origins of humanity’s first beast of burden.

By Franz Lidz, Photographs by Samuel Aranda, NYT (March 14, 2023)

Comment by Dan Waugh:

I think indeed we tend to pay too much attention to horses and camels historically (or at least tend too much to neglect donkeys).  I speak not of neglect of asses, who get too much attention these days in the news…. As a footnote, one of the most beloved performers on the Metropolitan Opera stage in recent years was Sir Galahad, who is either now retired or has passed on to donkey heaven.

Praise be!


Selected readings



  1. Taylor, Philip said,

    March 17, 2023 @ 6:28 am

    Aren't "Jenny" and "Hinny" (and perhaps others) restricted to female donkeys ? (and perhaps "Neddy" is restricted to male donkeys). I have a friend who affectionately calls his wife "Hinny" — I now wonder if she is aware of the other meaning !

  2. A.M. Kim said,

    March 17, 2023 @ 7:00 am

    Mules and hinnies are half-donkeys, F1 interspecific hybrids:
    jack (donkey ♂) x mare (horse ♀) = mule (either sex)
    stallion (horse ♂) x jenny/jennet (donkey ♀) = hinny (either sex)

  3. KeithB said,

    March 17, 2023 @ 7:22 am

    Then you need to visit Oatman, Az, you will get your fill of burros!

    (Strangely, the wikipedia article for Oatman does not mention the burros at all…)

  4. Cervantes said,

    March 17, 2023 @ 8:34 am

    Shrek's and Quickdraw McGraw's sidekicks are both donkeys, as is Winnie T. Pooh's morose friend. There is also a talking donkey in the Book of Joshua, and donkeys in general are a status symbol in the early parts of the Deuteronomistic History, although the Israelites later acquire horses and the donkeys fade out of the picture. A donkey was good enough for Jesus, however. That we now give more respect to horses is presumably why Quickdraw is the protagonist.

  5. Kate Bunting said,

    March 17, 2023 @ 9:05 am

    Presumably 'fool', 'imbecile' and 'numskull' are synonyms, not for the animal but for 'ass' as an epithet for a stupid person?

  6. Phillip Helbig said,

    March 17, 2023 @ 9:42 am

    ” Presumably 'fool', 'imbecile' and 'numskull' are synonyms, not for the animal but for 'ass' as an epithet for a stupid person?”

    But “ass” for a stupid person refers to the animal, right? But, yes, the three you mentioned aren’t applied to the animal, at least not usually.

  7. Phillip Helbig said,

    March 17, 2023 @ 9:46 am

    You need to do a post on the etymology of “burrito”. It comes from “burro”, the word for donkey, but how exactly is not clear. Might be a connection to steak tartar.

    My father was from southern Alabama. He pronounced “donkey” to rhyme with “monkey”, He spoke differently from his many siblings; I’m not sure why. Not sure how common that pronunciation is. (Others, such as “crick” for “creek” and extra letter “r”s, as in “warsh my hands”, are pretty standard for that part of the countrry.)

  8. Robert Coren said,

    March 17, 2023 @ 9:46 am

    To go off on a slight tangent – but, after all, this is Language Log – I take note of some variants in the spelling of the characteristic bray. When I was a kid we had a kids' book with a sampling of Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, which included one in which he demonstrated that a donkey could "read" by having a book with single letters printed on each page, in which he had strategically placed some straw between facing pages bearing the letters "E" and "R". I'm not sure why this stuck in my mind, but it did well enough so that when I was older and had studied German (and, in particular, came in contact with a Mahler song that includes an imitation of a donkey's bray) I realized that the original must have used "I" and "A". (The translator must have been aiming for readers of non-rhotic dialects; cf. A. A. Milne's "Eeyore", whose name I also didn't grasp until I was an adult.)

  9. Cervantes said,

    March 17, 2023 @ 1:05 pm

    From Wikipedia: The name burrito, as applied to the dish, possibly derives from the tendency for burritos to contain a lot of different things similar to how a donkey would be able to carry a large burden.[5]

    That at least seems plausible. However, Merriam Webster says the etymology is unknown.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    March 17, 2023 @ 3:34 pm

    From Spanish burrito, diminutive of burro (“donkey”), from burrico (“donkey”), from Latin burricus (“small horse”), from burrus (“red-brown”), from Ancient Greek πυρρός (purrhós, “flame-colored”), from πῦρ (pûr, “fire”). The food is so called because of its resemblance to a rolled up pack as typically carried by burros.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    March 17, 2023 @ 3:47 pm

    Thinking and Writing “Donkey” in Ancient Egypt

    Examples from the Religious Literature

    Marie Vandenbeusch


    This article explores the role of donkeys in ancient Egypt through a lexicographical lens. It presents the terminology used for the animal in religious texts focusing on three case studies. Firstly, the most common word used for donkey aA, which appears in economic, literary and religious texts, will be examined. The second section will look into the entity hiw opening to a world of fantastic beings and hybrid creatures. And finally we will see that the number of signs associated to donkeys multiplied in the Ptolemaic period and are generally connected with the god Seth. With these three short investigations, different facets of the donkey are explored, revealing an animal that can be both an evil being and a threatening tool.

    Keywords: Donkey, animal studies, lexicography, Seth, serpent, Apophis, hieroglyphic system, Egyptian religion, magic, Pyramid Texts, Coffin Texts, Graeco-Roman temples

  12. Taylor, Philip said,

    March 17, 2023 @ 4:48 pm

    I cannot help but feel that "aA" and "hiw" are not what the author(s) intended to appear.

  13. David Marjanović said,

    March 17, 2023 @ 5:39 pm

    I realized that the original must have used "I" and "A".

    It does, yes. German-speaking donkeys say I-A.

  14. Chris Button said,

    March 17, 2023 @ 10:13 pm

    Regarding the discussion of onomatopoeic names for the donkey, I've always wondered if Chinese 驢 raːɣ "donkey" might have such an origin. I suppose Persian "ar ar" is a little closer than "hee haw" in that regard.

    Wang Li's dictionary notes the possible connection between 驢 raːɣ "donkey" and 騾 rwalː "mule", which in turn perhaps extends to 駝 lalː in 駱駝 "camel" as another beast of burden. The -l coda may perhaps be a result of trancriptional practices (see Pulleyblank's discussion of 陀, homophonous with 駝 above, for "da" in Buddha–although the time-depth may be too far back in this case).

    Luce's comparative wordlist compares Burmese la² "ungelded male animal (now "mule")" with 騾 rwalː where Schuessler's dictionary compares 驢 raːɣ. The r- ~ l- alternation between Chinese and Burmese is another not uncommon irregularity.

    It's tempting to somehow bring in Sanskrit gardabhá / Pali gadrabha "donkey", Pali khara "donkey", and Sanskrit úṣṭra "camel".

  15. martin schwartz said,

    March 17, 2023 @ 10:50 pm

    @Taylor, Philip and David Marjanović: Re donkey in Anc. Egyptian, "aā' is the way the word was transcribed in the old and very outmoded system used e.g. by
    EAW Budge. Today it is translterated consonantlayy something like
    3' (where 3 = "aleph" and ' = 'ay(i)n); there are Semitic comparanda, e.g. Heb. 'ayir 'donkey'. @Chris Button:
    Skt. garadabha- compares wuth Tocharian B kercapo, a VERY old correspondence whose details are debated and still mysterious.
    Pali khara- is from Skt. khara-, cognate with Old Iranian xara-
    (I recall forms kVR(V) 'donkey' in languages of NE Africa).
    THe Indo-Iranian word for 'camel' is another matter.

  16. martin schwartz said,

    March 17, 2023 @ 10:52 pm

    oops–typo–recte gardabha-

  17. Chris Button said,

    March 18, 2023 @ 7:01 am

    The Yupian definition of 驢 as "like a horse with long ears" makes an interesting comparison with the Japanese "usagiuma" (lit. rabbit-horse).
    Then the STEDT tells me that Sanskrit khara "donkey" has been borrowed into Nepali as kharāyō and Newar as kharāyo with the meaning "rabbit". It's tempting to associate Indo-Iranian khara/xara "donkey" with 驢, but there is not a lot to work with.

  18. Hermann G. W. Burchard said,

    March 18, 2023 @ 7:17 am

    Origin of "Move out of Missouri!," try & Google Urban Slang (or Dictionary):

    Latter-day Saints were forced to move out of Missouri. Under the supervision of Brigham Young the Latter-day Saints moved to. Quincy, Illinois.

    No good for unknown significance, however,

  19. Chris Button said,

    March 18, 2023 @ 7:25 am

    @ Martin Schwartz

    Any chance the x- onset in Iranian xara could have been uvular? The association of uvulars with labialization in Old Chinese could perhaps (given the loanword status) explain away the incongruous -w- of 騾 rwalː and by extension negate the need for an -l coda (despite the phonetic in the written form) if we had something like [χraɰ] ~ [raɰ]. (although OC χr- would normally have given EMC trʰ(w)- without any external influence, but there is also the question of time depth)

  20. martin schwartz said,

    March 18, 2023 @ 10:13 pm

    @Chris Button: Prob. the Nepali & Newar 'rabbit' are desended from
    Old Indo-Aryan (Sanskrit, in effect) khara- 'donkey' plus
    some second element. In iIddle Iranian there is Middle Persian
    (and New Persian) xargōš 'donkey-ear(ed) = 'rabbit'
    and precise cognates in Sogdian, etc. The x- of OIr. xara- was velar .If one wishes to monkey around with 'doke' as LW, there's a literature on Turkic ešek (> Russ.) 'donkey from Indo-European
    *h1ek"wo- 'horse', in which Arm. ēš figures, but I can't check
    the details now, nor as to Lat. asinus,Germ. Esel, etc.

  21. Gregory Kusnick said,

    March 18, 2023 @ 11:18 pm

    Stop me if you've heard this one, but I'm reminded of the (surely apocryphal) story of the student who turns in a book review of Don Quixote in which Sancho Panza's steed is repeatedly described as a "burrow". The teacher dutifully corrects several instances before giving up and writing in the margin "You clearly don't know an ass from a hole in the ground."

  22. Robert Coren said,

    March 19, 2023 @ 9:52 am

    @David Marjanović

    German-speaking donkeys say I-A.

    In the Mahler song I referred to it is actually spelled "Ija".

  23. David Marjanović said,

    March 19, 2023 @ 11:25 am

    Any chance the x- onset in Iranian xara could have been uvular?

    No, but this is a classic loanword into Proto-Indo-Iranian anyway (complete lack of cognates in the rest of IE, and no reason to think donkeys were known to PIE speakers), presumably from whatever was spoken in the Bactria-Margiana Archeological Complex. Obviously we can speculate that the word was loaned from there to China directly, without Iranian intermediates, and of course it might have had a uvular there that PII had no way to render precisely. How to test that I have no idea, though.

    Lat. asinus,Germ. Esel, etc.

    The latter (and Old English eosol and the like) is from the former, probably through a diminutive like *asellus. Beyond that I don't know either.

    "You clearly don't know an ass from a hole in the ground."


    In the Mahler song I referred to it is actually spelled "Ija".

    Interesting. I've never seen that before; I'd say it doesn't even sound right.

  24. Chris Button said,

    March 19, 2023 @ 9:50 pm

    @ Martin Schwartz

    I think the donkey-rabbit connection is more pervasive than that, so an unspecified second element probably wouldn’t be necessary.

    Separately, it looks like 駏驉 “offspring of a stallion and a she-ass”, which would have been something like gaːɰ xaːɰʔ although I’d need to look a little closer, is the binomial form. That makes an association somehow with indo-Iranian khara/xara seem pretty likely. Interestingly the phonetic series of 巨 (phonetic in 駏) includes some labialized forms,

  25. Gail Brownrigg said,

    March 20, 2023 @ 1:52 pm

    Here are two sources for further information:
    with many links to archaeological and DNA research

    and a book by Peter Mitchell “The Donkey in Human History: An Archaeological Perspective” (2018). For a review of it see

    Languagelog readers may like to consider the final paragraph of the review:

    “PHILOLOGICAL QUERY: Mitchell says (p.149) “The conventional interpretation that Christ’s choice of a donkey was an act of personal humility is also wrong. In the first place, the term (‘ânî) translated as ‘lowly’ in the KJV (or as ‘humble’ or ‘righteous’ in other versions) does not mean ‘meek’. Instead, it is a royal quality, meaning someone who is subservient and respectful to his god, one associated in the OT with Moses and claimed by the Syrian king Zakkur in an inscription of the early eighth century BC.” Scott Noegel, one of the authors cited, emails me as follows: “In Aramaic it is ענה. The expression there reads אש ענה אנה ‘I am a ענה man.’ As in Hebrew, it can mean several things. I am a ‘humble’ man, ‘lowly,’ ‘of humble origin.’” I lack access to the other references. Can any BMCR readers let me know whether Mitchell is correct or whether he is being overly enthusiastic about the donkey?”

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