I must begin this little piece of nonsense with an apology: to all who I have encountered in my role here at The Donkey Sanctuary Leeds; to all the lovely visitors; and to all who have endured me talking to them out in the community, extolling the virtues of our charity – to all of you, I am deeply sorry. But in my defence, and I can perhaps be easily forgiven because, even the Oxford English Dictionary has got it wrong on this occasion! But I digress, and perhaps I should begin at the beginning…
One of the most often asked questions around here whilst chatting amicably about our beloved donkeys is, ‘So how long do they live?’. The standard reply - that they generally live into their thirties, but many donks go on into their 40s and 50s - is more often than not greeted with a response reaching amazement, to which I may innocently reply ‘Donkey’s Years, in fact!’. People are astounded that they never made the connection between the saying and the facts before: myself, I remember regularly using the word donks as a child to describe a very long time – probably about 10 minutes in reality at that age – without realising it was in any way connected to the beloved donkey. Some of you may even use the word 'yonks' to similarly describe a period of time, and this too has the same derivation by all accounts: donkey’s years…yonkey’s dears…yonks – word play gone mad!
As I said at the head of this foolishness, the Oxford English Dictionary supports this assertion, defining ‘donkey’s years’ as: a phrase, British informal, to describe a very long time, eg. ‘we’ve been close friends for donkey’s years’. But yesterday a worldly-wise visitor finally corrected me – ‘Did you know, it’s not ‘donkey’s years’, it’s actually ‘donkey’s ears’?’ WHAT!? Inside my head you could hear a pin drop: I am quietly confident when imparting any little gem to our supporters, and anyone who knows me will also know I like to thoroughly research - be it the latest Donkey Sanctuary campaign, the long history of the charity and of the donkeys in our care, or indeed which is the best cake offering this week – so that I am always on point.
This jolly visitor didn’t know it, but his harmless utterance had hit me hard. I had to fight the urge to flee, to escape and take comfort from Wiki or Google (but not Jeeves, it wasn’t that bad) – anything that would help clear up this most serious of issues for me! But, ever the pro, I had to keep smiling and hide my inner turmoil and see out the day with all our lovely visitors. But my evening was to be an entirely different affair. With furrowed brow I began my research in earnest…
Cambridge felt the same way as Oxford on this matter, a common ground between the two competitive factions. I felt somewhat bolstered. But more fervent digging soon shattered the illusion of calm. It would appear after much debate in print, and much to my chagrin, that ‘donkey’s ears’ is the original nomenclature relating to a period of time in terms of the significant length of our favourite furry friends’ aural receptacles! It is nothing more than simple rhyming slang – donkey’s ears…years – and once you hear this it all makes perfect sense. But owing to the held belief that donkeys live a long time, the saying has altered over time: ‘donkey’s ears’ first found in print in the very early twentieth century, ‘years’ not found until some time later.
Though rocked to my very foundation by this discovery, I always aspire to look on the bright side wherever possible. Life’s too short to get hung up on the minutiae, no matter how important it may feel in the moment. We can all be stopped in our tracks, derailed altogether even, but it is only the grace with which we recover ourselves that really matters. So rather than lament the loss of my go-to phrase ‘donkey’s years’, now I just have one more reason to celebrate donkey’s ears!
by Daniel McLoughlin