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Magazines > Searcher > October 2009
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Vol. 17 No. 9 — October 2009
The Course of Inquiry
by Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher Magazine

The Searcher's Voice PodcastThe other day I reconnected with a colleague I hadn’t spoken to in donkey’s years. What a joy! Still in the game. Avoiding the dire threat of the “R” word. (“Get thee behind me, Social Security Administration!”) We got to discussing some of the most basic changes in ... wait a minute …

“Donkey’s years”? Maybe it should be “a donkey’s age”? No, it’s “donkey’s years,” alright. Over 46,100 hits on Google for “donkey’s years” and the first ones definitional versus only 4,040 for “donkey’s age” and widely scattered sources. Hmm. I wonder what that old phrase really means and from whence it sprang. (“Whence.” Now there’s an interesting word in itself. Reminds me of the newspaper term “dateline” in that it refers more to location though it sounds like it would refer to time. Actually the online definition describes “whence” as “from what place, source, or cause.”)

Anyway, back to that “donkey’s years” phrase. It means a very long time in British slang according to But how long can donkeys live? According to the Honolulu Zoo, only 25–30 years on average, though the people thought they found one as old as 62. Well, if only one of the species can be found to have lived long enough to collect Social Security, that doesn’t seem very old, certainly not old enough to become a byword for an extended period of time.

Thorough reading of the coverage reveals that the phrase simply reflects another of the many twists and turns of which the English language is so fond. The original phrase was “donkey’s ears”; it came from Cockney rhyming slang and was corrupted into “donkey’s years.” Cockney rhyming slang was a jargon developed to conceal private conversations from outsiders and/or the authorities (“bottle and stopper” = copper). In rhyming slang, a phrase or the first word in a phrase becomes a surrogate for what the last word rhymes with, e.g. “storm and strife” = wife, “lady from Bristol” = pistol, “I suppose” = nose. (If you want a more complete list and a very entertaining movie to watch, get hold of the Cary Grant film entitled Mr. Lucky.)

For dictionaries of Cockney rhyming slang, trusty Google can find a bunch for you, e.g., or for the Australian version. Apparently, the Aussies still use a lot of it in their version of English. And, it’s not a dead language either. That U.K. website takes contributions and traces new uses.

Now what was I thinking of before I got distracted? Oh, yes! That conversation with an enduring colleague. We got into a vigorous discussion of the changes — or lack of changes — in college students these days. I held to the view that people born and bred in the digital age processed information differently. In fact, I hold to the view that people born well before the digital age have changed as well the more they get immersed in online information and digital devices carrying such information. Online sweeps you up and carries you away whether you intend it to or not. My friend cited studies that showed professors found far less differences in students than similarities with previous generations. Since my friend worked with the production of textbooks, he had some level of vested interest in traditional teaching techniques, though his company provided a wide range of digital tools, including etextbooks. He even admitted that he kept an eye out for when (or if) the tipping point might come when etextbooks would replace print textbooks. I reminded him that that occasion — when it comes (no if’s in my mind) — he might reduce the charges as he eliminated fixed costs for print textbooks. But that’s another discussion for another day.

Do the structures and processes of our minds change under the influence of universal online? Does today’s student arrive on campus with a rewired intelligence? I think it’s a matter of expectation. Information has become a universal utility in the digital age. A question crosses your mind on anything — a whim of curiosity, a decision to make, preparing for a major life change, acquiring skills, whatever — and, regardless of your motivation, you expect to be able to find answers quickly and, usually, cheaply. That expectation itself, that smug certainty that certainty awaits your inquiry, that search results will appear no matter what the question, and that — no matter what the question — the answers will be there — that’s what’s different from the past. That’s what’s revolutionary, though, admittedly, sometimes we may wonder and worry what kind of revolution — a nice, neat, benign American Revolution with a lot of success and a minimum of bloodshed or the “How did I ever get into this mess?” French or Russian Revolution wallowing in gore and taking two (or more) steps back for every one step forward. No matter, though, it’s too late now. There’s nowhere to go but forward.

And, all things considered, would any of us really want to go back to the “good old days”? They were “donkey’s years” ago and, without information pouring out of our computer taps, I’d never have found out about that rhyming slang or even the average lifespan of donkeys. Could I have lived a happy life without that knowledge? Sure. But tomorrow’s question and the one the day after and the day after that might have more impact. Besides, I’m an information professional, a searcher, and this is the Information Age. These are the good old days.

— bq

Barbara Quint's e-mail address is
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