Understanding the Idiom: "donkey's ears" - Meaning, Origins, and Usage

Idiom language: English
Etymology: 1916 UK, from British rhyming slang, rhyming with years, due to donkey’s ears being long.
  • ages
  • donkey's years
  • years and years
  • yonks

Idioms are an essential part of language that add color and personality to our speech. They can be tricky to understand for non-native speakers or those unfamiliar with their cultural context. However, once you grasp their meaning, they can be a fun way to express yourself creatively.

The idiom “donkey’s ears” is just one example of the many colorful expressions found in English. It refers to something that has been around for a long time or has not been updated in ages. But why donkey’s ears specifically? Where did this phrase come from?

Origins and Historical Context of the Idiom “donkey’s ears”

The idiom “donkey’s ears” is a common expression used to describe something that has been around for a long time or is very old. It is often used in a humorous way, but its origins and historical context are not widely known.

The term “donkey’s ears” has been used since at least the 19th century, but it is unclear where it originated from. Some believe that it may have come from the fact that donkeys have long, floppy ears that resemble old parchment or paper. Others suggest that it may have come from the idea that donkeys are stubborn animals and therefore anything associated with them must also be stubborn and unchanging.

Regardless of its origins, the idiom “donkey’s ears” has become a popular expression in many English-speaking countries. It can be found in literature, movies, and everyday conversation.

One interesting historical context for this idiom is its use during World War II. British soldiers would use the phrase to refer to their own outdated equipment or weapons as being as old as “donkey’s ears.” This was meant to be a lighthearted way of acknowledging their inferiority compared to newer technology being used by their enemies.

In modern times, the idiom “donkey’s ears” continues to be used in various contexts. It can refer to anything from an antique piece of furniture to an old joke that still manages to make people laugh.

Usage and Variations of the Idiom “donkey’s ears”

The idiom “donkey’s ears” is a commonly used expression in English language. It refers to something that has been present or unchanged for a long period of time. This phrase is often used to describe an object, situation or event that has been around for a very long time.

There are several variations of this idiom which are used in different contexts. For instance, some people use the phrase “for donkey’s years” instead of “donkey’s ears”. The meaning remains the same but it emphasizes on the duration rather than just presence.

Another variation is “as old as the hills”, which means something that has existed since ancient times and has become part of history. Similarly, “since Adam was a boy” also means something that happened a long time ago.

This idiom can be used in both formal and informal settings. In casual conversations, people may use it to talk about things they have known for ages like their friends or favorite TV shows. In professional settings, it can be used to discuss business practices or industry trends that have remained unchanged over decades.

Synonyms, Antonyms, and Cultural Insights for the Idiom “donkey’s ears”

Synonyms: Some synonyms for “donkey’s ears” include “a long time,” “ages,” “forever,” or “eternity.” These expressions connote a sense of duration or lengthiness. They are often used in situations where someone has been waiting for something for a while.

Antonyms: Antonyms of “donkey’s ears” would be phrases like “in no time,” “quickly,” or even simply saying that something happened recently. These expressions imply speediness and brevity.

Cultural Insights: The phrase “donkey’s ears” is believed to have originated from ancient Greek mythology. In one story, King Midas was granted his wish by Dionysus who promised him anything he wanted. Midas wished everything he touched turned into gold but soon regretted his wish when he couldn’t eat or drink without turning them into gold too. He begged Dionysus to take back his gift which led to Dionysus granting him donkey’s ears as punishment for his greediness.

In modern times, the expression “donkey’s ears” is commonly used in British English and Australian English to describe something that has taken a long time to happen or seems never-ending. It can also be used sarcastically when referring to someone who hasn’t changed their hairstyle in years.

Understanding idioms such as “donkey’s ears” not only helps us communicate better with native speakers but also provides insight into different cultures and their beliefs.

Practical Exercises for the Idiom “donkey’s ears”

Exercise 1: Fill in the Blank

In this exercise, we will give you a sentence with a blank space where the idiom “donkey’s ears” should go. Your task is to fill in the blank with the correct form of the idiom.

Example: John has been waiting for his friend for ___________.

Answer: donkey’s ears

1. I’ve been studying English for ___________, but I still can’t speak fluently.

2. The last time I saw my cousin was ___________ ago.

3. We’ve been waiting for our food at this restaurant for ___________.

Exercise 2: Role Play

In this exercise, you will work with a partner to act out a scenario that involves using the idiom “donkey’s ears”. You can choose from one of these scenarios or create your own:

Scenario 1:

You are at a party and your friend promised to introduce you to someone important. However, it has been hours and your friend hasn’t made good on their promise yet. Use the idiom “donkey’s ears” in your conversation with your friend.

Scenario 2:

You are waiting in line at a store when suddenly there is an announcement that all customers must leave immediately due to an emergency situation. You wait outside for what feels like forever before being allowed back inside. Use the idiom “donkey’s ears” in your conversation with another customer who was also affected by this situation.

We hope these exercises have helped you gain a deeper understanding of the idiom “donkey’s ears”. Keep practicing and soon you’ll be using it like a native speaker!

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Using the Idiom “donkey’s ears”

When it comes to using idioms, it’s important to understand their meanings and origins. However, even if you know what an idiom means, there are still common mistakes that people make when using them in conversation or writing. This is especially true for the idiom “donkey’s ears”.

One mistake people often make is assuming that the idiom refers to actual donkey ears. In reality, the phrase is used metaphorically to describe something that has been around for a long time. Another mistake is using the phrase incorrectly in context. For example, saying “I’ve had this shirt for donkey’s ears” doesn’t make sense because clothing doesn’t have a lifespan like animals do.

Another common error is mispronouncing or misspelling the word “ears”. Some people might say “years” instead of “ears”, which changes the meaning of the entire phrase. Additionally, misspelling can also lead to confusion and misunderstandings.

Lastly, some people may use this idiom too frequently or inappropriately in conversation or writing. Overusing an idiom can become tiresome and detract from your message.


  1. ^ Gary Martin (1997–), “Donkey's years”, in The Phrase Finder, retrieved 26 February 2017.
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