Of Words and Human Wastes

Giles Goodland

Language is our first machine. Like any machine it is subject to change, and hence along with the work it does, it produces waste. One of the main ways in which a language changes is by words being replaced. Obsolete words are the waste-products of language. A large number simply disappear, many end up layered in the bedrock of old books and documents, and some are lucky enough to be recorded in the pages of the large historical dictionaries.

But why do some words stay the same for hundreds or even thousands of years, while others rapidly pass through? A study of the words in English that have in the past been used to refer to bodily waste and related matters can throw light on this process. The word shit has been with us for a very long time, and so has the word faeces. Likewise with piss and urine. But the words in between, the middle register words, seem to change with frequency.

Vocabulary of this kind seems to change because of the need to conceal what is being referred to. A euphemism is a word under pressure. It must make the recipient aware of what is being denoted, while seeming not to refer to that thing. However, as a euphemism becomes commonly used, perhaps over a span of generations, it looses its concealing power and simply denotes what it was supposed to partly conceal. The word becomes vulgar, and is replaced. Also these words are unstable. Again and again a word for the act of defecation turns into a word for the substance itself (see below), or the verb becomes a noun or vice versa (see below), or the phrase becomes shortened or abbreviated (B.M, W.C., pee).

An example of this process can be seen in sir-reverence or sirreverence, originally a contraction of the phrase 'save your reverence' or 'saving your reverence', by the late sixteenth century it came to simply mean faeces. In 1592 a person is describes as being 'besmeared with soft sirreuerence'. By the seventeenth century it was even used as a verb, a person is described as 'sirrevencing in a paper'. In the eighteenth century it was being used more humorously; the novelist Tobias Smollett describes how something would be improved as much as 'a plate of marmalade would improve a pan of sir-reverence'. So the word continued until by the nineteenth century it is only recorded in rarefied satirical literature or as a dialect word.

Similarly with easement, the original sense of which was of ease or relief from pain or discomfort. This came to mean also the relief of the body by evacuation. From this came the phrases house of easement and stool of easement (this, incidentally, is where the word stool came from, by a process of metonymy; to be at stool meant to be sitting on a stool to empty one's bowels, hence stool became a more polite word for turd). From this came to do one's easement, to relieve oneself. Related to this sense of sitting is the perhaps surprising use of the word siege for faeces. The original sense of siege was a seat. Thus to go to siege meant to defecate, and a siege-house was a toilet. A seventeenth century writer describes a person's sieges as being 'blacker than broth'. These senses passed out of use by the eighteenth century and the original sense of siege has been largely forgotten. A past meaning of passage was (originally) the act of defecation, and then faeces. In 1778 the Prince of Wales wrote how someone 'took medicine three or four times during the day in order to procure a passage'. By 1875 a medical writer can describe how 'the passages are in most cases very light clay-colored'. Now this sense of passage has fallen out of use.

Expressions such as the above bring to mind the large number of circumlocutionary phrases for defecation. Readers will probably be familiar with to be taken short, going to see a man about a dog, number ones, number twos, to sit on the throne, to make little soldiers, etc. Older examples of this can be seen in to do one's duty, to do one's needings. These phrases often became contracted to duties, needings, doings, doos, and necessaries. The offices of nature reminds us of the modern call of nature. Chaucer's Wife of Bath remarks how the members of generation are 'maked for bothe; That is to seye, for office and for ese Of engendrure'. And Byron in Don Juan jokes about clerks: 'those somewhat dirty springs Of office, or the house of office'.

Dejection (or its more obscure cognate dejecture) might seem like a strange synonym for faeces until one remembers that etymologically speaking, dejection is the act of casting down. The word was used in medical and technical contexts until the nineteenth century (one medical journal described a patient's 'vomitings and dejections'). This was presumably not on Coleridge's mind when he wrote his Dejection: an Ode; the romantic sense simply superseded all other senses. Similar to this is rejection. A nineteenth century medical source refers to 'watery and copious rejections'. Stercory comes from the Latin stercus, meaning dung. The poet Skelton writes how St. Bernard said 'man is but a sack of stercorry'. Outwaxing is a literal translation of the Latin excrementum. Merd (also mird and merde) comes from French: in 1486 a book advised 'for this sekenesse (sickness) take merde of a dove'.

The old word filing for faeces comes from the verb file (from which the verb defile comes). It is hence cognate with filth, and indeed filth can mean faeces, as do filthhead and filthhood, which continued in use into the Early Modern period. Filing became obsolete in the seventeenth century. Coming from Old English is thost for excrement, a word deriving from the same root as dust.

A subclass of obsolete faeces-words is that of the excreta of animals. Many of these come from the language of venery or hunting, such as crottles of the hare (hares could also fumay as a verb), crotey (of hares and rabbits), fumet and furnishing of the deer, spraints swages and swagings of the otter, mutessing of a hawk (with mute as a verb) and scumbering of a dog or fox. Album graecum is an old word for dog excreta, but only as used for medicinal purposes; it is not hard to think why this is now obsolete.

Another interesting category of faeces words is not so clearly euphemistic. These are the apparently onomatopoeic words. Their existence seems to depend upon the need to talk about faeces to young children; these are often called 'nursery words'. They seem to have a longer life than the euphemistic words; indeed, some of them may be among the very oldest words in the language, with wide Indo-European roots, judging by their similarity to other languages. An example is caca, or kaka, or cack, which is similar in many European languages. There are also plops, plop-plops, plip-plops (many nursery words are reduplicative), and for the 'looser' variety of faeces, there are squits, squitter, squittle, and squibals. One suspects that many other such words were never recorded, because the speech of children is so seldom written down. A similar list could also be made for obsolete fart-words and associated phrases.

The onomatopoeic form is seen (or heard) more clearly in the verbs. For instance to cuck, which gave birth to the compound cucking-stool, a form of punishment in which an undesirable person was bound into a chair and dipped, apparently, into a cess-pit. Other apparently sound-based verbs for defecation are to becack, grunt, poot, skit, shite, skite and skitter. But even many of the verbs which have different etymologies sound as if they might have an onomatopoeic element: for instance, to bog, conskite, defeke, dung out, mire, scumber, and squat.

Other verbs are clearly more euphemistic: to bedo, beray, bewray, defy, immerd (cover in ordure), to nasty, and stool. Also, as we have seen above, there are many circumlocutionary phrases with do and make, as in to do one's business, make one's easement, etc. My favourite of this kind of roundabout expression is to pluck a rose, a phrase applied to women's acts of excretion. In the year 1800 a woman is described as 'having occasion to pluck a rose as is usual with delicate women after a ride of 22 miles'. This phrase continued as a slang expression into the twentieth century. The mysterious-sounding Night soil was so called because excrement was removed from cities at night, and taken to farms where it could be used to make manure. Hence there were night-soil men, night-soil carts, etc. Perhaps by a more obscure process, the words tantadlin or tantoblin developed from a kind of pie or dumpling into the sense of human excrement (perhaps through physical similarity, as in cow-cakes meaning cow-pats).

Another rich source of obsolete words are those to do with urination. These include nouns such as chamber-lye ('especially as used for washing'), lag, lage, mig, mighe, ming, stale, and the slang tea. The onomatopoeic urine-words can be used interchangeably as a noun or verb, as pittle, sig, slash, tiddle, tinkle, wazz, whizz, widdle, wiss, and zig. Verbs include to lage, lantify, mighe, minge (in 1606 we hear 'the end of all drunkards, is either to ming or to sleep'), stale, stroan, and (as a verb) urine. There are also the more euphemistic verbs such as vent, pump-ship, and to make pooly, as well as now often jocular circumlocutions such as to water the garden, shake the wife's best friend, etc.

Even more euphemized than faeces or urine is the place of its disposal. Words for toilet are almost irrationally unstable: it seems that every generation new words replace the old ones for toilet (itself an unstable word). Of the seldom used or obsolete word for toilet (or its past historical analogues) I could find ajax (a pun on jakes), back-house, backside, bench-hole, benjo, biffy, boggard, bog-house, bog-shop, bourdaloue ('a bowl used by women to urinate discreetly beneath their skirts'), cack-house, chamber, chamber foreign, chamber of commerce, chapel, cloaca, close stool, closet, closet of ease, common house, commons, cottage, crap-house, crapper, cuzjohn, dike, draught, draught-house, earth-closet, easement, easement house, evil (apparently only found in Shakespeare), foreign office, garden-house, garderobe, gazunder (goes under), geography (apparently contracted from the itself euphemistic request to a host to explain 'the geography of the house'), gingerbread-office, gong, heads (on a ship), holy of holies, house, house of ease, house of easement, house of office, issue, jack (from which comes the modern john), jakes, jakes-house, jerry, jordan, lavabo, lavatur, little house, long house, lord, lotion, necessarium, necessary, necessary vault, necessary-house, netty, nushnik (only recorded in Alaska), office, outhouse, parliament, passage, petty, piccaninny (only in South Africa), pissery, piss-house, pissing place, pissing post, pissoir, PK (abbreviation of piccaninny), plumb, plumbing, plumb jordan, powder-room, privy, privy chamber, privy closet, privy house, purging, rear, retiring room, retreat, sanctum sanctorum, shield, shitter, shouse (in Australia, a contraction of shit-house), siege, siege house, stool, stool of easement, stool of office, thunder box, thunder-closet, toot, topos, urinary, urinoir, usual offices, vespasienne, wardrobe, water-closet, withdraught, and woodshed. I suspect the list could be extended—many of these words are so coded that the modern reader scanning an old text would not recognise what is being mentioned.

There is clearly a motor operating here. The fuel is embarrassment, class differentiation, anxiety over a socially taboo area. A toilet is a machine for making our human waste-products invisible and odourless to us, and language itself wants to flush the words away. Just as a city or a society produces waste, so does language. It is our attitudes to these wastes that are interesting, and might change. Many of the old words listed above have elegance, humour, and even poetic beauty. As long as there is embarrassment about the natural bodily by-products of living, new words will keep replacing the old. This is wasteful in some ways—it adds to the rate at which the language as a whole changes, it increases misunderstandings between different English speech communities around the world and across generations—but like other forms of waste it is also a source of richness. We have more words to choose from, there are more jokes to make, more nuances and shades of meaning. Now these words have been forgotten once, perhaps it is time to recycle some of them.