Why is it so hard to talk about something we all do (one hopes) regularly? When I was a kid, every time an adult said “bowel movement”—which I spelled in my head as “bolomovement”—I cringed. My aunt used the initials BM, which should have been better but somehow was worse. My mother, appalled by all references to waste removal, stuck with “Do you have to go to the bunny?” (Her baby brother had a toilet-training chair with a picture of a bunny decoupaged on the back.)
This was my entire repertoire until college, when a friend used the word “defecation,” which sounded ridiculous, clinical, and prissy. I groped for something I could tolerate—“relieve yourself” was nice. “Eliminate” sounded like a political assassination. I hesitated about “evacuate,” so airy and hydraulic, but with overtones of disaster. in the end I rather liked “empty your bowels”—plain and accurate. I mean, a “movement” could be in any direction. But bowels were nice and earthy, and the word could easily work as metaphor, because it meant the parts deep inside something large. The ancient Greeks regarded the bowels as the seat of violent passions; the ancient Hebrews saw them as the seat of tenderness, kindness, compassion.
Shit—I forgot the most obvious choice of all. Scheisse, in German, which somehow makes it okay, though my old hardbound OED insists that “shit” is “not now in decent use.” “Shit” comes from—well, all of us, but etymologically from the Old English scitan, to cut or split. The focus, to my relief, is on its separation from the body.
For some reason, “shit” was taboo by the seventeenth century; not even Shakespeare dared use it. Later, both James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway tried and got their hands slapped. As recently as 1970, Webster’s New World Dictionary omitted it altogether. But the word found other uses. In 1508, a “shit” was an obnoxious person. In 1903, to “shit” someone meant to disrespect them. In 1934, “shit” meant to lie or tease, and from there we reached the bullshit artist—radically different from someone who is batshit crazy or chickenshit scared or shit-faced drunk or up shit’s creek in trouble.
Happily, “shit” has become more acceptable. Its Google Ngram usage line was flat all the way to 1960, then started a gradual rise that turned steep in the mid-’90s and peaked in 2017. But lately, the word I keep hearing in mainstream media is the little-kid term “poop.” Its Ngram was high in 1840 and slid jaggedly down from there, hitting an all-time low in the 1980s, then rising significantly in the mid-’90s and shooting to an all-time high in 2018.
I stammered at first, then learned to relish the word, pronouncing “poop” with a pop of the lips, adoring its onomatopoeia. In Chaucer’s day, the sound referred to was the toot of a horn, but by the late 1600s, it had shifted to a soft break of wind (or “squeak,” my favorite euphemism for the ugly nasal “fart.”) It was not until the 1920s that “poop” was solid and not a puff of gas.
But here we go again with the multiple meanings. In 1927, the journal American Speech noted that to “poop out” was to be exhausted, worn out, tuckered. Then “poop” was used to refer to written information, a “poop sheet” that became equated to the latest news on a subject, so getting the poop was a lot like getting the scoop. How on earth did feces become news? Look to West Point, where important announcements were made from a mess hall balcony known as the “poop deck.” By 1945, the word meant the inside story and no longer meant the opposite, someone foolish, the short root of “nincompoop.” Ships still have poop decks. (“The nebulous lights Christopher Columbus saw from the poop deck of the Santa Maria were probably Bermuda fireworms,” one dictionary offers as example. And now we have the YouTube Poop, a video, er, mashup of previously existing material.
Maybe all these various meanings are easy to layer because these are four-letter words, easy to say and remember. The British counterpart to “poop” is even shorter, “poo,” and has been used for faeces (they like Latin) since the 1960s. Now Americans are borrowing “poo,” too. I suspect we can thank the lovely young woman who makes the Poo-Pourri commmercials. A site that monitors Britishisms triumphantly notes a headline in the Smithsonian: “The Most Exclusive Coffee in the World Is Harvested From Elephant Poo.” The site also quotes Republican political operative Grover Norquist: “The president was elected on the basis that he was not Romney and Romney was a poopy-head.”
Did this cute candor begin, as it so often does, with celebs talking frankly—in this case about colorectal cancers? Or was it Crimes Against Humanity, in which whoever pooped most recently deals the cards? I feel a little shiver of intimacy, then a blessed ease, every time my friends casually compare notes to decide. Indeed, I grow fonder of the word “poop” by the day—especially since researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Pennsylvania decided that “poop,” not “love” or “soul,” was the one word most likely to convince a human being that you were not a robot.
That makes sense in many ways: First, “poop” is innocent, a child’s word, and far too whimsical for programmers to bother with; second, it alludes to humans’ most irrational and overpowering fear. In The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker wrote that this “incomprehensible, repulsive product represents not only physical determinism and boundness, but the fate as well of all that is physical: decay and death.” We poop, therefore we die.
Freud was on the right track, Becker noted, but “today we realize that all the talk about blood and excrement, sex and guilt, is true not because of urges to patricide and incest and fears of actual physical castration, but because all these things reflect man’s horror of his own basic animal condition.” Cleverly, Becker pointed out that Montaigne’s grand witticism, “On the highest throne in the world man sits on his arse,” would lose its fun if we added “over a warm and fuming pile of their own excrement.”
We would deny it. For centuries, we have tried to retain some power over this process of elimination; to pretend our feces is fragrant; to separate ourselves from our waste as cleanly as possible. In more down-to-earth cultures, people shat side by side; around 673 million people still practice open defecation. In A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry’s character Ishvar is back in India, forced to repeat the practice, and a chatty neighbor suggests he use the railroad’s steel bar: “Works just like a platform. Puts you higher than the ground, and the shit doesn’t tickle your behind when it piles up.” The man goes on, offering tips to avoid a sticky bum and escape being crushed by a train. “Ishvar decided he would sneak out tomorrow before Rajaram woke,” Mistry writes. “He did not want to squat next to this philosopher of defecation.”
In that single short scene, we recognize the old ease with bodily processes; the camaraderie and acceptance; the awkward modern distance; the neighbor’s attempt to enhance the ritual; Ishvar’s attempt to intellectualize it and, when that fails, flee.
But what if Mistry had called the man a philosopher of poop?