The Etymology of Scatology

Have you ever wondered about how turds came to be called turds, how scat came to be called scat, or why poop is called poop? Have you ever wondered why shit and poop are both nouns and verbs, but most of their synonyms aren’t?

It’s okay, because I did, and I did some digging to try and get to the bottom of these little linguistic nuggets…

First off, shit and turd are possibly the oldest contemporary scatological terms in English, dating in something resembling, however loosely, their present meanings to the fifteenth century or thereabouts. Interestingly, both began as proto-Germanic verbs involving the concept of separation or division – think something akin to “expulsion” and you’re probably on the right track; an almost identical word is excrement, from the latin excerne, which means to “to separate”.

Poop is a linguistically interesting word, and one whose scatological origins seem a bit unclear. It originally meant – and we’re talking the fifteenth century or thereabouts – the stern of a ship; hence “poop deck”. By the eighteenth century, it had acquired it’s scatological, euphemistic sense, though nobody agrees on how or why.

Crap was a noun before it was a verb before it became a noun again. Confused? So am I. The term originally referred to chaff – in the grain sense, not the radar countermeasure, a distinction I like to think I don’t have to point out – and somewhere along the way became a term for most any worthless thing, much like “junk”. (Just think, in an alternate universe, people might “take a junk” on the “junker”, and consider the implications for the term “junk in the trunk”!)

Piss is 13th century, from the old French “pissier”, meaning… to urinate. Pee is merely a quaint 16th century abbreviation, spelled phonetically.

Scatology is a 17th century term originally applied to obscene literature, though I’m a bit unclear on its usage. (“A scatology”? “A pile of scatologies”?) Scat is merely a shortened form.

Most other scatological terms are apparently either onomatopoeic, or fairly obvious modern slang. (“Fart” comes from old English, but is considered onomatopoeic; “raspberry” is Cockney rhyming slang (raspberry tart = fart) for the same.)

Now you know – and knowing is half the battle…

Published in: Geekiness, General | on January 11th, 2010| 1 Comment »

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  1. On 3/19/2017 at 11:48 pm Paul Twynam Said:

    Skatole “is a mildly toxic white crystalline organic compound (that) occurs naturally in faeces and coal tar and has a strong faecal odor.” (from Wikipedia) Is this a linguistic descendant of scatalogical or a case or convergent etymology?