Why There's Little Straight-Talk About, Well, Using the Bathroom

A routine activity that’s built on euphemisms

There are people who claim they can tell your fortune through the reading of tea leaves, an art known as tasseography.

As for us, well, we guess you might say we can tell you a lot about yourself by reading your toilet paper.

You see, this is the method of collection we use to collect a gut microbiome sample for our DNA sequencing process.

Apparently, “scatomancy” is the sketchy-sounding art of fecal fortune-telling, but this involves examining the shape and consistency of someone’s bowel motion. And it’s not what we do at uBiome.

Frankly, using a crystal ball sounds much more appealing.

And, fortunately, all we at uBiome need is the merest smear of poop, swabbed from a piece of used toilet paper, to complete our sequencing and analysis.

So, what do you call people who can tell your fortune by reading your toilet paper?

Well, in our case, we call them scientists.

As we’ve explained before, every day our laboratory is engulfed in a tidal wave of fecal samples, which, while perhaps not the most appetizing image, is a source of enduring happiness for us.

And, of course, these samples are only possible because armies of individuals have “done their business.”

In fact, that last pair of quotation marks brings us neatly to the subject of euphemisms – for that most necessary, but hard to talk about, daily activity.

While there is, of course, a scientific term for it, we’re pretty sure few of us in our right minds would rise to our feet in company and say, “Right then, I’m off to excrete.”

The whole business of bowel-moving is, of course, pretty universally socially taboo.

So much so, that in his 2006 book, A Man About A Dog: Euphemisms and Other Examples of Verbal Squeamishness, British author, Nigel Rees, lists more than 100 ways of saying the unsayable when it comes to toilet-connected language.

Rees punnily labels them “loophemisms,” after the British word, loo, itself an informal term for a toilet.

Harvard’s cognitive scientist, psychologist, and linguist, Steven Pinker, described a fascinating side of saying one thing when you mean another, in 1994, when he coined the term “euphemism treadmill.”

“People invent new ‘polite’ words to refer to emotionally laden or distasteful things,” he said, “but the euphemism becomes tainted by association, and the new one that must be found acquires its own negative connotations. ‘Water closet’ becomes ‘toilet’ (originally a term for any body care, as in ‘toilet kit’), which becomes ‘restroom,’ which becomes ‘lavatory.’”

Ben Macintyre’s excellent book The Last Word: Tales from the Tip of the Mother Tongue, provides us with the brilliant reminder that, while some euphemisms for the act of pooping simply conjure up eye-popping mental images (“drop the kids off at the pool” or “take the Cleveland Browns to the Super Bowl”), others have a more logical provenance.

The British “spend a penny,” for example, may have come about because of the toilets at London’s Great Exhibition in 1851, which cost a penny per use.

Alternatively, it may have begun life thanks to a London stage magician named Jasper Maskelyne, who invented the first coin-operated toilet door.

As a side note, during the Second World War, Maskelyne also assembled what Macintyre called “possibly the most eccentric military unit ever formed,” a group consisting of an analytical chemist, a cartoonist, a criminal, a stage designer, a picture restorer, a carpenter, and a single soldier, whose sole responsibility was to fill out army paperwork.

Their mission?

To bamboozle the enemy. The group, named the “Magic Gang,” built fake submarines, disguised tanks as trucks, and successfully “hid part of the Suez Canal using a system of revolving mirrors and searchlights.”

Wait, what?

Our apologies for veering from our main theme, but the thought that the man who was probably responsible for an antique phrase for bathroom use was also the architect of a disappearing Suez Canal illusion, was simply too delicious to skip.

Let’s make amends, therefore, and close with what you might call a giant dump of euphemisms.

Or even number-two-phemisms.

So, you could, if you really wanted to:

Drop a deuce, lose ten pounds, see a man about a horse (or dog), take a load off, lay an egg, push beyond the great divide, sit on the throne, make little soldiers, restock the lake with brown trout, pinch off a loaf, export a cigar to Cuba, hear Mrs Brown knocking at the back door, clear out some inventory, unload some timber, back one out, drop a bomb, let the dogs out, or go and see a friend off to the coast.

But right now, if you’ll excuse us, we’re off to collect a uBiome sample. 😉

More reading

Everyone does it – How advertisers talk about unpleasant subjects


Of Words and Human Wastes

Steven Pinker

The Elephant in the Room: The Psychology of Innuendo and Euphemism

The Game of the Name