Why We Sit on One Type of Stool but, Ideally, Not on Another

What does a piece of poop and a seat without a back have in common?

If you’re a regular reader of uBiome’s Monday missives (and a big hearty thank you if you are) you may recall that a couple of weeks ago we shone our flashlight on the Bristol Stool Scale.

Perhaps, like me, it got you wondering why on earth we use the word stool to refer to both a seat without a back or arms, and (and there’s no way to put this much more politely) a piece of excrement.

Of course, here at uBiome we spend a good deal of time looking at what you might term “the species in feces” (I know, we’re better at science than we are at poetry) so it seems important to us that we—and you—learn all there is to know about the world of poop.

In fact, it does all go back to furniture, but the journey from one meaning to the other is a fascinating one, I promise.

I do hope you’re sitting comfortably.

We’ll begin with Norse and early English, when the word “stul” meant chair, the same route leading to a chair being a Stuhl in German.

Actually, Stuhl in German can also mean two other things: a bowel movement (check, just like in English), but also—wait for it—a professorship.

As a measure of our appreciation Professor, we’d be honored if you’ll accept this stool.

Hmm.

Anyway, the Oxford English Dictionary tells us that the earliest recorded use of the word stool, or “stole” as it was also spelled, when applied to an item of furniture, dates back to around 897, defining it as “any kind of seat for one person, often a chair of authority.”

Although we’re not quite ready to connect furniture and feces yet, this does make you wonder if it’s where we got the idea of someone sitting “on the throne.”

Sometime around the 16th century, we start to see written references to “close stools.”

A close stool was an early type of portable toilet—a kind of wooden box or cabinet of seat-height with an opening in its top, containing a metal or ceramic pot to receive “deliveries.”

Close stools were also sometimes known as night stools, since they were often kept in the bedroom or chamber (hence, also, chamber pot).

But here’s where the story takes an even odder turn, for in in the early days of the English monarchy, the King would appoint a Groom of the Stool—a gentleman who would assist his master in the performance of the bodily functions of excretion and ablution.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, someone with such an intimate connection to their boss grew to be a confidant and receiver of state secrets.

Henry VIII, for example, had four successive grooms of the stool.

Even Queen Anne had two Grooms of the Stool—both female, it must be hastily said.

Now you might easily laugh off this idea as just something from Merry Olde England, but incredibly the position wasn’t abolished until 1901.

Steadily, the place of evacuation (the stool) started to become the act of evacuation (go to stool), and then eventually evolved to become the noun that it certainly was by May 24th, 1663 (a Thursday, actually).

We can be this ridiculously precise thanks to Samuel Pepys who wrote in his diary for that day, “Having taken one of Mr. Holliard’s pills last night it brought a stool or two this morning.”

Good old Mr. Holliard, eh, bringing light relief to our Samuel.

Although night stools have gone out of fashion (no mention of them at all in the IKEA catalog, for example) the principle of a portable seat/pot combo lives on in the movable toilets sometimes found in hospitals, known in British English as “commodes.”

Commode in French means “convenient” or “suitable” but confusingly, this kind of mobile toilet is not called a commode en français, but a “chaise percée,” which translates to “pierced chair.”

Sounds remarkably painful to me.

Around the dawn of the 18th century, French furniture-makers produced what they called commodes, which were cabinets or chests of drawers.

But then the esteemed British cabinet-maker Thomas Sheraton included a design for something he labelled a “balanced night stool” in his 1803 Cabinet Dictionary.

Having the outward appearance of a commode (that’s the cabinet version) its cunning construction enabled it, with the aid of pulleys and counterbalance weights, to be converted into a night stool.

Although it sounds lethal to me, it’s very possibly where the Brits got their word “commode” from.

Finally, some hopefully relieving reassurance that the idea of “falling between two stools” has nothing to do with tumbling in the midst of a field of poop.

Its first use as a phrase to mean something that fails to achieve either of two aims dates back to John Gower’s “Confessio Amantis,” an epic 33,000 line poem composed at the request of Richard II in 1390.

Among its content, “Bot it is seid – Between tuo Stoles lyth the fall…”

See, ignoring the weird Middle English spellings (they clearly didn’t have Autocorrect in those days), nothing about bodily functions in there.

Mind you, he did write “Bot.”


Further reading

Between two stools – meaning and origin

Groom of the Stool

Henry VII, Chamber Finance and the ‘New Monarchy’: some new Evidence

Shakespeare’s World in a 100 Objects – Number 1, a ‘jordan’