Wednesday, May 9, 2007

It's Your Biffy Day!

I have a degree in Linguistics. I have never really used it in any career sort of way, but the main reason I studied the subject was my love for words. Yes, I prefer them to be spelled correctly and used in grammatical contexts, with appropriate punctuation surrounding them. That's why I call my blog what I do. But however it's used, I just love language. And today, boys and girls, we are going to talk about the fascinating world of potty language.

In our house when I was growing up in the fifties and sixties, going to the bathroom was referred to as going toidy. When you went toidy, you went tinkles and/or plops. (Plops were also known as a big job.) I don't know whether my mother totally invented these charming onomatopoeic terms herself or what, but I eventually discovered that no one else I knew used them. When I was in the hospital as a little girl, a nurse brought me a bedpan on one occasion and on returning later to collect it, asked, "Did you pee?" I was flummoxed by this question. I heard it as "pea", which to me was a small, round, green vegetable, and I had no idea what she meant. I have recently read a memoir by one of my favourite authors, Bill Bryson, who was born in 1951, and was amazed to find that in his family in Iowa, they "went toity". Clearly my mother was not, as she had always claimed, from Toronto, but secretly in a witness protection program from Iowa. I knew there was something funny about that woman! (Love ya, Ma! Carrying on your weirdness genes as happily as if I were sane!)

There are a zillion remarkable little quirks in living languages that can make you ponder. These crop up all the time for people trying to learn to speak English. Things like you get in a car but on a bus. Why is that? Nothing to do with the relative size of the vehicle, because you’d get in a truck, no matter how huge it was. Or contemplate, if you will, because this is our subject today, the phrase go to the bathroom. The sentence “I need to go to the bathroom” is very commonly heard in North America. Its meaning is obvious and the sentence makes sense to anyone who speaks English. However, the phrase go to the bathroom has come to mean the actual act of elimination. At least, it has come to mean that to native English speakers, in particular North American English speakers.

Any of us who heard the sentence “He went to the bathroom in his pants” would know that meant he had made a mess of one sort or another and would require a change of trousers. Many of us might consider the wording just a bit silly and would be more likely to specify “He wet/peed/pooped/shit his pants”, but we wouldn’t think twice about what it meant. To a non-native speaker, however, it’s a bit of a puzzle. Why specify what clothing the fellow was wearing when he needed a visit to the toilet? It’s as if the sentence needs more to make sense. “He went to the bathroom in his pants as he was not comfortable in the pink dress”, say.

Years ago, I was watching one of those reality shows on TV called A Baby Story. (I was sick, okay? I had a fever. I had no idea how to change the channel.) The baby was duly born and the proud father went out to the waiting room to tell the new grandparents about it. One thing he said has stuck with me. “He’s so cute,” Daddy gushed. “He went to the bathroom as soon as he was born.” Now, again, as native speakers we know what he means, though we recognize it as being a little farther down the road of ridiculous euphemism. To a non-native speaker, it would be a truly bewildering statement. But I’m sure I’m not the only local who got a mental image of this infant jumping out of the doctor’s hands and trotting off down the hall, thinking to itself, “Thank God! I’ve been holding it for nine months! Where’s the john?”

Well, thanks for joining me in potty world today. Hope it's been as much fun for you as it has for me! Now, excuse me while I go see a man about a dog…

7 comments:

Kate said...

As you know, I love the potty world. Poop! Now, am I allowed to comment on perceived grammar errors?

Spellchick said...

There are GRAMMAR errors? In MY BLOG???? Well, by all means point them out, but whatever they are, I meant to do that.

Kate said...

Its meaning is obvious and the sentence makes sense to anyone who speaks English.

Is it Its or It's. Is it possessive or plural? Tell me old sage.

Spellchick said...

Well, there is only one "meaning", so it is not plural. The meaning belongs to the phrase I'm talking about, so it is possessive. Possessive its has no apostrophe. Besides which, the alternative "it's" is not a plural, anyway; it's a contraction for "it is". Obviously the sentence should not be "it is meaning is obvious", right? No apostrophe.

Kate said...

I have a headache. You are wise, my brain has been spent.

solomon said...

Your 'biffy' blog put me to thinking of the many words and euphemisms there are for the place where Canadians'go to the washroom'. Roget (accessed online via Bartleby.com) offered a number of British synonyms for toilet:w.c., latrine, head, cabinet, back house (part of every early-Victorian home, including one in which I was a lodger in 1951), Mrs. Jones (!?),and jakes (!!. Notably absent were 'loo','biffy', and 'crapper'(after Sir Thomas) which I somehow think should be British. But us North Americans have terms that didn't catch Roget's attention: e.g., washroom, bathroom, privy,outhouse, Reading Room, throne, john, can, glory hole, porta-potty, 'twilly'(a favourite of one of my aunts). Actually, I think I've got 'em all. Anyway, I've got to stop now....I need to visit Mrs. Jones.

Spellchick said...

Hi, Solomon! Great name! Your comment indeed successfully came through, and I thank you for the additional potty info. One can never have enough potty info.