Scatological Etymology in a land divided by a common language

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    Words and quotations are a milieu I’ve worked in for quite a while. Take the word milieu in the previous sentence. You wouldn’t take it at all if you were an English-speaking person prior to 1854. It’s a French word, dating back to “Old French” in the 13th century and not seen in its modern form until the mid-19th century.

    They call this study of word history, Etymology. It’s the science of determining when, where, and how a word was first used, and how it finds itself in our modern vocabulary.


    It’s a dry subject for most students, but one I find fascinating, especially in the paragon of modern American English where we “borrow” scrounge and mutilate words with such regularity that people just a generation or two removed from our own, have problems understanding what we’re talking about.

    As a college kid, I heard my first etymological debate, though it was hardly worthy of any mental effort to follow. My second-semester freshman roommate, Rudolph Lepera III (yes, the third, and I always wondered what the other two must have been like) was in a heated discussion around the Crane Hall pool table over whether Coke was called soda or pop. It was an invigorating discussion, at least as enjoyable as getting a tooth drilled before the Novocain takes effect.

    The discussion had no answer since the use of the terms “soda” and “pop” while synonymous were dependent on which region of the United States the speaker came from.

    Various authors, including George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, and perhaps most famously, Winston Churchill are credited with the phrase, “Englishmen and Americans are two nations divided by a common language.”


    All three men wrote this phrase often, and American general George Patton used it to charm a group of English ladies at a function one afternoon, but who first said it is up for debate.

    What isn’t up for debate is the vernacular nuances we used to find across America, but that are largely disappearing in an era of constant centralized sound and video bombardment.

    Just two generations ago, men growing up in the Midwest had the inside track on becoming nationwide newscasters, narrators, and media personalities.


    Guys like Walter Cronkite and Johnny Carson had bland, accent-free voices that were as easily understood in Chitlin Switch, North Carolina (a real place) as they were in Barstow, California.

    Speakers with deep southern drawls weren’t as easy to decipher, and those annoying big city voices out of Boston, Brooklyn, and Baltimore were just painful to endure for more than a few minutes.

    Accents are one thing, the meaning of words is quite different.


    Yep, I’m about to bring up England and Scotland. In almost every way I was just another tourist, but perhaps I had a little different intonation as I observed the differences between our cousins in Great Britain and how we do and say things here.

    Sue hit it off with one of our guides, a gal named El who had a strange accent, a blend of Scottish, and German with a hint of French. I asked her where she was from, and she said she grew up on American Air Force Bases but was originally from Switzerland. That was the source of her slightly different voice, She had a similar way of speaking that my grandmother, Clara Gasser had. My mom’s parents immigrated from Switzerland in the 1920s and kept their accents, as almost all adults do, their entire lives.

    Sue was looking for authentic wool apparel. Many of the locals we struck up conversations with warned us about certain stores where Chinese skirts, sweaters, and (heaven forbid) kilts were made and sold as authentically Scottish.

    It’s not much different than the fake arrowheads, cheap leather moccasins, and beaded necklaces they sell in Jackson and Cody. A knockoff is a knockoff no matter how far inland or across a great ocean you may find yourself.

    El told Sue she had a couple of shops that sold wonderful jumpers. Sue was interested. She said she loved jumpers and would like to get one for herself and maybe our three granddaughters.

    It wasn’t a jumper as an American woman imagines them, but rather the Scottish name for a sweater.

    The giveaway was when Sue said she wanted a cashmere sweater and El made the connection that sweater and jumper are the same thing.

    If you’ve ever seen my wardrobe in action you know I’m very fashionable. Think modern cave or perhaps what someone would look like if dressed by a committee of 19th-century lumberjacks. Nope, not pretty at all. I just thought the interchangeable terms, sweater, and jumper presented an interesting dichotomy.

    What interested me much more was why one Scotsman called the local establishment a pub, and the next guy called it a bar.

    When my friend Tad and I tried to find the difference, the Scots weren’t able to explain.

    “Is a pub like a bar and grill?” Tad asked one guy we met. “Or can you order food at a bar?”

    “Yes,” was his informative answer. He said both have food, but a bar has a bigger menu, and a pub is more likely to have live music. He went on to say you could get a draft or a dram of Scotch at a restaurant just as well, and that some restaurants had live music.

    That cleared it up.

    It’s just another difference in terminology that makes life interesting.

    Just like walking up or down stairs. I found an awesome three-story bookstore in Glasgow and found myself bumping into people initially as I walked up the right side of the staircase. You don’t do that. Decorum for walking on a sidewalk, up or down stairs, and driving is opposite of ours. You walk up and down on the left, just like you drive. Driving in the other lane I knew, walking in it was something knew.

    The Brits and Scots don’t waste much effort on plumbing either. There are very few water closets, toilets, loos, or “restrooms” in public buildings and even fewer in businesses.

    They don’t use the term restroom at all, and asking for one gives your American identity away immediately. They don’t say “loo” in polite company either, but every bartender called it that.

    The English inventor John Crapper is credited with perfecting the first widespread flushable toilet, something he called a “water closet” but that we Americans often refer to as the John or the crapper. (see that, scatological etymology in action) There is no evidence of either term being used in the nation where it was invented.

    On the subject of restrooms, bathrooms in America, from Motel 6 to the Ritz all have similar controls, but that’s not the case with our friends across the Atlantic.

    The variety of plumbing fixtures, designs, and styles were dramatic. Twin handles, pull levers, swinging shower doors, drain plugs that require a Ph.D. in engineering to figure out and no two alike were less a challenge than an entertaining puzzle to figure out. That and the placement of a motel door access card into a socket to turn the lights and power on in the room when you entered were significantly different than how we do things here in the good old USA. They are committed to green energy and lower usage, even when it comes to leaving the TV on in a motel room.

    There are always possibilities, just learn to adapt and enjoy.


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