No one can say that we here at NOOBs don’t tackle the profound issues of the day. A Smithsonian Magazine headline, posted just an hour ago (as I write) read: “The Most Exclusive Coffee in the World Is Harvested From Elephant Poo.”

On the other hand, American Republican political operative Grover Norquist notoriously said after our recent election: “The president was elected on the basis that he was not Romney and that Romney was a poopy-head, and you should vote against Romney”

I don’t care much about Grover Norquist or the most exclusive coffee in the world, but I am interested in the possibility that British poo is taking over from good old American poop in the faeces euphemism department.

The question turns out to be a somewhat complicated one, as these questions tend to be. The OED offers two separate sets of entries for these terms, with separate etymologies. One derives from the onomatopoeic interjection “Poo,” dating from the 1600s, when it was more commonly spelled “Puh” or “Pooh,” or, as Fielding rendered it in this quote from Tom Jones: “‘Pugh,’ says she, ‘you have pinked a Man in a Duel, that’s all.’”

It was not until the 1960s, according to the OED, that the word began to be used as a noun or verb for excrement, as The Guardian did in 1981: “That doggy’s doing a poo.”

The second entry derives from a different instance of onomatopoeia. The OED cites this definition from an early eighteenth-century dictionary: “to break Wind backwards softly.” By the 1920s, poop had acquired, in the United States, solidity. The OED quotes Ezra Pound in a 1940 letter: “This federation poop is just the same old..secret committee of shit.”

Complicating manners are at least three additional meanings of poop. One, derived from the term for the rear of a boat, refers to the rear of a person or animal. The second–which Pound may have had in mind–is an American slang term, originating in the military, for inside information. The third, which probably isn’t relevant, is pooped, an Americanism meaning “exhausted” or “worn out.”

Getting back to poo versus poop, here is a Google Ngram chart showing use of dog poo and dog poop n Britain and the U.S. between 2000 and 2008 (the most recent year for which figures are available):

Screen Shot 2012-12-17 at 11.27.58 AM

It confirms that the dominant form is poop in the U.S. (red line) and poo Britain (yellow line), and that poo (green line) is on the rise in the U.S., with a roughly 100 percent increase in the period.

Further research is clearly needed. For the time being, my sense is that my fellow Americans are rather conflicted on the matter, sometimes, as in this Huffington Post piece from March, trying to have it both ways:

“Poop. Is there anything it can’t do? On Wednesday, The Denver Zoo introduced what is believed to be the world’s first poo-powered motorized tuk tuk showcasing The Denver Zoo’s very own patent-pending gasification technology.”

Make up your mind, Huffington Post!

18 thoughts on ““Poo”

    1. I think that Katherine Hepburn was using pooh (sic) as an abbreviation of ‘pooh-poohing’ in the sense of dismissing a statement or an opinion, derived from the example quoted from Tom Jones.

  1. I don’t know about the rest of you, but as a child born in 1946, I was calling it “poo” from my earliest recollection. (The other thing was “weegee”…)

  2. Wasn’t there a South Park episode 10 years ago or more called ‘Mr Hinckey the Christmas Poo’ or something like that…?

  3. That soldiers with dysentery might have to ‘poo into an MRE bag’ was used on TV by former Marine Ryan Smith as an argument against women in combat rules in the US military. CNN 24th January.

    It was shown on Monday 28th January’s edition of the Daily Show.

  4. “Poop” and “poopy” sound childish to my English ears, but that could be a cultural thing having not grown up with those words. As for “poo”, I believe it’s a quite recent addition to British slang, arriving via an exclamation to denote a foul smell. “What’s that stink? Poo! It’s like rotten fish.” I don’t remember it being slang for faeces before the 1990s.

    1. My father received a Super-8 camera (or something similar) when he was in his late teens, and made many joke films with his friends; as young people often do.
      One of these films was a Doctor Who parody called ‘Doctor Poo’. Although it contained no specific fecal content, I distinctly remember the ‘title sequence’ consisted of text written on toilet paper and flushed down a toilet. So the ‘poo’ in the title was definitely poo in the current sense we use it today.
      He was born in 1954, so this was probably in the early 1970s.
      Therefore the use of “poo” in the UK as slang for faeces will date back to at least the 1960s.

  5. I was born in the mid 50’s in Australia, then came my siblings. In the early 60’s we had great fun with this word, but always got into terrible trouble with our mother for even uttering it. It was an unsavoury word from the gutter to her. I dispute this word only began in 1959-ish (according to one source) because my mother said HER mother couldn’t bring herself to say it back in the 30’s and 40’s – obviously where my own mother got her attitude towards this word! Her children on the other hand (us) have continued to derive endless humorous pleasure from this funny little word!

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