Archive for the ‘Etymology’ Category

Whoa-oh – Who Was Black Betty?

April 30, 2016
Turns out Ram Jam got it mostly right...

Turns out Ram Jam got it mostly right…


I’ve done a fair bit of film, TV, and radio work by this point, not a lot of which is particularly relevant to my blog (with the exception of my post last year on Brandon Lee conspiracy nonsense and one other about the inventor of the machine gun that I might blog in future). However,  a few weeks back I was asked by Jed Hunt of Siren FM if there was truth to the claim (on Wikipedia, where else?) that the song ‘Black Betty’ was actually about a gun. The song is best known today in its rock version by Ram Jam, but was originally an African-American folk song (in particular, a prison song). I had not heard of this suggestion, but was intrigued. Could ‘Black Betty’ be an earlier form of or equivalent to the famous ‘Brown Bess’ musket? And could the ‘bam-a-lam/bam-ba-lamb’’ line in the song be a reference to gunfire, or perhaps a soldier’s marching cadence?


Well, no. Not in its original, historical context at any rate; obviously any performer or even listener can imbue a song lyric with any meaning they wish. But I can state with a fair degree of certainty that ‘Black Betty’ was not written with guns in mind. Before I go into the detail, please do listen to Jed’s superb documentary programme; his research coincided nicely with my own (I was only asked about the potential firearms connection, but the whole origin story piqued my interest, hence what follows).


First, let’s put the gun suggestion to proverbial bed. Firearms, like other tools or machines (not to mention domestic and farm animals!) did receive this kind of ironic female nickname; ‘Brown Bess’ for the British soldier’s musket being the most famous. This was derived from a nickname for a common woman or prostitute, and I have a dead tree article on that subject pending – I will no doubt blog about that in the future). On the face of it, ‘Black Betty’ looks promising; it too was one of several nicknames for a prostitute or fallen woman,


… but as he must range, Black Betty, or Oyster Moll serve for a Change : As he varies his Sports his whole Life is a Feast, …

-From ’Wit and Mirth: Or Pills to Purge Melancholy’, by Thom d’Urfey, 1719


There is very likely a connection too with generic nicknames for black women in America, especially slaves and servants. So it’s plausible enough. However, unlike ‘Brown Bess’, there is absolutely no evidence that I can find for a gun being called ‘Black Betty’. Someone may have used the name, but if so, it doesn’t seem to have caught on, whereas various other nicknames have survived in print, notably Davey Crockett’s faithful gun ‘Betsey’. I did assess the claim itself, and even the reference cited by Wikipedia doesn’t actually provide any evidence for ‘Black Betty’ being a gun nickname. It just says that ‘Prior to the “Brown Bess”, stocks were painted black.’ This is false; stocks were never painted. Wiki mentions ‘some sources’, but doesn’t say what these are. I certainly can’t find them. So ‘Black Betty’ has nothing to do with guns as far as I can tell.

As ‘Field and Stream’ put it (Volume 36, 1931, page 96); ‘In early frontier parlance, was the musket called “Black Betty” as well as “Brown Bess”? Ans. The term “Black Betty” had allusion to whisky or a bottle of whiskey, and never to a firearm.’

So what did the writer of ‘Black Betty’ intend? On the face of it, simply reading and listening to the original lyrics, they certainly refers to a woman. There’s no real indicator of any double meaning, and the lyrics themselves are both straightforward and sparse, with a lot of repetition. Also, it turns out that one of the original recorded performers was actually asked what ‘Black Betty’ meant. You can download the original WAV file from the U.S. Library of Congress website here and try for yourself to discern the full answer (I’ve placed question marks where I’m uncertain), but the initial reply is clear (I won’t censor the ‘N’ word in this context). What’s interesting to me is that Clear Rock responds immediately, without pausing for thought. It’s clear that he either genuinely believes in his response to the exclusion of other meanings, or has been asked many times and is giving a stock response, sanitised for his (white, free) audience. Regardless, here’s my transcript:


Interviewer (interrupting): ‘Clear Rock! Clear Rock, who was Black Betty?’


Clear Rock: ‘”Black Betty was a old nigger woman on that Goree Farm right out from Huntsville, but(?) she threw(?) her hip(?) cutting a tree down and I(?) never knew(?) her(?)’


Interviewer: ‘Black Betty was(?) a(?) tree(?) cutter(?)?’


Clear Rock: ‘Yes sir-a.’


In case there were any doubt, the Library of Congress also have transcribed notes from the same field trip. It doesn’t give us the full quote, but confirms that ‘Black Betty’ was a ‘tree cutting song’, and with this quote confirms that Betty was, in the mind of this performer at least, a real woman:


‘Black Betty was a old nigger woman right outa Goree’.


As these notes then state, Goree was a state prison farm for women. If Betty was ‘old’ in the 1910s or 20s, and if the song’s lyrics reflect her real history, she must have had her mixed race baby somewhere else, because Goree only opened in 1911. Of course, there is the chance that there never was a real, individual ‘Black Betty’. That does not mean that the song isn’t about ‘her’; we’re talking here about meaning, not historical reality (but once again, Clear Rock certainly claimed she was real).


The above isn’t the earliest known recording, so there is room for a more original interpretation. However, it’s damn close. Clear Rock did perform with his contemporary James ‘Iron Head’ Baker on one of two versions recorded by the latter during a December 1933 research trip by U.S. musicologists John and Alan Lomax to Central State Farm, Sugar Land, Texas. Clear Rock’s words carry as much weight as any of his contemporaries, and he appears to have been the only singer to have been drawn on the meaning behind the song. He would surely have been aware of any subtext or double meaning, yet chose to identify ‘Black Betty’ as a specific woman. Of course, he may have deliberately withheld a deeper meaning.


Certainly the Lomaxes thought so, despite the answer they’d recorded (twice) from Clear Rock. They wrote in their book, American Ballads and Folk Songs that:


“Black Betty is not another Frankie, nor yet a two-timing woman that a man can moan his blues about. She is the whip that was and is used in some Southern prisons. A convict on the Darrington State Farm in Texas, where, by the way, whipping has been practically discontinued, laughed at Black Betty and mimicked her conversation in the following song.” (In the text, the music notation and lyrics follow.)


Note that the convict that they refer to is probably not Iron Head, as he was an inmate at Central State, not Darrington. The version written down is also different. Still, as Wikipedia relates;


‘John Lomax also interviewed blues musician James Baker (better known as “Iron Head”) in 1934, almost one year after recording Iron Head performing the first known recording of the song. In the resulting article for Musical Quarterly, titled “‘Sinful Songs’ of the Southern Negro”, Lomax again mentions the nickname of the bullwhip is “Black Betty”. Steven Cornelius in his book, Music of the Civil War Era, states in a section concerning folk music following the war’s end that “prisoners sang of ‘Black Betty’, the driver’s whip.”


Lomax was quite correct. ‘Black Betty’ was a name for a whip or whipping post, and it’s plausible that the ‘bam-ba-lam’ line might be a reference to the flogging that was common in prisons until the early twentieth century. However, note that ‘American Ballads and Folk Songs’ was published in 1934, five years before Clear Rock was asked this very question and stated that ‘she’ was ‘an old nigger woman’. So one of the original performers of the song basically contradicted Lomax’s assumption that the song was about the whip. At the very least, it’s about both. Also, it’s not clear that any of the interviewees were necessarily asked about the Black Betty of the song. Nonetheless, I do have to give Lomax’s opinion a lot of weight, and they had decades to change their mind on this point, yet every edition of that book asserts the whip. For example:


‘She was the whip used in Southern prisons.’ (Lomax 1940, 60-61).


We must also recognise that the way oral and musical tradition works means that even if the writer of ‘Black Betty’ only had a woman in mind, the whip was definitely a current meaning at that time. Thus, as soon as someone performs the song, it’s going to become about a whip as a dual meaning with the woman directly referred to in the lyrics.


So there you have it; Black Betty was a woman, and may also have been a prison whip. However, the 2012 liner notes for the 1933 recording featured on the ‘Jail House Bound’ record confuse things still further:


‘7. “Black Betty” (AFS 200 Side B) by James “Iron Head” Baker with R.D. Allen and Will Crosby singing back up; recorded in December 1933 at Central State Prison Farm in Texas. Lomax claimed that this song was about the whip used to punish prisoners rather than a tale of a woman, but both Alan Lomax and Bruce Jackson found prisoners who argued that “Black Betty” was actually the prison transfer truck.’


Wikipedia reports that:


‘In an interview conducted by Alan Lomax with a former prisoner of the Texas penal farm named Doc Reese (aka “Big Head”), Reese stated that the term “Black Betty” was used by prisoners to refer to the “Black Maria” — the penitentiary transfer wagon.


Robert Vells, in Life Flows On in Endless Song: Folk Songs and American History, writes:


‘As late as the 1960s, the vehicle that carried men to prison was known as “Black Betty,” though the same name may have also been used for the whip that so often was laid on the prisoners’ backs, “bam-ba-lam.”’


I would call this ‘unconfirmed’. I can’t tell when Bruce Jackson interviewed prisoners, but his book was published in 1972, and the earliest references I can find are 1960s. Jackson’s interviewees may not have heard of ‘Black Betty’ being a whip simply because whipping had long been discontinued. Perhaps the name jumped from whip to truck? After all, the use of the whip had been officially discontinued by the time Iron Head, Clear Rock and Lead Belly were performing the original version of the song. It’s logical enough that it might survive as another inanimate (well, sort of animate!) prison object of misery.


Strangely, when I did my usual Google Books trawl, by far the most common usage of ‘Black Betty’ in the nineteenth century was in reference to a bottle, usually a bottle of alcohol. However, this doesn’t seem to be current in early-mid twentieth century U.S. prisons, so can I think be discounted along with the gun explanation.


tl;dr – the Black Betty of the song was a woman, possibly also a prison whip, and may later have become the prison wagon. ‘She’ has never been a gun, a bottle of alcohol, or any other object that those of us not imprisoned and engaged in cutting trees might imagine.


Proper mullered

March 16, 2015



Back from the dead once again, with a brief and obscure but interesting bit of etymology. Having read a few suspicious origins for the British English word ‘mullered’ (usually used today to mean ‘drunk’, ‘destroyed’ or ‘defeated’), I came up with some useful confirmation of the explanation tentatively given at ‘World Wide Words’ (right at the end of the piece). They don’t seem certain, but as far as I can tell it’s actually very clearly derived from a Romani gypsy word for ‘murdered’. I turned up these two sources;


‘…mush had been mullered’ (the man had been murdered)

-‘The English Gipsies and their Language’ by Charles Godfrey Leland, 1873, p.179
‘Geoffrey growed up long, long ago, and he has been mullered a long time since.” “Mullered,” Gwilym knew, meant dead.’
-’Whistler’s Van’ by Idwal Jones, 1936, p.45

So, nothing to do with ‘mull’ to crush or pulverise, or anything involving Islamic ‘mullahs’. It’s actually one of many Romani slang terms to not only make it into English speech, but to actually ‘go viral’ since the early 1990s. It’s even pretty close to its original meaning if you think about it.

A Fuller Understanding

December 21, 2013


“Ere, Fred, pass me the fuller; I think this ‘un needs a fuller fuller!”

A few weeks ago I received this interesting comment on my article about the so-called ‘blood groove’ on blades. Thank you to Charles for this, and for pointing out that the term derived from the tool used to create it, something that I was aware of but did not comment upon as the thrust (ha) of my article was more the concept of the blood groove than the term itself. However, I want to react by explaining why that fact in itself does not by any means make ‘fuller’ incorrect. It’s an odd quirk of language that the word now refers to both tool and its product, but that’s just the way things have worked out. In fact, it is the dictionary definition of a groove made by the tool of the same name. Standard dictionary definitions aren’t enough, however, as technical language is distinct from colloquial speech. ‘Blood groove’ does appear in dictionaries, but it’s not technically correct. However, technical dictionary entries from 1848, 1855 and 1868 show that ‘fuller’ was in use at least that far back. Importantly, it is also the preferred term used within the relevant field of study; that of arms and armour. Non-academic specialists also favour the term. It’s worth noting also that even the word ‘fuller’ to describe the tool is only attested from 1864. So whilst it must assuredly have come first as Charles suggests, we don’t actually know that ‘fuller’ was a pre-modern term for the type of hammer used to create the groove. Even if it was, it may not have been long before people were describing a fullered blade as possessing a ‘fuller’.

Ideally speaking, technical words would remain fixed in their meaning, but this ignores the reality of language, in which even technical meanings drift. Charles uses the term ‘flat iron’ as an example to show that the tool is not its product, but just because this as a phrase did not lend itself to that adaptation does not mean that other words didn’t drift like ‘fuller’. The very obvious rebuttal is the jigsaw, originally the type of saw used to create it. Yes, its fuller (ha) name is ‘jigsaw puzzle’, but just plain ‘jigsaw’ has been in currency for over a century and makes no more logical sense than ‘fuller’. This example might suggest that we are missing an intermediate stage for ‘fuller’ too, something like ‘fuller groove’, contracted to simply ‘fuller’ just as ‘jigsaw puzzle’ has become simple ‘jigsaw’. Another example is ‘brand’ to refer to both the hot iron tool used to mark cattle, and the distinctive mark that it creates on the animal. There’s also ‘bulino’, a form of Italian punched decoration named directly after the tool used to create it. Similarly, ‘scrimshaw’ was originally the act of carving bone or tooth, but for a long time  now has also described the carved object itself. There’s even an equivalent from the arms & armour world, in the the word ‘rifle’, which was originally the act of cutting grooves into the bore of a gun, resulting weapon being termed a ‘rifle gun’. By at least 1700 however, people were referring to simply ‘rifle’, for short, before the more specific term ‘rifle/rifled musket’ was even in use.

All of this shows that language adapts where there is a gap; a recent example being the adaptation of ‘text/texting/texted’ to describe the act of sending an SMS text message. In Charles’ example, the flat iron flattens the hair, yes, but it does not create a discrete new feature upon it that demands description. It’s enough to say that the hair is ‘flat ironed’. In the case of blades, the fuller fulls the blade, but also creates a distinct groove, a new feature that then begs to be named. ‘Fuller’ has most likely been adapted to fill this gap because it allows precise and efficient description. ‘Blood groove’ serves the same function, with added implication of gory intent. What else would we use? ‘Blade groove’ doesn’t really do it, because there are other grooves that might appear on a blade that are not a fuller (e.g. a decorated blade). ‘Fuller’ also has the advantage of being only one word long. ‘Groove’ is perfectly fine, in fact C19th military textbooks use ‘groove’ for sword and bayonet. It just isn’t very precise unless you qualify it.

Did those who made blades historically use ‘groove’, ‘fuller’, or something else entirely? I have no idea. It would be interesting, though difficult given the limitations of written history, to properly research period usage. Given the rate of change in language (witness arquebus, harquebus, hackbutt etc), correct usage in one period is likely to be out of use in another. Charles doesn’t directly offer an alternative term that he feels is more correct than ‘fuller’, but based on his comments it looks like he favours ‘gutter’. Perhaps ‘old timer’ knifemakers and other blade-smiths did use it, but we’ve no evidence of this. You won’t find it in a dictionary or an arms & armour publication. I’ve no problem with it as a descriptive word, but I feel it’s misleading to the layman. Like ‘blood groove’ or ‘blood gutter’, it clearly implies a function that does not exist; the collection and direction of fluids.

To address the suggestion that ‘fuller’ is wrong because other languages don’t have an analogue, that’s just irrelevant, I’m afraid. Yes, my link above shows that terms like ‘goutierre’ (gutter) and ‘cannelure’ (channel) were preferred European terms. That has no bearing on either correct contemporary, or even period English usage. Some words are shared between languages either intact as loan-words, or adapted as variants, but by no means all. ‘Fuller’ is one of many unique English words.

None of which changes the fact that ‘blood groove’ is (technically) incorrect and ‘fuller’ correct, both in terms of the purpose served by the groove (which was the point of my article) and its lack of favour in academic and specialist circles. But again, there’s colloquial language and technical language, and ‘blood groove’ is both in popular usage and in the bloody dictionary, so I can only get so precious about it!

Easter a pagan festival? Eggstremely Unlikely!

March 31, 2013

As alluring as the idea is to atheists like me, the claim that Easter was derived from a pre-existing pagan festival in honour of the goddess ‘Eostre’ turns out to have very little basis indeed. It amounts to one reference. CJ Romer has this tied up on his blog;

Eostre never existed???: why Easter is NOT a Pagan Holiday

CJ is a Christian, so in case you think there’s bias at work, here’s another three-part debunk from a Neo-Pagan writer;

Eostre: The Making of a Myth

An instructive lesson in not buying into claims just becuase they agree with our (pagan or atheist) preconceptions and biases.

Going the Whole Nine Yards?

May 3, 2012
By this logic, firing a whole sub-machine gun magazine would be ‘giving them the whole eight inches’…
Snopes have recently updated their entry for the origin of ‘The Whole Nine Yards‘, and as they rightly point out, it’s pretty much the case that whatever you think it comes from, it doesn’t. I do have a few comments though. Firstly, there’s one other reason why the machine-gun belt explanation can’t be true that isn’t covered; that there is no standard-length belt of that measurement for any machine-gun, air or land service. Despite this and the other good reasons given by Snopes and others (notably a total lack of references for it anywhere), it remains one of the most popular explanations. Even the Smithsonian have repeated it as fact.

The other, more important thing has to do with their suggested real origin for the saying – a lewd ‘joke’ about a Scotsman’s penis…I mean kilt. Having discounted the idea that it arises from the kilt per se, they end the article by referring to said joke/story. As an apparently American joke, featuring a Scottish stereotype and not rooted in historical reality, it would overcome the problem of all the early written references being American in origin. It also doesn’t require that a kilt actually be a standard nine yards in length (it isn’t).

However, I have a couple of issues with this. Snopes state that the story is ‘of uncertain age’, yet the version they give is in very modern English, and must have come from somewhere traceable. Yet they give no date whatever – nor any source for the version they reproduce.

Their source would appear to be the claim here (recounted version of the story here) by US Navy Captain Richard Stratton, who remembers first hearing it in 1955, just a few years before the phrase as we know it appeared in print (1962 according to Snopes, or perhaps slightly earlier). However, aside from this, I can’t find any evidence that it’s a traditional story at all. In fact it seems to be an original song with a known writer and a copyright date of 1991 (and a performance date of 1990). Now, it’s possible that this is a version of an existing folktale of some sort as Stratton’s memories suggest, but if so it’s pretty poor form to claim words penned by ‘Traditional’ or ‘Anon’ set of words as your own. More discussion on the song/story question here. More likely is that it is based on an off-colour joke of relatively recent vintage that was current in Stratton’s day. He may well be correct in remembering both this and the contemporary use of the phrase, but have wrongly assumed that the two are related. The phrase as ‘punchline’  not only seems like an afterthought, but a total non-sequitur. At least the song version sort of makes sense, though it doesn’t specify ‘nine yards’ and isn’t itself claimed to have anything to do with the phrase. I just don’t think that this claim is any more convincing as an origin for the phrase than any of the others that Snopes list. I’m not alone.

Finally, I might actually have a contribution to make here, though it does admittedly run counter to the presumed American origin of the phrase. The U.S. is, however, a nation of immigrants with a language (and a good deal of folklore) in common, and I think the gap in written sources not insurmountable. It’s also quite possible that, as the story was preserved as an oral tradition in Scottish Gaelic, it could have made the jump straight to American English without ever passing into British English. But I’m starting to speculate here.

I came across the following during past research on this same subject. It’s a Scottish (funnily enough, though kilts don’t factor) folk-tale entitled ‘The Stupid Boy‘, collected by a Miss Dempster in 1888. Its opening subject is a nine yard length of cloth, the successful selling of all nine yards being key to the story;

‘There lived once on a time in Sutherland a widow, who had one son, and he was a very stupid boy ; so stupid that he could not be trusted out of sight, and that he had no idea how to buy or sell. One day his mother had nine yards of home-spun to sell ; and there was a market within a few miles of her, at which she wished to show it for sale ; but she could not go herself, and had no one to send but her son, and she thought a great deal how she was to prevent him doing something stupid with it, and being cheated. At last she thought that as the fair lasted three days she might send him every day with three yards, and that he could not go far wrong in getting a price for so small a quantity.’
Dempster, 1888. ‘The Folk-Lore of Sutherland-Shire’, The Folk-Lore Journal, Vol. 6, No. 3 (1888), pp. 149-189

It would have been particularly neat had the boy’s magical revenge taken place after he’d sold the ‘whole nine yards’ rather than just six out of the nine, but you can’t have everything. I’m not suggesting this as definitive, mainly because there is such a huge gap between this story being written down (and no doubt it is far older than 1888) and the first written appearance of the saying proper. We’d expect some sort of ‘missing link’, particularly as with the latter we are talking about a different country. Nonetheless, it’s by far the earliest relevant instance of the idea, if not the actual phrase. Even if Stratton’s origin is accurate, ‘The Stupid Boy’ still pre-dates the kilt story/song as a specific reference to the idea that a total of nine yards of something is somehow significant, and is not in itself incompatible with Stratton. As with everyone else who’s ever speculated on this question, I doubt we’ll ever know if it’s actually significant, but it’s interesting if nothing else.

So, what’s the real answer to the question? It’s another ‘we don’t know’, I’m afraid. Whatever quibbles I have with the Snopes article, we certainly agree on that.

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Posted in Etymology, Military History, Modern History | 6 Comments »


January 11, 2011

I’ve just come across a video from Pat Condell on Richard Dawkins’ blog that I thought demanded a quick and very specific debunk. Condell is Youtube’s resident outspoken atheist and is clearly not a fan of Islam. I’ve seen several of his videos and broadly agreed with most of the content. However, in his video, he repeats a common misconception; that “Islamophobia” is a neologism of “the last few years” and the work of “Islamic Supremacists and their left-wing enablers”, “cultural Marxism” and “political correctness”. As a simple Google Books search shows, the first of these claims at the least just isn’t true.

There’s precious little online that credits “Islamophobia” as being any older than the 1980s, but I’m not the first to bother to check this. A commenter on another (this time written) criticism of the word and its application must have done the same 10-second piece of due diligence:

“While I don’t disagree with every point the quoted article made, its assertion that the term ‘Islamophobia’ was invented by the Iranian fundamentalists at the end of the 1970s is simply false. A quick Google books search shows that Bernard Lewis wrote about the “new phenomenon, sometimes called Islamophobia” in his book “From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East” in 1953. Nor did Lewis invent the term, as it also appears in an article from the Journal of Theological Studies in 1924.”

The relevant journal article quote is this, in Vol.26, p.102;

“Certain writers in particular are blamed for their ‘ Islamophobia ‘. Mohammed, our authors complain, is called an epileptic, a charlatan, one suffering from hysteria, a socialist obsessed with the idea of an impending judgement. In reality he was a socialiste religieux.”

The wording implies that the word was in currency even in the early 1920s, amongst theologians at least. No doubt the modern widespread use of the word to chill criticism (which I readily acknowledge does exist and deplore) is a 1990s and especially post-9/11 phenomenon, but the word itself is well-established. Even if it were of very recent coinage, that wouldn’t automatically negate its worth as a word. The circumstances of its origin and its subsequent usage would do that. I don’t have access to the full 1924 book review, but it’s clear from the context that the word is being used by Muslims against Christian writers questioning not the practices of Islam, but the holiness of its founder. In other words, if it was coined as a means of silencing criticism, it was boring theological criticism. It would take some scholarship to demonstrate whether the word originally had greater and more sinister meaning than this, or if not, when this shift occurred. But of course it’s far easier to deny its validity across the board – indeed, its very existence, as Condell and others have done. For sceptical atheists (for the two are by no means synonymous), this rhetorical approach leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

Posted in Etymology, Modern History, Religion | 2 Comments »

Are You Taking The Piss?

December 19, 2009

<Insert Harry Potter joke here>

Those of you who like to get your knickers in a twist over my output may have been thinking that I’d given up. Not a bit of it! I’m back with a (much-delayed) request from JREF forumite jimbob, who asks “do you have any more information about whether “taking the piss” came from saltpetre?”. He pointed me to this explanation for the popular UK English expression;

So desperate was the need for potassium nitrate (aka saltpetre) for making gunpowder that when it was discovered that it could be made from urine King Charles I issued a proclamation that families had to collect the urine of their livestock and hand it over to ‘Saltpeter men’ who collected it daily. The powers of the ‘Saltpeter men’ were later extended to allow them to to dig up the urine soaked floors of all dove-houses, stables, cellars, etc. To facilitate this, it was illegal to cover the floors with anything other than ‘mellow earth’.

I hadn’t actually heard this particular etymology before, but I was familiar with this alternative version;

The UK once had a substantial wool trade. In fact, England’s medieval prosperity was founded on wool. In the 13th century there were three sheep to every man, woman and child and wool was the biggest export. At this time, the job of the “fuller” was vital. The fuller was responsible for treating the wool with urine. Officially recognised as one of the worst jobs in history, the fuller spent all day trampling wool knee-deep in barrels of stale urine. It would take a good couple of hours of urine-soaked trampling to produce decent wool. Fulling went back to ancient times, but in medieval times England needed lots of fullers and lots of urine.

The very fact of there being two versions suggested to me that at least one of them was BS – though it could of course be the case that both of these industries contributed to the practice that in turn generated the saying. Let’s start with how likely the claim is in itself.

That ‘Night soil’ men existed, and collected both human excrement and urine door-to-door until fairly recent times, is beyond doubt. Modern sewage systems and artificially produced chemicals have made it redundant, but before that they provided a useful service – the alternative being to throw your urine into the street or nearby body of water.

It’s also true that both industries exploited this free resource.

So far, so good. But such quaintly plausible stories are behind many false etymologies, by way of retrospective explanation – people look through the historical record for things that bear some superficial similarity or inferred connection, and put it forward as a suggestion. Over time, the explanation gains credibility through repetition, regardless of any gaps in reasoning, references, or chronology. At best, these hypotheses are unprovable exercises in creative thinking. At worst, they trivialise real history. I have been told by an official guide at one Renaissance-era property that the dining table there had a removable top in order that it could be licked clean by the family dogs ready for the next course.

Where’s the connection here? Urine, obviously, but beyond that – why would such a phrase spring from that job? I’ve heard it suggested that the connection in respect of the lowly job itself – that the piss collectors were ridiculed for doing so, therefore someone who is ridiculed might be compared to them. But it’s a rather bigger logical stretch, and we’d want to see some evidence that this was the case – a memoir, some oral history, something. In any case, this was by no means the only low-status job out there, and I can’t see people who were willingly giving their waste products to these men, ridiculing them for it. I mean, you don’t mock your bin-men for ‘taking your refuse’, do you?

As ever, the only way to confirm is to look for the earliest usage of the phrase, and its context. The slang dictionaries put it at the first quarter of the 20th century, whilst the earliest I could find was from 1945.

This is certainly within the period of urine collection that we’ve been talking about, though not at the height of saltpetre production (over a century prior).

It’s worth nothing here that the variant phrase ‘take the mike’ pre-dates ‘piss’ by twenty years. Aside from the potential implications for ‘piss’, it certainly seems to undermine the suggestion that ‘mike’ came from ‘piss’ via Cockney rhyming slang.

We’ve seen nothing to discount the night soil interpretation as yet, but what of other explanations? The Dictionary of Contemporary Slang by Tony Thorne says that;

“This vulgarism has been in widespread use since the late 1940s. The original idea evoked by the expression was that of deflating someone, recalling the description of a self-important blusterer as ‘all piss and wind.'”

Looking at that phrase in turn, we see that it was in existence in advance of the others – back at least as far as 1922, from the famous writer James Joyce, no less.

Interestingly, the presumably related “take the wind” expression dates all the way back into the 19th century, and was still in currency into the “piss” period (though it only references the “wind” bit), for example this piece in Fraser’s magazine (1857), and forward in time to this quote from 1935.

If there’s a flaw in all this, it’s the added complication of ‘take the wind of his sails‘ (another here), one with an obvious maritime origin that could conceivably have nothing to do with all this piss.

In any case, “piss and wind” can tentatively be traced back again to “piss proud” – a term for what we would call ‘morning glory’ – the idea being that even a worn-out old codger could wake up apparently virile and manly, but as his erection faded (people thought it was caused by urine build-up rather than erotic dreams), it would be clear that it was only superficial. Hence if someone was very full of themselves, and it wasn’t justified in the eyes of his peers, to take him down a peg (another similar term of course) would be to take the wind out of him, or to be more poetic about it, to take the wind out of his sails, or finally, if one wished to be crude, to ‘take the piss out of him’. This is all summed up rather more concisely over at Wide Wide Words.

So, nothing too conclusive, but hopefully this exercise does demonstrate that the neat ‘night soil’ interpretation is without evidence, and that are better ones out there. Ultimately, I think we just have to accept that firm origins for these things are often elusive. The best of them are still only suggestions.

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Posted in Etymology, Myths, Post-Medieval History, Pseudohistory, Speculative | 5 Comments »