Susie Dent’s Introduction To Swearing: The Other P-Word

Susie wants a wee word with you about swearing…

Susie Dent’s Introduction To Swearing: The Other P-Word

Susie wants a wee word with you about swearing…

Going to the Spice Islands? Having a moment in the phrontistery? Perhaps you’ve drained the lizard or used the thunder-jug? Over the centuries we’ve concocted hundreds of euphemisms for visiting the toilet. From the 18th-century ‘playing arse-music’ to visiting the ‘doughnut in granny’s greenhouse’ (courtesy of Michael Palin and Terry Jones), we will do anything, it seems, rather than ‘take a piss’. Which is strange given that, when it first emerged at the beginning of the 14th century, ‘piss’ was an entirely straightforward term for what we each do several times a day.

Such directness was usual for this time, when ‘cunt’ was freely used in anatomy manuals, and intestines were known to some as ‘arse-ropes’. ‘Piss’ itself was a direct borrowing from the Old French pisser, and its etymology is just as unproblematic, in that the word neatly echoes the act and sound of urinating. By the 17th century, however, pissing had lost its shine and was no longer acceptable in polite conversation.

The explanation for the shift lies, of course, in our changing taboos. Whereas squeamishness in the Middle Ages focused almost entirely on religious profanity, the lens gradually shifted to the body and its functions. ‘Shit’ and ‘bollocks’ (and, most decisively, the aforementioned ‘cunt’) followed the same path from standard fare to naughtiness.

That hasn’t, of course, reduced their power: quite the opposite. To say it is pissing down when it’s raining hard is making as clear a statement as to declare someone to be a piss artist. Both phrases reflect the versatility that these four letters now offer; the dictionary records hundreds of spin-offs of the original pissing game.

Jonathon Green’s majestically gritty Green’s Dictionary of Slang offers pages and pages of piss. In the 19th century, for example, ‘piss-quick’ was one of many euphemisms for gin – in this case mixed with marmalade and hot water. A century later, to ‘piss bones’ or ‘piss children’ was a rather brutal reference to going into labour.

Want more foul-mouthed indecency? You can find all of Susie Dent’s Introduction to Swearing here!

In the 20th century, to ‘piss blood’ was both to worry excessively and work too hard, while to ‘piss in the wind’ today is to spend effort doing something entirely futile. ‘Pissing money against the wall’, recorded from the 15th century, is wasting all your earnings on drink.

Many of us are, of course, frequently just ‘pissed’, in both the British and American sense of the word. ‘Pissed’ in the sense of angry is a shortening of ‘pissed off’, while to be so pissed you can’t stand up, British-style, is part of the overflowing slang lexicon for being drunk.  Both are negative states to be in, which is where ‘piss’ almost universally dwells. If you were to ‘piss on a nettle’ in the past, you would be unreasonably annoyed. Had you ‘pissed on someone’s lamppost’, you’d have done something to make your presence known.

Perhaps we dislike someone so much we want to ‘piss on their parade’. Alternatively, we might not ‘piss on them if they were on fire’ nor even give them ‘the steam on our piss’. Darkest of all, ‘to piss when one cannot whistle’, in the 18th century, was to hang from the gallows.

There are exceptions to this nastiness, of course. If something is a ‘piece of piss’ it is ridiculously simple – an impossible feat, surely, unless it is frozen, in which case you would be ‘pissing on ice’, an early 20th-century term for living the high life (it seems urinals in upmarket restaurants carried blocks of ice to eliminate odours).

For most of us, however, the greatest power of the word lies in the exhortation ‘Piss off!’. It is simple, punchy, and extremely to the point. If you want to mix it up a bit, you might borrow further embellishments such as ‘piss up a flagpole/your leg/up a rope’. Best of all, you might tell someone to go ‘piss around a pretzel’. In fact, pissing around a pretzel while visiting granny’s doughnut might be the most glorious sweary outing of the lot.


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