Daily Archives: June 10, 2010


Imagine an open mouth: o. Now imagine a hand in front of it: p. Start with the hand there, take it away, put it back: poop. In place of the hand, just close your lips: closed, open, closed. If you blow out, you make a little blast of a whistle; if you vocalize while the mouth is open, you may a sound like a steam horn. Both of these are sounds associated with ships.

And so is the poop deck. But the poop deck does not take its name from the sounds. Nor does it take its name from the deposits left by seagulls. Rather, that word poop comes, by way of French, from Latin puppis, which means “the stern of a ship” – which is where the poop deck is.

So, for those who were hoping for some more excremental explanation, I hate to be the party pooper, but that’s the real poop on it. That it is the back end of the ship is happenstance, not a relation to other back-end work. But of course there’s lots more poop to give you the scoop on.

For starts, there’s the balcony in the mess hall at West Point Military Academy, which is called the poop deck, and from which important announcements are made. Apparently on the basis of this, the term originating at West Point for an information sheet is poop sheet (which really does sound vulgar in its way, doesn’t it?). And from poop sheet comes poop meaning “information”.

Aside from that, however, other uses of poop tend to trace back to a more imitative source. It can’t be hard to imagine poop being spontaneously used to refer to a passage of wind out not the mouth but the other end of the digestive tract. And this simple origin has had some extended meanings dumped on it. Perhaps most common is that substance that parents of infants must deal with in great quantity (and can’t seem to stop talking about – parent to parent, the down-and-dirty on the down-and-dirty, i.e., the poop on the poop).

Also evidently from that is the term meaning “fool” or “bore”, which might come from nincompoop, but nincompoop appears to get its poop from guess where. This poop lately travels a lot with old, and that phrase no doubt got a boost from On Golden Pond, in which Ethel Thayer (“Thoundth like I’m lithping, doethn’t it?”) – played by Katharine Hepburn – regularly calls her husband Norman (Henry Fonda) you old poop.

And then there is poop meaning “exhaust” (I mean the verb!), usually showing up as a past participle: “I’m pooped.” This poop might be related to poof – so another imitative or expressive usage – or it might be related again to the same poop as shows up near diaper. Or both. And from this poop of exhaust (what an image) may come party pooper – or that may just come straight from the source by the backdoor. As it were.

Naturally, poop shows up all over the place. (Ew.) When I was a kid, we had these little funny rubber figures with parachutes attached, called Poopatroopers. Poop is indeed popular among children, and apparently is not a word for adults; when I try to search it on clusty.com (now called yippy.com), I get the top news stories (the poop of the day!) with the notice “The term ‘poop’ has been removed from your query because the adult filter is on.” How did it know I was an adult?*

OK, well, and are we almost dung? I mean done? Indeed. The evening draws to its perigee, so blow out the candle – and what mouth gesture do you make in doing so? It’s no riddle of the sphincter. I mean sphinx. Nighty-night, toodle-oo, poop-poop-pe-doo.

Thanks to Elaine Freedman for suggesting poop, as in the ship deck.

*It would seem that Yippy, though useful for its clustering (hence the older name Clusty), turns out to be a very overtly conservative service. I find now that it says unabashedly that it censors anything not in line with what are clearly triumphalist neo-conservative values; therefore, I must disendorse it, and although it has been useful for clustering results, I cannot support it. Readers take note: if you disagree with a search engine that states that it censors “anti-Conservative views or opinions” and declares that “conservative values will bring us our victory in the market place,” you may find yourself more than a little conflicted when using Yippy.com. If, on the other hand, you feel that its positions match yours, you will be quite happy using it. Of course you are also still free to read my postings if you so wish, no matter what your views. Some of them probably are not findable through Yippy.com, though. You also may not find this little capper, to finish with a smile: icanhascheezburger.com/2009/04/26/funny-pictures-in-cow-poop/.


How does a dauphin deftly move a delphinium from Delft to Delphi? On a dolphin, of course.

OK, no, this is not some bizarre form of delf-punishment. (Or perhaps it is, but still…) And it is not without porpoise. I mean purpose. It just happens that delphin is one word that has swum around quite a bit.

Delphin? Indeed. No, it’s not a dolphin with its eye half-closed (e rather than o). Or, well, it is, but it’s also one with its eyes open, or both closed, or… Delphin is simply the original form of dolphin; it’s the Greek etymon as well as an uncommon English word, and it means, yes, that famous cetacean, the marine mammal family that includes bottlenoses and orcas (yes, that’s right, “killer whales” are dolphins). Flipper.

And just as the family of dolphins includes quite a variety of flipping critters, so, too, does the family of delphin involve quite a flippin’ few words. Delphinium, the flower also known as larkspur, apparently appears like a dolphin when the flower is opening. The dauphin, the eldest son of the king of France, took his designation from what was originally the given name of one person – who was named after the critter. Delphi, home of the Greek oracle, may have been named after the dolphin form in which Apollo first arrived at the place (quite the task given that it’s in the mountains), and/or it may have taken its name from the Greek for “womb”, delphys, which in its turn is also the source for Greek delphin (it was seen as a fish with a womb, it seems). And Delft? Ah, sorry, had to delve elsewhere for that one: it’s from the Dutch for “canal”, which comes from a word for “dig” cognate with, yes, delve.

I may as well also say that dolphins are not related to Philadephia (though undoubtedly this resemblance is why the word delphin causes me to think of cream cheese). Oh, there is an etymological relation; the adelph in the city name comes from Greek adelphos “brother”, which is formed from morphemes for “same” and “womb”. But don’t go to Philly looking for dolphins. May I suggest Miami for that purpose.

There are several other words that begin with delphin, too: delphinate, a salt of delphinic acid, and also a variant of dauphinate, the jurisdiction of a dauphin; delphinic acid, inactive valeric acid, discovered in dolphin-oil; delphine, another word for delphinium, for delphin, or for delphinine; delphinine, adjective, belonging to the dolphin family, or noun, a highly poisonous alkaloid derived from the delphinium; delphinestrian, one who rides a dolphin (of course); delphinidin, an anthocyanidin antioxidant that is an important pigment in cranberries, concord grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, pomegranates, and flowers, including larkspur (naturally); delphinite, an obsolete name for the mineral epidote; delphinoid, like a dolphin; delphinoidine, an alkaloid derived from (what else) the larkspur (you do remember that larkspur equals delphinium, yes?); and Delphinus, a Latin name for a dolphin-shaped constellation.

So, then, you may be wondering what’s with this move from delphin to dolphin. Was the word just too stuffed full? Well, the Latin delphinus (the Greek plus an us) came over time to be dalphinus (an unsurprising vowel shift that I hear even now from young Canadian women, among others), and this led to French daulphin, whence both dauphin and the English daulphyne, which simplified in spelling to modern dolphin. All English’s delphin forms have simply gone straight back to the Greek.

But do the different words, delphin and dolphin, give you a different aesthetic sense of this animal? I feel dolphin as colder and harder, and it brings echoes of doll, golf, and Adolph; delphin is softer and smoother for me (and spreadable, of course), and echoes elfin and self and perhaps Delsey (makers of suitcases), an may be echoed in assorted names, even perhaps Elaine Phillips, who just happens to have suggested tasting this word in the first place.