Just Dropping By
In presenting my modest feast of fecal terms, my scat sheet, my cacata carta (Horatian Latin 'shitty sheets'), my scatologue, my selection of the proper words for animal droppings, I abhor the giving of the scantest offense. Fain would I stab with pointiest quill my hand, were I to induce a maiden's blush or to cause milady's lorgnette to drop from her eye into the heaving heaven of her poitrine and be forever embosomed. But, gentles, we are dealing with words about animal shit. So look out!
Merds & Other Droppings
British novelist Anthony Burgess once suggested in print that English possessed no good term for dog shit. Using French, as, years ago, some Park Avenue matron might—“Mais no! Une merde de chien on le sidewalk!” is simply too precious. Also symbolic of simpering preciosity are hobby farmers who insist on referring to “bovidung” instead of cow flops. Burgess wanted a term less vulgar and less crude than dog shit but less namby-pamby than evasive euphemistic phrases like ‘doggie do-do.’ The great writer demanded a phrase solidly representative of the unpleasant object to be denominated. A novelist and essayist with broad etymological scope, Burgess stepped forth with the aptly drab but perfect coinage dog merd. Unfortunately it has not been taken up by the general populace and ‘dog shit’ still abounds on the cloddish tongues of low-born persons.
Merd & Merde & Merde Alors!
Meaning excrement or turd, merd was already in Anglo-Norman by the twelfth century, a direct borrowing of classical Latin merda ‘shit,’ origin of the now common modern French exclamation “Merde alors!”= an emphatic, sometimes sarcastic “Oh, well then!”
Some uses of the merde word in twentieth-century English exist. British theatre slang demands that, when a backstage wish of “Break a leg!” is offered to the actors about to go onstage, the proper response, obeying long-standing British thespian superstition, is “Merde!” It is used as a minced oath, instead of saying “Oh shit!”
Be Gone, Thou Merdivore!
One rare adjective I like, useful in the tiny quiver of insult arrows that English possesses, is merdivorous ‘eating shit.’ I think we could back-form a noun from that excellent adjective and address a cowardly and odious person as “You loathsome merdivore!”—a neology coined on the analogy of the voracious words like carnivore, herbivore, omnivore and locavore (the now ecologically discountenanced term for one who eats only local food) Locavores do not save the planet; local food does not spare you toxins or help save the earth. Much like the “organic food” mania, it is largely a scam, designed to extract more food dollars from our already thinning purses.
Leave us not confine to the dank oubliette of forgotten words the rare but lovely ranivore ‘eater of frogs,’ said to be common in France. Nor must we pass over, in a prissily democratic attempt to avoid obscurities, the delightsome piscivore ‘eating fish’ and its splendid Hellenic equivalent, ichthyophage from ἰχθύς ichthys Greek ‘fish’ + ϕάγος phagos Greek ‘eating.’
One of the neat –phagos borrowings in English is a word for coffin, sarcophagus, literally flesh-eater, from Greek σαρκοϕάγος sarkophagos, from σάρξ σαρκος sarx, sarkos ‘flesh’ and -ϕάγος phagos ‘eating.’ Ancient Greeks believed the limestone used to make the sarcophagus would help to consume the dead flesh of corpses buried in such a stone box.
Much Needed Synonym for Republican
Long needed in English has been a proper delineation of the moronic hoards who populate the outreaches of our rightwing political spectrum. I propose, when we tire of the label Republicans, that we summon back an adjective from the 1880s, autocoprophagous ‘eating their own shit,’ the central ancient Greek etymon being κόπρος kopros ‘excrement, feces.’ One of my favorite words in paleontology bearing the same root is coprolith ‘a fossilized turd.’ Long ago, in dusty high-school classrooms, I was taught by several coproliths.
Dropping Some Other Terms
Now I present orthodox English terminology for the feculent depositions of other animals. The go-to authority on such words is C.E. Hare’s magisterial and still regnant The Language of Field Sports.
The Billets of a Fox
What an elegant choice to name vulpine ordure! This billet is from Old French billette ‘piece of wood cut for fuel,’ a diminutive form of bille ‘tree trunk.’
The Crottels of a Rabbit
The tiny little balls in piles of hare scat are crottels, a diminutive form of French crote, except that no printed evidence of such a derivation has come to scholarly light. So we must be content to happen upon the crottels and then whisper to our inner huntsman, “Bunnies are near!”
A word related to crottel is still operative in modern French. There is a widely available French cheese named crottin de chèvre ‘goat turds.’
The Fiants of a Wild Boar
Who knows when next you may be hot in pursuit of a collared peccary scampering its frightened way through arid scrublands of Arizona? Suddenly you must reference their scat. You may point to and speak of their fiants. Fiants also name the dung of foxes and badgers. But I like to think of the tusked javelina snorting and oinking its way to nearby cover while followed by four brave hunters in a Jeep with the sixteen rifles, all of them required to kill one wild wee piggywig.
a peccary & her oinky piglets
Taken from French hunting vocabulary, the word fiant was firmly ensconced in English by 1575 CE when gentleman author George Gascoigne used it about badgers: “The Badgerd pigges at comming out of the earth do commonly. . . cast their fyaunts.” In the same book, Gascoigne also used the new word as a verb: “They fyaunt within it [sc. a burrow or hole] and hide it.” Modern-day sales analysts would call Gascoigne “an early adopter.” He read all manner of continental poetry and prose and then introduced new literary modes into Renaissance English both by translating and by adapting, among them a French hunting manual.
In the mode of sixteenth-century books, Gascoigne favoured florid and lengthy titles. Now I happen to love long titles and so I reproduce with delight his total title: The Noble Art of Venerie or Hunting: Wherein is handled and set out the vertues, nature, and properties of fifteene sundry chases, together with the order and manner how to hunt and kill every one of them. Translated & collected for the pleasure of all noblemen and gentlemen, out of the best approoved authors, which have written any thing concerning the same: and reduced into such order and proper termes as are vsed here in this noble realme of Great Britaine.
Fiant stems from fient French ‘dung’ from a supposed medieval Latin form like *femitum ultimately from classical Latin fimus ‘dung, dung hill.’ Another French version was fiens from a Latin variant fimum.
This all-purpose term for animal droppings is apparently quite modern, although its etymon is ancient. Scat’s first known use in print is the year 1927. Scat is a direct short form borrowed from the common ancient Greek word for dung, crap or shit, namely σκώρ, σκατός skor, skatos. The word is still around in Modern Greek too, σκατό skato, pl. σκατά) skata meaning ‘feces.’ Of course it’s the source of our modern English literary word scatology and its adjective scatological and someone else's neology scatalogue quoted in the first sentence of this essay.
Some musicians say it is also the source of 'scat' singing, doodle-oodle-doodling when the singer has forgotten the lyrics to a song. Or, when, like pompous windbag Ella Fitzgerald, you the singer think you know the music better than Cole Porter who wrote the music. Hint to scat singers: You do NOT know the music better than the composer.You the singer are not a composer but a poseur, or, in Madame Ella's case, a poseuse.
Uncle Billy’s Free Amendment of a Vulgar Error
Willingly do I offer a corrective note — without prejudice, as is ever my wont — to the oh-so-dainty housewife, trying to be snooty and upper-class but managing only to be illiterate, the mistress of the house who referred to a solitary glum dog merd deposited on her verandah by saying “The dog made a fece [sic] on our front porch.” Not possible, I’m afraid, your ladyship. The word feces is plural only, dear madam. There is no singular form in the English language, perhaps on Mars where your nose is usually pointed, but not here on earth. Feces is a plural form in classical Latin where fæces is the plural of fæx meaning ‘dregs.’
The mistake is similar to persons who imagine kudos 'praise' is a plural word and speak incorrectly of "the just kudo [sic] bestowed upon the hero." No, indeed. Kudos is singular, both in its native language Greek, and in its adopted one, English.
A Mass of Frass
Frass is the excrement of larvae or any excrementitious ejecta voided by plant-and wood-boring insects. From German Frass ‘animal fodder,’ ‘repulsive food,’ its origin is the German verb fressen ‘to devour, to stuff your food in like an animal’ itself an intensive form that began as veressen ‘to really eat a lot.’ Yiddish still has the noun fresser for a human glutton or piggy eater. German has Fresserei to name a guzzling, gut-stuffing pig fest, ‘a real feed’ as bloated 400-pound obesity victims say, while drool and sundry lipids course down their double chins in goopy rivulets.
Deep in the forest primeval or deep in the forest defecatory, one could get into trouble following deer scat. You might begin to stutter during a sentence like “Did the doe do do-do?” At such tongue-rippling moments it is always reassuring to have synonyms at one’s finger tips if not at one’s tongue tip. Deer scat is fumets. The word is rare and always plural. There are bizarre orthographical variants including strange spellings like fewmets. There is no trace in print or parchment of the Anglo-Norman version of this word. But it must have been something like *fumets or *fumez from French fumer ‘to put manure on fields’ from Latin fumare ‘to give off smoke,’ so that the secondary sense of ‘to fertilize with dung’ arose from the odorous steam issuant from fresh manure.
Lesses Are No More
Although the word is, as an old professor of mine used to say, “crystalized in obsolescence,” bear scat may still be called the lesses of a bear. The dung of any animal dubbed ferocious can be the lesses. Wolf lesses are spoken of. But, usually today, the word scat has replaced lesses. Borrowed from now obsolete French laisses, the word probably arose as laissées from laisser French ‘to leave,’ so that its prime meaning was ‘the leavings [sc. of the animal].’
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Spraints on Your Ankle?
English is among the few world languages that has a specific word for otter turd. In the slang of British hunting, otter droppings are spraints. O most excellent wordlet! Derived from Old fourteenth-century French espraintes ‘things squeezed out,’ from the French verb espraindre ‘to squeeze out’ ultimately from Latin exprimere ‘to squeeze in order to expel something.’ For example, the Romans used exprimere to name the action of squeezing water out of sponge. The modern French noun plural is épreintes and the verb épreindre.Words squeezed out of one's mouth are expressed and groups of such words make up expressions.
But now, enough of vile feculence, say I! Enough of dwelling unduly upon lowly excreta. We may be born in the stable but our eyes, our brows, even our eyebrows, must lift ever toward the starry welkin and the purer upper ethers where do cavort, hover, and in general helicopter about, the sweeter-smelling angels of our nature.
Bill Casselman, June 01, 2017
Text Copyright 2017 by William Gordon Casselman
Increase English vocabulary; learn the proper terms for animal droppings; it's not pig shit, it's the fiants of a boar
At the Wording Desk