Thursday, June 01, 2006


A Bathroom Word

Anatoly Liberman, the Oxford Etymologist, writes:
There can be no doubt about the origin of ka-ka, poop, and a good many similar bathroom words.
I have often pondered the linguistic origin of ka-ka, which I spell caca. This was the word for excrement that we used in our family when I was a lad. It also meant anything dirty or filthy, not to be put in the mouth. My mother's native language was French, although we spoke English at home, and I suspect she was the one who introduced this word into our family circle.

This suspicion of French origin was reinforced on my one and only trip to France, where caca was almost the first French word I heard, in the mouth of a little boy on the train from Luxembourg to France, who asked his mother if he could faire caca. Louis Chaffurin, Dictionnaire Français-Anglais (Paris: Larousse, 1928), defines caca thus:
Excrement, dirt; faire caca, to go to stool.
The little boy was asking his mother if he had her permission to go to stool.

A brief digression on stool. The Online Etymology Dictionary (s.v.) says:
O.E. stol "seat for one person," from P.Gmc. *stolaz (cf. O.Fris. stol, O.N. stoll, O.H.G. stuol, Ger. Stuhl "seat," Goth. stols "high seat, throne"), from PIE *sta-lo-, locative of base *sta- "to stand" (cf. Lith. pa-stolas "stand," O.C.S. stolu "stool;" see stet). Originally used of thrones (cf. cynestol "royal seat, throne"); change of meaning began with adoption of chair from Fr., which relegated stool to small seats without arms or backs, then "privy" (1410) and thence to "bowel movement" (1533).
In English, cucking stools are "chairs formerly used for the punishment of scolds, witches, prostitutes and dishonest tradesmen." Cucking is from a Middle English word cognate with caca, viz. cukken = defecate.

One dishonest tradesman I would like to see sentenced to the cucking stool is Ken Lay, former CEO of Enron and now convicted felon. There is a little-known connection between Enron and the by-products of human digestion. Enron originated with the merger of InterNorth of Omaha and Houston Natural Gas in 1986. The first choice for the corporate name was Enteron, until someone looked in the dictionary and realized that enteron means "alimentary canal, digestive tract," perhaps not the best name for a company selling natural gas.

Another English word possibly cognate with caca is poppycock, about which the Online Etymology Dictionary says:
1865, probably from Du. dialect pappekak, from M.Du. pappe "soft dung" (see pap) + kak "dung," from L. cacare "to excrete."
When I learned Latin, I discovered to my delight that the verb meaning "to defecate" was cacō, cacāre, and wondered if there was any etymological connection to caca. Apparently there is. J.N. Adams, The Latin Sexual Vocabulary (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), has an appendix on the Vocabulary Relating to Bodily Functions (pp. 231-250). One of the bodily functions discussed is defecation (pp. 231-244) and one of the vocabulary items under defecation is cacō and its derivatives (pp. 231-233). Adams says (p. 232):
Caco survives in all of the Romance languages.
J. Pokorny, Indogermanisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch, s.v. kakka- (p. 521), refers not only to Latin cacō, but also to related words in Armenian, Greek, Middle Irish, Welsh, Breton, Cornish, Russian, and New High German. The Greek words appear, as we would expect, in Aristophanes:It is both funny and touching to consider that this homely word has been passed on from mother (traditionally the toilet trainer) to child for millennia, ever since the days of proto-Indo-European.

Dennis Mangan writes:
The Aztec word for "cocoa" was "cacahuatl". Apparently the Spaniards were impressed by the correspondence between the word and cocoa's appearance, which so resembles "caca".
John Gould, Europe on Saturday Night: The Farmer and His Wife Take a Tour (Camden: Down East Books, 1968), p. 99, writing about the Danube River, says:
It flows on and on with romance and traffic, accumulating waltzes and kuck as it goes.
Kuck doesn't appear in the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1979). In Maine, I have heard people refer to the equipment used to clean septic tanks as the kucka-sucka.

The first two entries under the letter c in Bosworth and Toller's An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (1898) are these:
cac, es; m? Dung, excrement; stercus, foria, merda, Som. Ben. Lye. [Plat. kak, kakk: Dut. kak, m: Kil. kack: Ger. kack, m: Dan. kag, m. f: Grk. κάκκη: Lat. cacare: Grk. κακκάω.]

cac-hús, es; n. A privy; latrina, Som. Ben. Lye. [Kil. kack-huys.]

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