FAIRBANKS — Some words cry out for special consideration. For example, many readers of the great Patrick O’Brian’s historical sea-novels, especially those raised far from the sea, occasionally wonder how the poop deck on boats got that name.
One of librarianship’s greatest gifts is finding out such information reliably, both in the sense of ease in doing it and in reliable veracity. Turning to a reputable source, like the American Heritage Dictionary, we learn that, like many English terms, “poop” has a variety of possible definitions. It is “the superstructure at the stern of a ship,” a “cause to become tired,” “inside information,” and a “very disagreeable person.”
OneLook.com looks up words in 1,062 dictionaries simultaneously, including the American Heritage and Etymonline.com, an online etymology dictionary of word origins. It says the nautical sort of “poop” comes from the 14th century Middle French word “poupe,” which derives from the Latin “puppis,” both of which mean “ship’s stern.”
“Poop” has one other meaning that’s of a digestive nature which etymonline.com notes is “probably of imitative origin.” The latter stages of the digestive process have amused some segments of society at least since the Roman Emperor Elagabalus livened up his dinner parties with air-filled bladders hidden under his guests’ seats. In fact, I once boasted the best collection of whoopee cushions in all of Alaska. Whoopee Cushions come in many sizes and audible tones, though mostly are of identical off-salmon colored, pancake-balloon design. Mine were pristine and worthy of the big bucks they garnered when I donated them for sale in one of the public library staff association’s white elephant sales on behalf of United Way.
Today’s whoopee cushion was perfected by the Thomas Edison of practical joking, Samuel Sorenson Adams, owner of the S.S. Adams novelty company. Adams began as a dye salesman who noticed that one of his products made people sneeze. He called it “Cachoo,” marketed it as a gag, and the sneezing powder craze of the early 1900s was born.
He’d gone on to create such marvels as exploding cigarettes, springing snake cans, stink bombs, itching powder, and dribble glasses when a Canadian rubber company asked him to develop the first modern whoopee cushion. Adams originally rejected it as “too vulgar,” but later stole and popularized the idea.
He went on to introduce the squirting nickel, bugs-in-ice-cubes, and the infamous “Joy Buzzer,” the device you wind-up, secrete in your palm, and startle whomever’s fool enough to shake your hand.
Practical jokes differ from practicable jokes. Both “practical” and “practicable” come from the Greek “praktikos,” meaning “practical,” but something’s practical when it’s “effective, useful, or easy to use,” whereas it’s practicable if it’s possible.
The joking sense of “practical” stems from a rarely used definition of “practice” that means “deceiving, or taking advantage, or someone.” A current example is the “Little History Lesson” that’s circulated through email since 1999. It’s a collection of purported facts about how words and sayings evolved in the 1700s, but they’re incorrect. It’s satisfying to verify fantastical things through reputable sources, like Snopes.com.
Snopes.com was founded by Barbara and David Mikkelson, a California couple whose website’s dedicated to researching the origins and reliability of urban legends, rumors, and scams. If it sounds too good to be true, check it out on Snopes.com. After Etymonline.com revealed the falsity of several “Little History Lessons” claims, I bounced them off Snopes, who’d already researched the entire list and cited their sources.
For the record, “minding your Ps and Qs doesn’t come from barmaids trying the remember who’d ordered pints rather than quarts, and colonial ladies didn’t use beeswax to cover acne scars caused by “poor personal hygiene,” and “lose face” when sitting too close to fires, and nor did they say “mind your own beeswax.” Experts disagree about “Ps and Qs” origins, but it predates the 1700s by at least a century and likely relates to cautioning printer’s assistants sorting type for printing presses. And the first documented mention of “minding beeswax” occurred in 1934.
Knowing for sure’s a good thing, and if “[v]eracity is the heart of morality,” as Thomas Huxley wrote, then there’s no more moral place to find the truth than your public library.
Greg Hill is the former director of Fairbanks North Star Borough libraries.