Being an Alaska Library Association lecturer on safety elements in designing public library restrooms — titled “Potty Talk: What They Didn’t Teach in Library School” — an article about the word “toilet” in Tatler, the British socialite magazine, grabbed my attention.
Public restrooms are notoriously insecure, and details such as self-flushing toilets encased in stainless steel enclosures that can be unlocked from the outside make the facilities much safer for everyone involved. The Tatler article by Annabel Rivkin was titled “Breaking News! Yes, You Can Now Say the Word ‘Toilet’,” described how it’s time for “toilet” to be used in polite society.
It was humorously written: “I’m not a snob. You’re not a snob. We do not feel the need for superiority.
We do not see the world in terms of an index of acceptable names and words and practices … But what would you do if your child started saying toilet? … Because toilet is still the big one. The elephant in the we’re-not-snobs room.”
Rivkin suggests disdain for the word toilet “is because it is inaccurate. It is derived from the French … where it originated to describe the act of going about one’s toilet. Not going to the toilet.”
According to the online Oxford Dictionaries, performing one’s toilet is “the process of washing oneself, dressing, and attending to one’s appearance.” A recent online article, “The Cipher War” by Mallory Locklear, mentioned the first known toilets in history.
Locklear described scholars’ futile efforts to decode a mysterious form of writing from the little-known Indus Valley Civilization (IVC), which flourished in the northern region of India from 2500-1900 BCE.
She also went into how theories of the script’s origins have become hotly contested in present-day, highly politicized, India.
In 1872 British Major General Alexander Cunningham, a British engineer with an interest in the budding science of archeology, was excavating in Northern India when he uncovered a small black stone engraved with strange symbols. The object turned out to be a seal used to convey ownership that was covered with symbols that “range from geometric designs to representations of fish or jars” that have since been found on “signs, tablets, copper plates, tools, and pottery.” Hardly anything is known about the IVC because their script has never been deciphered.
We do know that the civilization encompassed over a million square miles and “featured sophisticated infrastructure including advanced water management and drainage systems, well-organized cities with street planning, and some of the first known toilets, but no evidence of rulers or religious figures, no palaces or large statues, and “very little indication of warfare.”
The texts have proven indecipherable because they’re very brief (the longest has only 17 symbols), and nothing’s known about the IVC’s underlying language, nor even the language family it belonged to. Moreover, “once the civilization ended, it appears that its culture and writing system did, too.”
All sorts of sophisticated computer techniques have been used to figure it out, but to no avail, although there’s evidence that the symbols have traits of true languages, but that doesn’t keep the experts from arguing about it.
Historian Steve Farmer was part of a team who poo-pooed the idea that the IVC symbols were a form of writing at all, stating that “Just finding structure in a bunch of symbols certainly doesn’t mean that you’ve found evidence that those symbols encode language.”
To which an academic rival, epigrapher Bryan Wells, responded, “You would be better off getting medical advice from your garbage man than you would getting ideas about the Indus script from listening to Steve Farmer.” And Indian scholars are even ruder.
There’s way too much rudeness in today’s world. Rudeness is getting out of hand when candidates for local office cannot attend a forum here in Fairbanks without being shouted down by rude, hyper-politicized and physically threatening audience members to the point that escorts are needed for them to safely get to their cars. As longshoreman-philosopher Eric Hoffer noted, “Rudeness is the weak man’s imitation of strength,” and it usually doesn’t age well. Edsel Ford Fung might have been an exception.
Known as “the Don Rickles of restaurants,” Fung, who died in 1984, was a foul-tempered, potty-mouthed waiter at Sam Wo, a tiny San Francisco restaurant, who was famous for verbally abusing diners, slamming down their plates – “Sit down and shut up!” was his usual greeting to customers – and for refusing to serve people whose looks he didn’t like, making diners deliver water to other customers, and even bus tables. Apparently, they loved it and tipped heavily.
The abrupt rise in rude public speech, especially cussing, over the past few decades coincided with the nation’s steep drop in civility.
Perhaps euphemisms can turn the tide, since many non-swearing expressions make excellent substitutes. My mother’s favorite is “fiddle-de-dee,” which she appropriated from Scarlett O’Hara and can still unleash with amazing vehemence. Others abound, including new ones like “Shitake mushrooms!,” “Corn nuts!,” and “William Shatner!” But the euphemism that’s worthy of attention is described in “The Long Linguistic Journey of ‘Dagnabbit’,” an Atlas Obscura article by Dan Nosowitz. He said “dagnabbit” is classed by linguists as a “taboo deformation.” In ancient times words had more power than now. Knowing the name of a person or thing gave you a measure of power over them.
Nosowitz wrote, “Basically, we are scared of the true names of certain beings or concepts, because to use them might mean we summon them, which we don’t want, or anger them … The true name is powerful, and we normal humans can’t handle that power … but sometimes we still need to communicate with each other about those beings or concepts,” so we make up names to substitute for the true ones.
Nosowitz’s illustrative example is the word “bear.” The word for “bear” in Proto-Indo-European, the oldest branch of our linguistic tree, is “h2rtkos.”
Bears and wolves were terribly fearsome creatures back then, but only in the colder regions, so people in warmer climes called bears “bears.” For example, the Greeks called bears “arktos,” which is clearly similar to “h2rtkos.” H2rtkos “became the basis for a bunch of other words. ‘Arctic,’ for example, which probably meant something like ‘land of the bear.’”
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “bear” comes from the Proto-Germanic “bero, literally ‘the brown one’” and the Irish word for bear meant “the good calf,” the Welsh used “honey-pig,” and the Russians “honey-eater.”
Alaskan bears can be even ruder than our local political bullies. Pepper spray’s best for dealing with the former, but while pepper spray might be tempting to use on the latter, persistent politeness might be the better answer, for, as Arthur Schopenhauer said, “Politeness is to human nature what warmth is to wax.”