On my blog, Fritinancy, I’ve been documenting the commercial use of vulgarisms and near-profanity for several years. I’ve written about Effen vodka, “Look at the booking view,” “half-fast Internet,” “go fun yourself,” and other examples of boundary-pushing by advertisers.
But until earlier this month I’d never encountered “piss” in a national advertisement.
Ad for S.J. Shrubsole, The New Yorker, December 8, 2014, page 21.
The use of the earthy “haven’t got a pot to piss in” caught my eye, especially because of the contrast with the $125,000 chamberpot. (Some pot! Some piss!) I wondered about the idiom–how old is it? American or British?–and about whether attitudes toward this particular four-letter word, one of the infamous seven you can’t say on television, are shifting.
Piss is a pretty old word in English: late 13th century, from similar words in French and Latin, according to the OED; it’s generally assumed to be onomatopoetic. For centuries it was regarded as informal but not especially naughty; in Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing (2013), Melissa Mohr notes that the King James Version of the Old Testament includes “him that pisseth against the wall” (1 Kings 14:10) and “the men…may eat their own dung, and drink their own piss” (2 Kings 18:27). (My Masoretic text, from the Jewish Publication Society of America, primly substitutes “water” for “piss” in the latter passage.)
Some piss– compounds are almost as old as the original word. Pisspot goes back to the mid-15th century; piss-burnt (discolored by urine, which was often used in tanning and dyeing) dates to the mid-16th century; piss-prophet (one who diagnosed diseases through examination of urine) and piss-house (a privy) appeared in the 17th century; piss-proud (having or designating an erection due to a full bladder) is from the late 18th century.
But a significant number of piss idioms were coined in the 20th century. Piss and vinegar (energy, vigor) is “chiefly U.S.” and not documented until 1936. According to Michael Quinion of World Wide Words, the poet Ezra Pound invented piss-rotten (“distasteful or unpleasant”) in 1940. The earliest documented use of piss-poor (“of an extremely poor quality or standard”) is dated 1946; its military context–“Jim Constantine (..formerly sergeant in Air Corps in West Indies) told me this morning that this word was used by all the soldiers he came in contact with as descriptive of a thing in its lowest condition… E.g. This is a piss-poor outfit. My job is a piss-poor one”–suggests that the term had been in circulation during World War II. Piss-elegant (“affectedly refined”) was first recorded in 1947. To piss away (money, for example) is from 1948. The OED gives the first usage of the British to piss off (“to go away”) as 1958; the U.S. version (“to annoy”) is documented from 1968, although it’s said to have been in use during World War II. Ditto for to take the piss out of (someone), a British (and Commonwealth) idiom meaning “to satirize,” which first appeared in written form in 1945.
Not having a pot to piss in is another 20th-century piss-idiom, distinctive in that here piss isn’t metaphorical (signifying something of little value) but literal. The full saying is “So poor s/he didn’t have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of”; the OED calls it “chiefly U.S.” and for the first citation gives the 1934 typescript of Nightwood, a novel by Djuna Barnes that was published in 1936. (Barnes included “…or a window to throw it from.”) Snopes claims, without documentation, that the expression goes back to 1905 :
Before the days of indoor plumbing, bedrooms were equipped with chamber pots, wide-mouthed vessels used by the room’s occupants as ad hoc toilets during the middle of the night. (Once bodily contributed to, such containers were covered with cloths, placed back into the cabinets (commodes) they’d come from or slid under beds, then retrieved in the morning and emptied into the home’s privy.) While this colorful phrase deals with a houseware item common for centuries, the saying itself dates only to 1905. However broke people may have been in the more distant past, there weren’t hordes of them unable to afford vessels of any kind to pee into.
In the world of branding, vulgar terms for excretory functions appear more frequently, and in odder contexts, than you might predict. There are a bunch of brand names with slang terms for defecation: see Chicken Poop Lip Balm, Poo-Pourri toilet spray (famous for slightly surreal commercial spots), and competing cereal brands called Crapola! and Holy Crap. By contrast, piss brands are relatively scarce. I found only Piss Beer, from Australia (the URL is euphemised to Pi55.com) and the evocative Piss Off, a “shampoo and conditioner” for wetsuits that may have been worn for a few hours past holding capacity.