‘A pee’ vs. ‘a wee’ and the subtleties of translation in Åsa Larsson’s The Savage Altar

I recently read Åsa Larsson’s The Savage Altar, translated into English from the original Swedish. It was a perfectly Scandinavian murder mystery, and for the majority of the book I did not notice it was a work in translation. There was one thing that kept tripping me up as I read:

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For me, pee is used as a verb (‘she needed to pee’), while wee works much better as a noun (‘she needed a wee’), but can also work as a verb (‘she needed to wee’).

My hunch is supported by the Google Ngram data, using the handy tagger for part of speech, which shows the noun use of pee trailing verb pee significantly. (Usage note, when you search just in the British English corpus the use of pee falls off entirely, but the book was written with American usages throughout.)

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I’m not entirely sure I would have noticed this so much if the book wasn’t a translation, or if there wasn’t the repetition of the usage. There are at least six uses of ‘a pee’ in the book, but there is also a use of verb pee, which sits much better with my intuitions (‘she needed to pee again’).

Historically, the Oxford English Dictionary has a citation for the verb form of pee from 1788, almost a century before the first noun usage in 1880. There may be some regional variation to this that I’m not aware of. I definitely grew up with Australian English wee, in both noun and verb form instead of pee. Both of these forms have a much more recent history, verb wee is first attested in 1934 and noun wee in 1968, and are considered British forms by the OED.

21 thoughts on “‘A pee’ vs. ‘a wee’ and the subtleties of translation in Åsa Larsson’s The Savage Altar

  1. banivani March 2, 2018 / 8:14 am

    I’m positive I’ve heard pee as a noun often, but pee is always to me an Americanism (Irish mother, Swedish father, grew up in and live in Sweden). Have no sources though, but I wouldn’t have reacted to that at all. More interesting is the Swedish obsession with telling the world about needing to pee/a wee/a wee pee. It’s very amusing.

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  2. Stan Carey March 2, 2018 / 8:40 am

    How have I never thought about this before? I don’t think my own usage is cut and dried, but I definitely use wee a lot more (it’s what I grew up with). I use pee now and then, more as verb than noun; either way it can feel like a genteelism for piss, so it’s all very context-dependent.

    Green’s Dictionary of Slang has older citations than the OED for a couple of these usages: pee (n.) to c.1864 (in Randolph & Legman, Ozark Folksongs and Folklore (1992) II 660: “While the ladies, bless the pretty dears, / Must save their pee for nitre”); and wee (n.) to 1937, courtesy of Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, 1st ed.

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  3. #Grammar's Blog of Wordliness March 2, 2018 / 12:27 pm

    According to the OED pee is formed as the initial letter piss. Its purpose is patently euphemistic. A variant noun is also recorded in 1923: the reduplicated pee-pee.

    Interestingly, pee-pee is recorded a mere four years later as an infantilised and euphemised penis. Given the slippage between coinage and dictionary preservation the two pee-pee entries allow for considerable conjecture. Is it possible that pee-pee was restricted to the act of pissing from a penis?

    Wee, as an act of urination is first quoted from 1968. The adjective meaning tiny goes back centuries.

    A wee-wee is recorded, especially in the form do a wee-wee, by Eric Partridge in 1937. As far as the OED entry shows, Partridge’s conjecture of earlier use remains unproven.

    Following the pee-pee penis, the wee-wee penis is recorded in 1964 and 1972. Both quotations are US.

    1964 W. & J. Breedlove Swap Clubs xv. 233 Our grandmothers, wielding butcher knives, threatened to cut off our fathers’ wee-wees if they didn’t stop playing with them.
    1972 Screw 12 June 16/3 [The] self-righteous defender of what he thought to be his threatened wee wee, could not contain his machismo.

    While the OED is content with the definition ‘a penis’, to my eye the 1964 quotation suggests that a boy’s or young man’s penis may be a more accurate description, and 1972’s, while specifically adult, has a derogatory (or sarcastic) tone that echoes my first thought.

    I have only looked at the nouns pee and wee in the OED. Personally, born and raised in the UK, I do go for a pee now and then; more often I go for a piss, but there you are. Wee is in my vocabulary but restricted in context to the urination of children.

    Me, I pee, never wee, and I grew out of pee-pee and wee-wee years ago. However, thinking about it, pee and wee, noun and verb, are interchangeable if there is urine on the floor.

    Liked by 2 people

    • ardj March 5, 2018 / 2:00 pm

      Also male British, I’d go along with going for a pee (or having, but for some reason not taking), and of course its verbal use is also natural. ‘Wee’,noun or verb, on the other hand seems to me more child or perhaps female associated, though it seems to be used also for pets (“the dog weed on the carpet”).

      The school noun was ‘slash’ (as in ‘have a ..’) but that was 60 years ago and I had supposed, like most of the rest of our school slang, local, though i see that the OED suggests recent (1950-on use), and maybe with a prison or institutional flavour (if that is the term I want)

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  4. John Cowan March 2, 2018 / 4:50 pm

    American-born in 1958. I use pee as the standard polite euphemism for piss, and it is both verb and noun. I don’t say wee; it strikes me as doubly euphemistic and (what can I say?) twee.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. danchall March 2, 2018 / 6:34 pm

    This grammatical discussion reminds me of a sign in a washroom at work several years ago: “report all leaks to building services.” It struck me that I hadn’t seen the word used in that sense before (usually “take a leak”). I had been holding onto that joke for about 15 years. Thanks!

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  6. Tim Buchheim March 2, 2018 / 7:42 pm

    Both the noun and verb forms of “wee” are unusual in American English. It sounds overtly British to our ears so if the rest of the translation uses American English throughout it would be a mistake to use “wee” unless it was intended to emphasize that a particular character wasn’t American.

    But “pee” as a noun is also unusual in many regions of the United States. If I were the translator (or editor) I would change sentences such as “She needed a pee” to “She needed to pee” as that’s more idiomatic in American English.

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  7. Cynthia's Biblio -Files March 3, 2018 / 10:09 am

    Interesting! I only use ‘wee’ both as verb and noun. Rarely do you hear ‘pee’ in Australia where I live. I think it’s an American thing?

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  8. mollymooly March 3, 2018 / 12:54 pm

    “Can I have a P please, Bob?” was a giggle-inducing double entendre often heard on “Blockbusters”, 1980s school quiz on ITV presented by Bob Holness.

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  9. SlideSF March 3, 2018 / 6:20 pm

    Wee sounds decidedly British to me. Sometimes I will say “I have to pee”, but more often I take a pee, which is definitely a noun. I always assumed it was a euphamism for “take a piss”, as in “take a p-.” Not to be confused with “take the piss”, for which in America we would say “pulling one’s leg” or “having one on.”

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  10. Allen Thrasher March 3, 2018 / 10:44 pm

    Born 1946 in Norfolk, Virginia, and raised there, with both my parents raised outside the city in Norfolk County. Ten years’ higher education in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Taught in Seattle and Chicago. Wee-wee was the child’s term I grew up with, used only as a verb, the infinitive with to being used instead of a noun. I cannot recall _ever_ , anywhere, having heard wee unreduplicated being used either as a noun or a verb.

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  11. janeishly March 5, 2018 / 1:45 pm

    That’s weird, I’m usually the first to spot the incorrect flavour of English in text, but I’d have used “pee” too in this context, and I’m British. Maybe it depends where in the UK you’re from, though, as I’m fairly sure that I’ve picked up “pee” (so to speak) from my other half, who’s from the Midlands.

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  12. Chips Mackinolty March 5, 2018 / 2:19 pm

    Or the translator’s mother tongue/nationality.

    Australian, middle class, born mid-50s. Pee and wee used as nouns and verbs, at least in childhood, embarrassing memories of wee-wee as a noun. Having a piss, going for a piss far more common. Hard to beat, especially in Strong Language the Barry Humphries invention: “pointing Percy at the porcelain”; “splashing the boots”; draining the dragon” and “shaking hands with the wife’s best friend” (the latter also interpreted as male masturbation)

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  13. sesquiotic March 7, 2018 / 2:25 pm

    I’m a Canadian and have lived in the US as well, and the translations to “needed a pee,” “had a pee,” and “time for a pee” seem perfectly idiomatic to me – I’ve said things such as “I gotta go have a pee” on various occasions (well, various instances of the same kind of occasion). “Wee” seems extremely British to me, and if I see “had a wee” my first thought is “had a wee what?” because we use “wee” to mean “small” but not “piss.” “A wee-wee” is something I’d recognize but consider intensely childish.

    Interestingly, the translator, Marlaine Delargy, grew up in Manchester, went to university in Aberystwyth, and lives in Shropshire. So whatever her reason for using “pee” is it’s not anything to do with Canadianisms!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. astraya March 9, 2018 / 7:58 am

    Australian mid-1960s. To me, wee and pee are both equally nouns and verbs. Wee is more for children, those who care for them and women of delicate sensibility.

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  15. Allen Thrasher March 17, 2018 / 5:05 am

    Might one conclude that some of us find that unreduplicated, and especially in the mouth of an adult, “wee” is twee?

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  16. Ingeborg Nordén July 1, 2018 / 6:57 pm

    American Gen-X woman, still in the US. Never heard/read “wee” (in the urinary sense) without the reduplication, until I read contemporary British novels in college. Reduplicated “wee-wee” was baby talk, to my family; and “pee” (though the adults used it when they ordered me into the bathroom) was borderline sweary. (“If you say even the first letter of a bad word when you’re thinking that word, it counts!” said my hardcore Christian dad.)

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