poo, poop

As I mentioned in the last post, I was at the BBC (on) Monday recording a Word of Mouth episode with Man Who Cries "American English is ruining Britain" Matthew Engel. One of his examples of Americanisms taking over was people in the UK saying poop instead of poo. I wish I'd known then what I just looked up in the OED.

My answer at the time was, basically, words for f(a)eces are the type of thing that would change often, because of what Steven Pinker calls "the euphemism treadmill". "Polite" words for a taboo subject become impolite once they have been associated with the taboo for too long. Some Americans are using poo more now because it sounds "less dirty" than poop, and perhaps poop sounds a bit more "fun" and a bit less graphic in for some BrE speakers. (Or maybe not. If you've switched your poo(p) word, let us know why.)

I doubted whether poo had been around long enough for Engel and Michael Rosen (the host) to have used it in their own childhoods (Rosen concurred), and therefore concluded that its loss was hardly a blow to British traditionalism. If British people are saying poop now (they're still mostly saying poo, I should note), that might be a short-lived trend. 

So, tonight I thought: "I wonder if I was right about poo being so new in BrE." And so I looked it up. And what I found was great:

Poo to mean 'f(a)eces' is first recorded in American English in the OED (1960 Dictionary of American Slang). Green's Dictionary of Slang found it in 1950 in Walter Winchell's 'On Broadway' column. (He does have an 1830s citation too, but suspects it's a misprint for pee.)
Late addition (next day)
: I now see there's a 1937 UK usage of poo-poo that I missed in Green's dictionary (the timeline interface is a bit tricky).

The next few examples in the OED and GDoS are mostly Australian. In the 1980s we start really seeing poo in British English--which was pretty much what I'd thought. The count-noun use (a poo, rather than some poo) is recorded in the OED as 'chiefly British' (indeed it is).

This seems like a good time to share with you a favo(u)rite song of the Lynneguist household, Kid Carpet's 'Doing a poo in the forest' (so that it gets stuck in your head too):




I would bet that the current usage of poo came to the UK as an Australianism, though, since there's more evidence of its popular use there--and plenty of Australians (and at some points, Australian television) in the UK.

[Note that if you want to look these things up for yourself in the OED, they're under the spelling pooh. I've sent a message to the OED suggesting that poo should be a co-headword there, so that it's searchable.]

But it gets better!

Poop was used in British English long before poo was. If poop is coming back (not a nice image, sorry), it's more of a resurgence (the images are getting worse) than a new immigrant.

The verb to poop while 'now chiefly US' goes back to the 16th century in English--though then it was more about farting. The 'defecating' sense is recorded in a dictionary of Cornwall dialect in 1882.

The early noun uses of poop in the 'solid' sense are American, with a single 19th century example, then more from the 1920s. But poop catches on in Britain in the 1940s.

So poop is older than poo in British English, and both were may have been American first.
[I've edited this to reflect the correction above.]

I wish I'd known that on Monday, but there you have it now! Not sure whether the poo discussion will make the editing cut (we'll find out in a couple of weeks, probably), but this blog post can stand as supplementary reading in any case

59 comments

  1. I think "poo" rhymes more often than "poop". In typical 5th grade humorous fashion, a friend of mine had a saying back in our Bart Simpson era (circa 1970, AmE):
    "Constipation proclamation 1492!
    Constipation proclamation no one could go poo!"

    I have no idea why I remembered that.

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  2. re: the verb to poop originally being "more about farting" - German has a slang noun Pups and verbs Pupen and Pupsen. Obviously this is all onomatopoetic so I don't want to get too speculative, but I wonder if it's been a Germanic-family term for a long time?

    Here's an animated song about animals farting in German:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hphJ62jw7go

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  3. AmE speaker here, in my late 20s. I'm more likely to say poo than poop when talking about the thing ("a pile of poo" sounds less silly to me than "a pile of poop").
    Poop is the verb form, though. I never poo (well, I am a lady after all)

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  4. On reflection, poo could hardly have been current in BrE in 1926, when Winnie-the-Pooh was first published.

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    1. Many years ago, someone turned up in my office wearing a Winnie the Pooh tie. "Do you know you've got pooh on your tie?" I asked.

      Well, I found it funny.

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    2. By the same token, poop could hardly have been current in BrE in 1908 when ind in the Willows was first published. Children would have reacted with unintended hilarity at this episode

      Glancing back, they saw a small cloud of dust, with a dark centre of energy, advancing on them at incredible speed, while from out the dust a faint "Poop-poop!" wailed like an uneasy animal in pain. ... It was on them! The "Poop-poop" rang with a brazen shout in their ears, ...

      ... then there was a heart-rending crash—and the canary-coloured cart, their pride and their joy, lay on its side in the ditch, an irredeemable wreck.

      The Rat danced up and down in the road, simply transported with passion. "You villains!" he shouted, shaking both fists. "You scoundrels, you highwaymen, you—you—road-hogs!—I'll have the law of you! I'll report you! I'll take you through all the Courts!"...

      Toad sat straight down in the middle of the dusty road, his legs stretched out before him, and stared fixedly in the direction of the disappearing motor-car. He breathed short, his face wore a placid, satisfied expression, and at intervals he faintly murmured "Poop-poop!"

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    3. Then again, there's the girl called Titty in Swallows and Amazons. I wonder if the breasts meaning was known back in 1930.

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  5. AmE speaker here. I think I'm more likely to use poo for animals (dog poo, pile of poo) and poop for people. It's funny that Lynne suggests poop might sound more 'fun' and less graphic for BrE speakers because for me, it's just the opposite. I feel more taboo with poop.

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  6. I'm having trouble with this! I'm from the UK, and poo was the word in my family in the 60s. Two things to reckon with, as ever in the UK: region, and class. My grandparents were working class (very much non-U) and East Midlands. Winnie the Pooh was by A A Milne, University-educated and an officer, surely U, and from Hampstead.

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  7. I don't use either one and I would say it's because I'm an adult, not a toddler, but my children never said it either.

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  8. Early 40s NZE speaker here - I grew up with "poo" in the 80s and 90s (and, in my anecdotal experience, "pooh" in writing) and associated "poop" with AmE as strongly as e.g. "butt".

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  9. It's often repeated that 'we' (i.e the speaker and the group of speakers that he/she identifies with) lack words for acts of excretion or sex which are not absurdly medical-technical or absurdly childish. (I seem to remember quotes from when the term 'the nursery' was still current.)

    I believe DH Lawrence saw this as a symptom or 'our' lack of a mature attitude to the subject matter. Be that as it may, I reckon the real problem is that 'we' may be disabled from using the same vocabulary talking to children as to other adults — including adult strangers.

    So there's a welcoming niche for any word that comes along which manages to be down-to-earth and inoffensive, and almost grown-up.

    In my lifetime the word loo rapidly came to occupied such a niche — at least in my speech community. OK, it probably fitted the bill in other families and other parts of England and the wider English-speaking world. But to me it was a word which took a while to cease sounding twee and mildly childish.

    Wherever the word poo(h) came from, I suggest that it spread rapidly in the same way for the same reason. It may not have started as a speaking-to-children word, but (to me) it feels as if it did. If I'm right, that would explain why people like Matthew Engel feels that word is deeply traditional. It's a word that he carried from childhood into adulthood. To him, its history is his life's history.

    OK this can be true of many words. But poo is this special sort of niche-filler. And now the niche is comfortably — and reassuringly — full, Matthew (and no doubt many others) are upset when a different word threatens to invade and occupy — and even usurp the space.

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  10. 'Poo' was certainly the word used by my school friends in 70s Britain, or 'poo-poo' by younger children. I have heard 'poop' used very occasionally to mean 'fart' - this was in North Northumberland/Scottish Borders.

    My parents used a totally different word (which led to much ridicule for me at nursery school and confusion on the part of the teachers/assistants when I used it!). The word was 'tension'.

    "Do you want a wee-wee or a tension?"
    "Don't stand in the dog's tension"
    "Have you tensioned yourself?"
    "The dog-daisies smell like tension"

    Only one other person I've asked has heard the word "tension" used in this context - a 70 year old lady who said her parents used it. I can find no references to this usage of the word online. Is it an extremely dated expression, possibly derived from "needing attention"? Are my parents really freaks who were brought up on a far-distant planet where everyone talked to each other about "tension"?

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    1. That's funny, because not having heard that euphemism before, it sounded automatically rather graphic to me! (I interpreted "tension" as coming from the act of straining to defecate, which certainly doesn't seem like a polite reference!)

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    2. I am intrigued by this use of the word "tension" - perhaps a regional thing?

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  11. 'Pooh' with an 'h' is of course a different word, defined in my dictionary as an 'interjection of contempt' (as in W.S. Gilbert's Pooh-Bah). Presumably A.A. Milne was unaware of the sound's other connotations.
    I wasn't brought up with the term 'poo', and I'm mildly irritated by the way it's used nowadays in all kinds of contexts, from naturalists looking at animal droppings to medical advice.

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    1. Just to complicate matters, I as an American am aware of using the word poop as a signal of exasperation. This usage is actually different from pooh as an 'interjection of contempt' (commonly doubled in verb form, as when one person pooh-poohs the tastes of another). Example: "The movers are here already? I thought they were coming at 4. Poop!" I feel almost certain this usage of poop was common with my mother (born in 1920) and rubbed off on me, though I suspect I no longer turn to it much. And I can safely say it's unknown to my daughter (born in 1997).

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    2. That sounds like a straightforward substitution for "shit" or "crap". I've heard this sporadically.

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  12. Definitely a poo,have a poo and pooing in the Isle of Man in the early 60s. Born 1957.

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  13. @Kate Bunting: Whether or not A.A. Milne knew about "poo," the stuffed bear was named by Christopher Robin.

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  14. My grandchildren are the first generation of my family to say "Poo" - all the earlier generations (and I am aware as far back as my maternal grandfather) used euphemisms that varied according to their particular family-lect.

    However, "Oh pooh!" was - and as far as I am aware, still is - a (possibly now obsolete) expression of disgust. And the Scottish author Jane Duncan had her child heroine (in a book intended for adults) use the expressions "Poop" and "Dirt" as "swear words" suitable for childish use. Her books were published from 1959 onwards, but set earlier in the 20th century.

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    1. Actually, having said that (I do wish we could edit our posts), "Oh pooh" could also be an expression of disbelief, and was possibly more used in that context: "Oh pooh, nothing of the kind!"

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    2. I've heard "Oh pooh" as an expression of disappointment at the other person not wanting or allowing you to do something (in the us)

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  15. Lynne: just wondering whether the many alternate meanings of poop are unknown in British English. For instance, Merriam-Webster lists these slang meanings:

    1) verb: to put out of breath; also : to tire out (my example: "Do we have to climb all the way to the top? I'm pooped.")

    2) noun: information, scoop (my example: "So has he popped the question? Give me the straight poop.")

    My American Heritage Dictionary even lists a slang meaning of poop I may or may not ever have used: "A person regarded as very disagreeable. [perhaps short for NINCOMPOOP.]"

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    1. Dick, the only one of those I'm familiar with is I'm pooped, which I would guess is equally familiar to most BrE speakers.

      The OED presents it as a adjective, but derived from a verb that I'm not all familiar with, and not as a particle but as VERB + -ed. The verb is:

      poop, v.4
      colloq. (orig. U.S.).

      1.intr. To break down, stop working, give out. Freq. with out.

      2.trans. To tire, exhaust; (also) to injure.

      The adjective is pooped, adj. 3. There's also pooped, adj. 2 'having a poop deck' and the obsolete pooped, adj. 1 'fooled'.

      The other verbs are

      poop, v.1

      1 (obsolete) intr. To produce a short blast of sound, as with a horn; to blow, toot; to make a gulping sound in drinking. Also occas. with in .

      2 intr. nursery and slang. Originally: to break wind (now chiefly U.S.). Now usually: to defecate.

      3.
      a.
      intr. Of a person: to fire a gun, to shoot. Of a firearm: to go off, to be fired. Usu. with away, off . Also fig.

      b. trans. To fire (a bullet, shell, or other projectile), to discharge (a gun); freq. with off. Also: to shoot (a person or animal). Also fig.

      poop, v.2 (obsolete) trans. To fool, deceive, cheat, cozen; (also) to overcome.

      poop, v.3 (nautical)

      1.trans. Of a wave, the sea, etc.: to break over the stern of (a vessel). Also in extended use.

      2.(obsolete) trans.Of a ship: to receive (a wave) over the stern. Chiefly into poop a sea.

      There are five nouns, so I'll leave them for another time.

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    2. So here are the nouns

      poop, n.1
      the back end of a wooden ship and related senses

      This goes with pooped, adj.2 and poop, v.3

      The etymology is from Old French pope/poupe which probably came from a lost Post-classical Latin *puppa.

      poop, n.2 (often poop poop)
      a set of 'trump' meanings:
      1 a sort of blowpipe
      2 the noise made by blowing in a pipe
      3 the sense we're basically interested in
      slang (orig.nursery). An act of breaking wind or of defecation; (concr.) faeces; (fig.) nonsense.

      This version of poop is also used as an interjection
      1. like Toad's poop poop imitating a car horn or similar
      2. imitating something more lavatorial

      This relates, of course to poop, v.1.

      The etymology is, as AG supposed, Germanic with cognates in Dutch and its predecessor — and also the successor language Afrikaans where the spelling is poep, sometimes copied in written South African English

      poop, n.3
      an obsolete term for a thing which no longer exists and nobody knows exactly what it was, but it must have been part of a church bell

      poop, n.4
      'fool' probably a clipping of nincompoop

      This presumably relates to poop, v.2 and pooped, adj.1.

      poop, n.5
      This embraces your Give me the straight poop.
      colloq . (orig. U.S. Mil. slang).
      Up-to-date or inside information; the facts, the relevant information.

      This is alleged to have been invented at West Point, where people stood on a mess-hall balcony known as the poop deck to read out announcements from a poop sheet. In West Point, if nowhere else, there was a verb poop meaning to 'memorise entirely' and so 'be able to quote verbatim'.

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    3. N.1 It doesn't mean the back end of a wooden ship. It means the raised deck at the stern of some ships - the equivalent of a forecastle at the bow. The construction material is irrelevant.

      I've been on boats where the heads (toilets) were at the stern, leading to jokes about the "poop deck".

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    4. The OED definition is

      1. a. The aftermost part of a ship; the stern; the aftermost and highest deck often forming (esp. in a wooden ship) the roof of a cabin in the stern.

      The narrowing to an exclusive 'deck' meaning seems not to be original. the earliest quote is from Caxton in 1489

      The pouppe whiche is the hindermost partye of the shippe.

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    5. If it's not raised, then it's a quarterdeck. The poop is raised. For example, in a "three island tramp steamer", the 3 "islands" were the foc's'le, the bridge deck and the poop.

      Here's an example of a poop on top of a raised quarterdeck:
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quarterdeck#/media/File:Quarter_Deck_Frigate.jpg

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    6. Yes and no.

      What poop means to you is 'poop deck'. Indeed, this is what it usually means now. But if one's interested in the word as opposed to the thing, it's interesting to see the connection with phrases like in the poop, and with the sense of 'arse end' — or, more obscurely, 'seat attached to the bak of a coach'.

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  16. David Crosbie: there's a third black hole threatening stable planet formation in the ternary system you describe. Medical/technical and childish/twee are pulling in two directions, but you also have obscene/offensive throwing off any potential equilibrium between the two. I'd say that terms relating to the toilet (a word which itself has, at least to my eyes, finally managed to find a rare stable point of "grown-up and polite but non-technical", the "niche" you mention) tend to get pulled between "childish" and "offensive", as discussed in the article; but "faeces" is as technical now as it ever was, and nothing is threatening its status as such. By contrast, with terms relating to disability the main axis of tension seems to be between "technical" and "offensive"; "idiot" was once a medical term but became unusable once it got wide recognition as an insult. While something like "retard" might have shown signs of moving to "childish", it's retained so much offensiveness that it can't fully occupy that space (alongside, say, "duh-brain"?)

    I'm trying to think now if there's any taboo subject whose words are primarily tug-o-warred between "childish" and "technical". Can words move that way, or do they have to travel via "offensive" and/or The Niche?

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  17. On second thoughts, while "duh-brain" might be thoroughly childish, it's still 100% an insult. You (hopefully) wouldn't get a prim parent telling their kid not to be mean to Johnny because he's a duh-brain, which is the kind of scenario that category should represent. "Special" is perhaps the example I should have used.

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  18. So poop is older than poo in British English, and both were American first.

    Wonderful. Just like burglarize and burgle.

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  19. I have made changes in the post because I missed an important UK example of 'poo-poo' in Green's dictionary. So, it's less clear to say that 'poo' was American first.

    All of these are definitely childish terms--I didn't say that in the post (I think because I figured I didn't need to!).

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  20. BTW, FWIW I was born in the mid-1970s to a middle-class English family. I knew only "poo" growing up, and don't remember hearing "poop" at all until I moved to the US.

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  21. Poo definitely used by children
    at my school in SW England in the early 1950s. My parents were shocked when I used it at home!

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  22. I remembered that faeces were known as "pure" in the 19th century ... looked it up online and find the Wikipedia entry for Feces (AmE). It seems that pure/pure/pewer refers to dog faeces, used in the tanning industry.
    What is the etymology for this strange use of the word? Did it fall out of use, or is it now a specialist term?
    It would seem that the poo and poop we are discussing here are not related.

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    1. Yes I remember the use from a programme (perhaps more than one) about Henry Mayhew and his London labour and the London poor. The second quote in the relevant section of the OED is from there.

      In the very long entry for pure, adj., adv., and n., it comes under the headings

      A. adj.
      II. In non-physical or extended senses.
      2. d Also pewer, pure. Tanning. Canine or other faeces used as an alkaline lye in which to steep hides. Now hist .

      1842 Penny Mag. May 212/1 A solution called the ‘pure’ or the ‘pewer’ (having never seen the word written.., we must spell it as pronounced) is prepared in a large vessel, and into this the skins are immersed.
      1851 H. Mayhew London Labour II. 142/1 Dogs'-dung is called ‘Pure’, from its cleansing and purifying properties.

      Mayhew is also quoted for compounds

      pure collector n.

      1851 H. Mayhew London Labour II. 142/2 There are about 30 tanyards..and these all have their regular Pure collectors.

      pure-finder n.

      1851 H. Mayhew London Labour II. 142/1 The name of ‘Pure-finders’..has been applied to the men engaged in collecting dogs'-dung from the..streets.

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    2. I remember reading Mayhew's description of his interview with the pure collector. It was rather moving. She was a widow - in her sixties I think - and she could get sixpence for a bucket of pure, enough for a crust of bread. If she was lucky, she earned a shilling a day. If she was too ill to go out, she didn't eat. The alternative was the workhouse, and she'd rather collect pure than go there.

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  23. When I was a child 'poo' referred to excrement, and 'poop' to flatulence.

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    1. Forgot to mention: I live in South Yorkshire.

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  24. I definitely hear poo as a euphemism used in talking to children* and it still, quite irrationally, makes me wince when I hear adults say it to an adult audience. I heard Brian Cox say it on the radio recently. The context must have been scientific, but I can't remember what it was. Is that weird, or is it just me?

    A similar one is "front bottom" for vagina, now commonly used amongst adults. I saw this term discussed somewhere recently (in a linguistic context!), but I don't think it was on this blog.


    * However, it was not the word used in our family when I was a kid in the fifties; that was "uh-ahs" (and the verbal form, "to go uh-ahs"). I never heard anyone else use it though. It might be due to my mum having been raised in a German-speaking household.

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  25. I don't remember hearing either "poo" or "poop" as an American child in the 1970s. What kids said then was "doody" or "doo-doo" (at least when it came from dogs; I don't remember if there was a different word for the human variety).

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  26. Zouk Delors : No, it isn't just you - see my comment above.

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  27. As so often, the late great Sir Terry Pratchett nailed it.

    In one of his late novels, the infant son of police chief Sam Vimes emerged as a character. As a throwaway, we were told that Young Sam's favourite book for bedtime reading was no longer Where's My Cow? but a work on our current topic written by a certain Miss Felicity Beedles.

    As he'd done before, Terry created and published this fictional work — written in the voice of fictional Miss Beedles but with footnotes in the voice of Terry Pratchett.

    The book is introduced in Snuff thus

    Vimes looked at the cover. The title was The World of Poo. When his wife was out of eyeshot he carefully threaded through it. Well, okay, you had to accept that the world had moved on and these days fairy stories were probably not going to be about twinkly little things with wings. As he turned page after page, it dawned on him that whoever had written this book, they certainly knew what would make kids like Young Sam laugh until they were nearly sick

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  28. Just contributing to the scientific research here - I was taught the word 'poo' as both verb and noun when I was growing up in the late 1950s. It was common usage in Oregon, and I assume it was also common usage in Nebraska where my parents (and cousins) were from.

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  29. I'm an AmE speaker, 19, from Colorado. I always knew both words, but I thought poo was like baby-talk, from poopoo, and never associated it with Britain (or Australia.) i,ve always said and mostly heard poop.

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    1. Me, too, and I'm 72 (male) (NH-Iowa-Calif.) Basically non-swearing culture.

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  30. There is another childish use of -poo, which I was reminded of yesterday - answering my son's phone call with "hello, Nicky-poo" (Name changed to protect the innocent)
    Is anyone else prepared to admit to using this suffix as an affectionate tag? I could dig out the newspaper from Valentine's Day to illustrate the variety of soppy nicknames for the beloved that one finds in the personal column, and this would definitely feature strongly.

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    1. Surprisingly, there's an entry for this in the OED

      -poo, comb. form

      Appended to words (often personal names) ending in (usually hypocoristic) -ie or -y, forming a term of endearment or denoting the speaker's playfulness or affectedness.

      The earliest quote is

      1932 ‘L. G. Gibbon’ Sunset Song 21 In politics he said he was a Conservative but everybody in Kinraddie knew that meant he was a Tory and the bairns of Strachan,..they would scraich out ‘Inky poo, your nose is blue, You're awful like the Turra Coo!’ whenever they saw Ellison go by.

      (The author's name is in quotes because it was a nom-de-plume.)

      The OED suggests an origin in an earlier fashion for nick-naming dogs. I wonder whether The Mikado with its character Nanky Poowas an even earlier influence.

      You say that 'Nicky' isn't your son's real nick-name, but does the real one end in -y?

      I don't think I've ever used this -y poo, and I haven't heard it for many years — with one exception. Certain types of radio comedy quite often have character speak of a drinky-poo.

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    2. No, the construction would be like 'drinky-poo' - and we sometimes call him 'Nicky-babe' too! He will be 30 soon ...

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    3. No that wan't the question. If Nicky isn't his real nickname, it he really something like Micky, Jimmy or Andy?

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    4. Yes, it's a double diminutive, formed by adding a -y and then the intensifier, either poo or babe.

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    5. I've come across ladies going for drinkie-poos. Definitely a social class thing - I've exclusively seen it from people who appear to me to either a) be posh b) want to be.

      I've also heard it used as a suffix on names.

      I'm British, born in the 80s

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  31. These comments, particularly Mrs. Redboots' reference to "dirt," have jogged my memory. When I was a kid (mostly New Jersey, USA, 50's and 60's), "dog dirt" was dog poop. I don't remember hearing "dirt" used to refer to human poop. And "poop" was the word we kids (and later my kids) used. We knew what "poo" meant but I don't think it was in common use. If I and my kids were walking and one of us spotted dog poop on the sidewalk, the alarm was raised as "Poop alert!"

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  32. Robert Conquest intervened sagely on a closely related matter:

    "A usage that’s seldom got right
    Is when to say shit and when shite,
    And many a chap
    Will fall back on crap,
    Which is vulgar, evasive, and trite."

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  33. Why we even say poo(p):
    http://www.smbc-comics.com/comic/swearing

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  34. I'm 47 and Australian, and grew up hearing and using "poo" for both human and dog faeces and the action. However, since I am now a participant in many dog related forums on line, where I am frequently exposed to the American use of "poop", it now feels for natural to me refer to poop in relation to dogs. But it's still "poo" for human. 💩

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  35. I've often wondered whether Christopher-Robin's naming of "Pooh Bear" was from the child hearing of "Poo-bah" in The Mikado

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