Three Cheers for Bowels

Rob Woutat


In the years before he died in his early nineties, my father-in-law was preoccupied with his bowels. When they worked right, his mind was at peace, free to wander unrestricted through time and space. But when they didn’t, when they weren’t fast enough for him, he was an agitated man and his bowels were prominent in his discourse, being one of the few topics that could hold his attention in the here and now.

It seems that the topic of bowels pops up more and more in ordinary conversation these days, especially among people my age. Diverticulitis. Diverticulosis. Gastroenteritis. Colorectal polyps. Familial adenomatous polyposis. Colonoscopy. Flexible sigmoidoscopy. My contemporaries and I can toss these words back and forth as easily as we can say gastroenterologist.

For a time I thought maybe I had just been hanging around too much with oldsters, people for whom bowels take on an added interest. But there’s more to it than that, as you know if you watch dinnertime television.

Just as you’re getting ready to eat, someone starts pushing remedies for bowel-related ailments we never used to talk about in public. Diarrhea. Hemorroidal itching. Gas and abdominal cramps. Constipation. Irritable bowel syndrome. Incontinence. Flatulence.

But it’s not just the malfunction of bowels. TV ads bring up other maladies that also used to be hush-hush: feminine hygiene problems, overactive bladder, erectile dysfunction—all those thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.

In the old days when we were a lot more squeamish, we pretended these unpleasantries—like certain body parts—didn’t exist; either we didn’t mention them or we cloaked them in euphemisms. The 16th century English shielded themselves from syphilis by calling it French pox or French disease on the spurious assumption that anything French is somehow more acceptable. In his dictionary of 1833, Noah Webster expunged womb, even though it appears 40 times in the King James Bible. (We have to wonder how he might react today to our timid, euphemistic reproductive organs.)

If this kind of prudery seems comically outdated, consider that in talking about chickens and turkeys, we still use white meat and dark meat, terms we coined decades ago to avoid the more anatomical breasts and thighs. Seventy five years ago, to spare the fairer sex, men would not utter the names of male animals—bull, boar, buck, ram, stallion, etc.—in female company. We still outdo ourselves in our efforts to steer clear of other standard anatomical terms such as buttocks, preferring rear end, behind, backside and even derriere, again on the silly notion that French lends delicacy when English does not.

Even today we shun the common, well recognized word toilet and go instead to the rest room, lavatory, wash room, powder room, men’s or women’s room, little boy’s or little girl’s room, john, biffy, etc.

And consider the fancy footwork we use to circumvent the fact of death: passed away, passed over, breathed his last, gone to rest or to his eternal reward, laid down his burden, met his maker, etc. etc. “Poor Gladys,” we might say, “she lost her husband recently,” as if a remedy might be discovered at Missing Persons or Lost and Found. I swear that if I ever hear that someone has actually died, I will—well—die.

We’ll always feel a need for euphemisms, of course. But while dressing up a stripper as an ecdysiast might work for a while, eventually the disguise wears thin and a new euphemism is called to the rescue. Undertaker became mortician, mortician became funeral director, and one day funeral director will be displaced by some other term to dress up the grim figure it represents. And so it goes.

But with bowels and other hitherto unmentionable body parts and their inevitable decay, the tide is moving in the opposite direction, away from euphemism and toward a more mature acceptance of life’s little realities.

If you lament this change as an erosion of propriety, remember that the other side of the coin is an embracing of honesty and a rejection of foolish pretense. Finally, after centuries of sidling around the facts of health and the human body, we’re free to call a bowel a bowel.

Up with bowels. Down with nether regions.

TheScreamOnline regular Rob Woutat has contributed a wide variety of pieces to newspapers and magazines and to the National Public Radio affiliate in Seattle/Tacoma. He has written two family histories and a memoir and is now working on a novel. Please check the Talent Index to see his other work.
He can be reached at rwoutat[AT]
(Replace [AT] with @)

Back to