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 didnt, when they werent 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
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
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
theres more to it than that, as you know if you watch dinnertime
Just as youre 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 its 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 dysfunctionall those thousand natural
shocks that flesh is heir to.
In the old days when we were a lot more squeamish, we pretended these
unpleasantrieslike certain body partsdidnt exist;
either we didnt 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
If this kind of prudery seems comically outdated, consider that in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 animalsbull,
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,
mens or womens room, little boys or little girls
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 willwelldie.
Well 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 lifes
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, were free to call 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]tscnet.com.
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