Calling a Spade a Shovel—The Curious Origin of Number Twos

The scoop behind one of poop’s euphemisms.

If Charles Darwin were alive today, and writing about our work at uBiome, I wonder if he might have published a book called “The Origin of Feces”?

You see, every day the mail service brings an absolute avalanche of poop samples to our door, and quite frankly we couldn’t be happier.

Not surprisingly, we’ve become pretty fascinated by everything to do with the world of the brown stuff, and this isn’t only limited to its microbiology.

Even the terminology, vocabulary, and psychology around bowel movements intrigues us.

For a start, it’s a behavior loaded with euphemisms.

Although everyone does it, for many it can be an embarrassing act, not really talked about in polite company.

For some, this embarrassment can become severe, leading researchers to define a psychological condition they term “parcopresis,” or “psychogenic fecal retention”, in which individuals find it impossible to defecate without a substantial degree of privacy.

The condition can also be known colloquially as “shy bowel” or “bashful bowel syndrome”, and can make everyday life hellish for those who suffer substantially.

However, it’s not just people at the extremes who find it hard to address this perfectly normal and everyday human activity without resorting to avoidance behavior or euphemisms.

Consider, for example, the use of the term “number two” to describe defecation.

Where on earth did this expression come from?

Well, we sent our intrepid researcher out and told him not to come back until he’d, um, got to the bottom of it all.

There’s surprisingly little explanation readily available online, although some sites recall schoolchildren in the first half of the 20th century being told to raise their hands when they wished to visit the bathroom, with one finger extended when they wanted to pee, and two fingers if they needed to poop.

The idea behind this custom was to give teachers an approximate idea of how long their students would be missing in action.

But it all goes back further than this.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a number of words and terms received their first citations in the year 1902.

Among them: airport, electronic, limousine, suitcase.

And “number two” (as well as number one), referring to the nursery euphemisms.

The dictionary cites a 1902 book called “Slang And Its Analogues,” as containing history’s first written definition of number ones and twos.

Imagine how delighted our researcher was, therefore, when he stumbled across an original seven-volume set of Farmer and Henley’s “Slang And Its Analogues” in the Stanford University library.

It was one of just 750 copies printed, numbered 79, and personally signed by John Farmer over a century ago, no less.

(For the avoidance of doubt, 1902 was seriously before the internet.)

According to this esteemed resource, at the very start of the 20th century “number two” was used as a nursery term for evacuation, but also—confusingly—for urination… or a chamber pot.

So in 1902, a number two was also a number one.

And you could do your number one in a number two.

Huh?

Thankfully, Richard Spears’ 1981 “Slang and Euphemism” assuredly defines “number one” as “to urinate,” and “number two” as “a bowel movement”, and dates both to the 19th century.

Then Tony Thorne’s 1990 book “The Dictionary of Contemporary Slang” came along, explaining that in fact they’re nursery terms dating from the Victorian concept of personal hygiene as a drill.

So the literature seems to conclude that we may have the Victorians’ taste for routine and discipline to thank for us “doing it by the numbers”, which seems to make sense.

I can’t leave number twos behind (ha!) without a brief nod to Chambers’ “Slang Dictionary” (2008) which agrees with the idea of the term being a mainly juvenile 19th-century word for defecation, which it calls Sense 1.

However it then goes on rather disturbingly to suggest a Sense 2: (1950s, West Indies) – “A large round dumpling, indented around its circumference to facilitate splitting it in half.”

It then adds, in parentheses, “But note Sense 1.”

“What’s for dinner tonight honey?”

“Well, I was thinking of serving up a delicious number two. Care to share it?”

“Ummmm…”

Finally on this whole subject, I guess we should tip our caps to the creative minds that came up with the tagline used by more than one company operating in the plumbing and septic business:

“We’re number one in the number two business.”


Further reading

Development and validation of the Shy Bladder and Bowel Scale (SBBS)

Gotta Go Number 2

Paruresis and Parcopresis in Social Phobia: a case report

Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present

What is the Phobia of Public Restrooms?

Words with first citations from 1902

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