About Me

When not at work with students, I spend my time in my room either reading, calculating something using pen and paper, or using a computer. I read almost anything: from the pornographic to the profound, although my main interests are mathematics and physics. "When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes." -Erasmus

Friday, December 24, 2010

toilets and euphemism treadmills

While I was at the hospital, I was reminded of bedpans, and I've wondered, now and then, how people actually use them. A google search gave me some images, and I was finally satisfied. I read about bedpans in wikipedia, and I got to wandering through the toilet related entries.

It's really interesting what people, before modern plumbing (sometimes even after the invention of modern plumbing!), had to put up with. I learned for example, of outhouses; you built a small wooden house with a hole in the ground. The idea was to dig a very deep hole, and then drop your waste there. Worms and other aerobic organisms then broke down the waste. Eventually, the pit would fill up, and then you covered the hole with soil and then move the outhouse elsewhere.

I also read about commodes. Originally, a commode was a cabinet with a washstand, a pitcher and basin for washing. The cabinet was supposed to hold a chamber pot where you deposit your waste. Since there were no flush toilets then, one had to make do with a pot. A vestige of this era can still be found in the term "potty training".

While I was wandering through the entries in wiki, I was led to a link on euphemism treadmills. Steve Pinker invented the term to describe how some terms evolved. You can see how the various toilet related entries can serve as an example of the euphemism treadmill: some words were originally used as euphemisms; once these euphemisms gain currency, they become impolite to mention in company, and another euphemism is born.

Another example of the euphemism treadmill is the various terms people have used for African-American. think of Negro, Black, Nigger etc. There are a lot more examples out there.

Today is Christmas Eve, and I'm feeling extremely lazy. I'll think of something simple to cook, and I plan to go to bed early. Maybe later I'll start working on math. There's a chapter in Ablowitz's Complex Variables book that I plan to incorporate in the methods tutorials. The sections on asymptotics in Arfken is too skimpy, while Bender and Orszag would be overkill for undergrads. I'm still looking for a good reference for undergraduate methods..

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