Morning: the call of nature

Yesterday’s morning expression on awakening (with a need to answer the call of nature) was not exactly a name, but, well, the NP the call of nature. That led to the product Serutan — that is a name — and, in another direction, to the PP against nature, which I’ll reserve for another day.

Basic dictionary work. From NOAD2:

call of nature  used euphemistically to refer to a need to urinate or defecate.

and AHD5:

A need to urinate or defecate. Often used with answer: He left the room to answer the call of nature.

Idiom dictions are roughly similar, and some offer nature’s call as an alternative.

Then there’s the McGraw-Hill Dictionary. of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs (2002):

Euph. the need to go to the lavatory. Stop the car here! I have to answer the call of nature. There was no break in the agenda, not even for the call of nature.

This is entertaining because it defines a euphemism in terms of another euphemism, go to the lavatory ‘urinate or defecate’. More on urinate or defecate in a moment.

OED3 (June 2003) takes up the idiom under the noun nature, in the subentry:

euphem. The need of the human body to defecate and urinate. Freq. in call (also †need, work) of nature and to ease nature. [first cite a1538 Dict. Older Sc. Tongue thare nedis of natur]

So this use of nature is venerable, but euphemistic from the beginning.

Digression: The lexical field of bodily functions. English has a rich set of lexical items in this domain, involving verbs, related action nouns, and related substance nouns. Some are vulgar, a great many are euphemistic, and a very few are stylistically neutral but formal. The neutral set:

verb: urinate [or the even more formal micturate]; defecate

action noun: urination [or micturition]; defecation

substance noun: urine; feces

There are striking lexical gaps here: there is no formal standard verb that covers the territory of urinate and defecate taken together, hence urinate or defecate and defecate and urinate in the dictionary definitions above, which use a conjunction to get an expression that does cover the conceptual territory of PERFORM-BODILY-FUNCTION. And there are corresponding gaps for the action nouns and substance nouns.

As I’ve pointed out many times in LLog and here, lexical gaps are surprisingly common; languages don’t “have a word for” many categories that are certainly of sociocultural relevance, where “a word for” means ‘an ordinary-language fixed expression of some currency’ — an olfesc — with the appropriate denotation. See my discussion on LLog on 12/2/06 and briefly on this blog on 7/29/09. Instead, we see, among other things, overcoding, where there are olfescs for specific subcases, but none for the larger category — for instance, aunt and uncle, but no olfesc covering the two types of kin taken together.

The bodily-function case is a bit more complex than this. English does have olfescs for the category PERFORM-BODILY-FUNCTION, labeled by urinate and defecate taken together,  but they are stylistically marked: they are all euphemisms — go to the bathroom / lavatory, use the restroom, etc. Hence the coordinate structures in most of the dictionary entries, though at least one dictionary (see above) solves the problem by using one of these euphemisms.

(For what it’s worth. NOAD2 has another candidate, but it’s marked as a technical term from physiology: eliminate ‘expel (waste matter) from the body’.)

Serutan. From Wikipedia:

Serutan was an early fiber-type laxative [psyllium] product which was widely promoted on U.S. radio and television from the 1930s through the 1960s. It was manufactured by the J. B. Williams Co., which was founded in 1885 and bought out by Nabisco in 1971.

The origin of the brand name was straightforward. The makers merely decided to spell “natures” backwards, and “Read it backwards” was the product’s advertising slogan. This was to differentiate it as being a “natural” product as opposed to laxative brands which stimulated the colon by chemical action.

The product was almost uniformly promoted on programs whose core audience was known to be considerably older than the typical television viewer. Serutan is especially associated with The Lawrence Welk Show and The Original Amateur Hour, both of which were also sponsored by J. B. Williams products Sominex, a sleeping pill and Geritol, a vitamin supplement. Serutan was the target of numerous jokes by Bob Hope and other radio comedians during the 1930s and 1940s.

Apparently, nothing is funnier than (indirect) bathroom humor combined with mockery of old people.

An old tin of Serutan and a new bottle:


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