Wet words

In a Law & Order episode (S8 E15), a character explains that he’s going inside his house because he has to tap a kid — short for the idiom tap a/my kidney ‘urinate’, with kidney clipped to kid.

From GDoS:

tap a kidney (also squeeze) (US) to urinate. [first cite 1978 Paul Theroux, Picture Palace 27: I tapped a kidney in the ladies room.]

The relevant sense of the verb tap, from NOAD:

verb tap: draw liquid through the tap or spout of (a cask, barrel, or other container): bragging of tests they had aced and kegs they had tapped.

Common vocabulary in this semantic domain, from several thesauruses taken together:

neutral urinate, pass water, make water, relieve oneself; informal (from euphemistic through vulgar) pee, wee, wee-wee, take a leak, piddle, tinkle, (take a) whiz(z), (take a) piss; formal micturate (also: go to the toilet/bathroom/…, answer nature’s call, etc., covering PERFORM-BODILY_FUNCTION, both urination and defecation)

A number of these are euphemistic, using various strategies of indirection. Sometimes suggested as a euphemism for ‘urinate’ is see a man about a dog / horse, which is even more indirect, in that its reference is not necessarily associated with bodily functions. From Wikipedia:

Watercolor by Annemarie Waugh, “See A Man About A Dog”, 2014

To see a man about a dog or horse is an English idiom, usually used as a way to say one needs to apologise for one’s imminent departure or absence — generally to euphemistically conceal one’s true purpose, such as going to use the toilet or going to buy a drink.

The original, non-facetious meaning was probably to place or settle a bet on a racing dog.

More detail on Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words site from 4/27/02:

From Rich, Johannesburg, South Africa: The saying I’ve got to see a man about a dog seems to be getting good use in films these days. Any idea of its origin?

A This has been a useful (and usefully vague) excuse for absenting oneself from company for about 150 years, though the real reason for slipping away has not always been the same.

Like a lot of such colloquial sayings, it is very badly recorded. However, an example turned up in 1940 in a book called America’s Lost Plays, which proved that it was already in use in the US in 1866, in a work by a prolific Irish-born playwright of the period named Dion Boucicault, The Flying Scud or a Four-legged Fortune. This play, about an eccentric and superannuated old jockey, may have been, as a snooty reviewer of the period remarked, “a drama which in motive and story has nothing to commend it”, but it does include our first known appearance of the phrase: “Excuse me Mr. Quail, I can’t stop; I’ve got to see a man about a dog”.

I don’t have access to the text of the play itself, so can’t say why the speaker had to absent himself. From other references at the time there were three possibilities: 1) he needed to visit the loo (read WC, toilet, or bathroom if you prefer); 2) he was in urgent need of a restorative drink, presumed alcoholic; or 3) he had a similarly urgent need to visit his mistress.

Of these reasons — which, you may feel, encompass a significant part of what it meant to be male in nineteenth-century America — the second became the most common sense during the Prohibition period. Now that society’s conventions have shifted to the point where none of these reasons need cause much remark, the utility of the phrase is greatly diminished and it is most often used in a facetious sense, if at all.

2 Responses to “Wet words”

  1. TommyBoy Says:

    And, of course “to tap that ass” extending the meaning even further into the sexual domain.

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Dennis Preston on Facebook:

    In most US rural cultures, see a man about a dog (earlier perhaps a horse) would immediately (as it did in my head when I first heard it years and years ago) refer to that fact that dog (and earlier horse) trading, selling, buying were common preoccupations and actual events. I don’t buy the racing interpretation at all.

    Everybody has their own experiences. In the rural culture of my childhood, horses figured hardly at all any more (except for the Amish and for rich people who were into horseback riding), and I don’t recall any dog trading, except in the context of dog racing; presumably people who kept dogs for hunting were into dog trading, but those practices were not in my own experience. So the racing interpretation chimes with me.

    But neither Dennis’s personal experiences nor mine are evidence about the way the expression developed.

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