You may recently have found yourself pondering this question. I have been thinking about this lately, in my spare time, staying up late at night to debate with myself the various ramifications of possible answers to this question.
Up ‘til now, I haven’t really wondered. As a grown-up without kids, I was familiar with a variety of names for feces, all of them extremely useful at different times. “Excrement” is a nice, formal sort of word, and “specimen” works well in a medical context. In casual settings, one could make use of “Number 2” or any of an endless supply of its less printable colleagues.
When I had kids, my treasure trove of fecal vocabulary took a downturn.What could I call this diaper full of nuclear waste? Some of my friends chose baby words like “stinky” and “poopies” or “poopers” as in, “Did my little precious make a poopie?” Or “Oooh, does little sweetums have a stinky?” I took the high road and just went with “poo-poo” or “poop” for short. It seemed a little more sophisticated to me, a reflection of my enlightened world view.
My children have followed my lead and very enthusiastically adopted “poop.” My youngest especially has fallen in love with it, and often affectionately greets me with “Hi, Poo-poo Mommy!” “I love you Poo-poo Mommy!” What mother could wish for a more beautiful and fragrant expression of love?
So, poop has worked well for us for several years, but this spring has changed that to some degree. With all the nice weather, we started hiking on most weekends, and as we hiked, I began to look around and wish that I could read the surrounding forest. I got my husband a book on tree identification that also, very handily, had a section on wildflowers. We could put the book in our backpacks, walk through the woods, spot an unknown tree, quickly look up its bark and leaves, and identify it as an Hevea brasiliensis (rubber tree), a type heretofore known only to live in the heart of the tropical Amazon rain forest. And here it was in the Great Smoky Mountains! What an amazing discovery!
Since we had made so much progress with foliage, I began to wish for more. I wanted to understand about the animals who inhabited these acres and acres of woods, who were probably just standing quietly in the center of that rhododendron thicket, watching us pass. The obvious place to start was to find animal tracks. I figured I could easily recognize a deer track, having seen some as a kid. The other tracks we could figure out with a little thought and a little woodcraft, which we would have absorbed by simply trekking through the forest.
However, I had not counted on the fact that tracks are not easy to spot on gravelly trails. Impossible in fact. I kept my eyes open, and instructed the kids to keep theirs open, for any signs of animal tracks. None. The kids were one time convinced that they had found a deer track, but since I had just watched a tiny cowboy boot make that track, I knew better. With all this looking, we found nothing.
Well, we did find something. Several times, right in the middle of the trail, we found poop. A lot of it had hair in it. I was usually the one who noticed it, somehow always being on the look-out for excrement in places it doesn’t belong. I would call the kids over to examine it, “Look, here’s some poop. It’s got hair in it. What animal could have made this poop? Why might hair be in the poop?”
I would try hard to facilitate a somewhat scientific conversation about the poop, but the word “poop” just kept getting in the way. What biologist or forest ranger uses the word “poop”? I think we can all rest assured that Smokey the Bear would not use the word “poop.” I needed another word, but I just wasn’t sure what.
I recalled a story I’d read in one of our local mountain history books. The story happened a long time ago, when people were even more reticent about bodily functions than they are now. A group of mountain men were gathered getting ready to go on a bear hunt and were having a very animated discussion about “bear sign”. A very refined woman was standing nearby, listening, and after the phrase “bear sign” was repeated again and again and again, she finally asked what “bear sign” was.
The group of men looked at her and then looked away uncomfortably. They were all silent for a moment, obviously at a loss for how to answer her. Then one of them, seeing no way around it, took the plunge. He spat, then looked her straight in the eye: “Tracks and sh—, ma’am, tracks and sh—.”
Well, that happened a long time ago, and we’re not so shy anymore. But, with small children, I still couldn’t use that most useful word. As soon as I did, they would go to school and tell the teacher that they’d been looking at animal sh–. That trail I didn’t care to explore.
So I was stuck. At the library I found some books on tracking, and these books provided me with the word “scat.” Apparently, it’s the word that all those in the tracking and biological fields use when they’re not using sh— for whatever reason. I was pleased. “Scat” is a good, short word. Fun to say, easy to remember. Works better in the woods than “bear stinky.” So I taught it to my kids. We talked all about animal scat and what scat could tell us about the creature from which it came. I discovered that territorial animals leave their scat scattered throughout their territory to make it more difficult for predators to locate them exactly. It’s a wonderfully woodsy, wildlifey word. It makes me feel like quite a naturalist.
And, little did I know it, the kids loved it too. My youngest did not start saying, “Hi, Scat Mommy,” which was OK with me, but he did recently reveal that he has worked the word into his vocabulary.
A couple of weeks ago, he lost his first tooth. Of course, we went through the whole production about the Tooth Fairy, and low and behold, the next morning, the Tooth Fairy had apparently come, retrieved the tooth, and left two dollars in its place. He was ecstatic.
In all the excitement, he and his brother started running through the house looking for other signs that the Tooth Fairy had been there. He screamed with delight when they found an empty popsicle wrapper on the table by his bed. “LOOK! THE TOOTH FAIRY LEFT A POPSICLE WRAPPER BY MY BED!” Then, they found a box of toys that had been spilled on the floor. “AAAH! THE TOOTH FAIRY KNOCKED OVER MY ANIMAL BOX!” What could possibly be more wonderful and amazing? Who would have thought that the Tooth Fairy would throw toys on the floor? I can assure you that that thought never crossed MY mind. But the highlight of the Tooth Fairy Hunt came when both boys had raced upstairs, looked under the kitchen table, and discovered a squished raisin. They screamed with joy — “OOHHHH! MOMMY! DADDY! LOOK! LOOK! TOOTH FAIRY SCAT!”
Yes, there are lots of words for poop, but, so far, “scat” is my favorite.