Illustration by Andy Smith

The colourful vocabulary of sewage

Never underestimate the human imagination when it comes to new lingo for our most fundamental bodily needs
April 12, 2024

Use of the words poo and sewage has spiked across the media recently, as alarmingly high levels of E. coli were found in the River Thames. Several rowers in the famed Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race got sick. Lenny Jenkins, a rower in the losing Oxford boat, told the BBC that “It would be a lot nicer if there wasn’t as much poo in the water.”

Jenkins’s choice of the word “poo”, usually confined to informal domestic settings, provided newspapers with just the right degree of mild shock needed to draw attention to the nation’s “sewage crisis”. It turned out that light drizzle in London was enough to overwhelm the capital’s wastewater network. Social media was flooded with maps of storm overflows and treated sewage discharges. Modest panic struck the country’s schools, as they faced increased instances of mould, sewage leaks and vermin. The Evening Standard highlighted that Thames Water was raising its prices “despite sewage being pumped into London rivers for more than 9,773 hours in 2023”.

The dramatic headlines were redolent of London in the mid-19th century, when untreated human waste ran down the streets and built up on the banks of the Thames, spreading typhoid and cholera. Proper sanitation networks had to be developed, and they gave rise to new words such as sewage (1834), crap (1846), sanitation (1848) and sewer rat (1851).

During the summer of 1858, temperatures soared so high that the poo problem on London’s streets reached breaking point. The foul smell seeped into houses. No matter how much people covered their noses, they thought they could taste excrement. It became known as “The Great Stink”. A bill was rushed through parliament to build a massive sewer system, with the resulting sanitation reforms giving rise to more new parlance.

This most fundamental of human functions has always been fertile ground for colourful language, from euphemisms in the 16th century—like sir reverence and pilgrim salve—to startling slang in the 20th, such as yen-shee baby, a large poo passed by a constipated drug addict; or a new sense of scat, popularised in 1980s pornography, which refers to defecation (and the eating of faeces) for sexual pleasure. Some words endure through the centuries—excrement and shit have lasted 500 years—while others morph across time: dung came from Old English, and originally referred to human as well as animal faeces.

Of all countries, it would be difficult to beat Australia when it comes to creative scatological terminology, from the Bondi cigar (a floating poo) to the Big AGB, or After Grog Bog (an especially large, pungent-smelling faeces passed after a heavy drinking session). Although poo is a relatively new word—a product of 1960s America—it has achieved global usage. As long as it stays out of London rivers, everyone will be happy.