Solids and wetness - euphemisms

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Sun Jun 8 14:36:06 UTC 2008

At 11:20 PM -0700 6/7/08, Benjamin Barrett wrote:
>I've been trying to work out the difference between accident and
>wetness/solids, but I can't. As far as I can tell, the euphemism
>"accident" requires a change of pitch to get the intended meaning;

I don't agree.  For me at least (or for me when my kids were at the
relevant age), "accident" really has acquired a separate sense (the
OED's 1d, termed "colloq." and glossed as 'an untimely call of
nature'.  The change of pitch amounting to scare quotes is possible
but not necessary the way it is for "problem" = 'E.D.'

>otherwise, your interlocutor believes there really was an accident. So
>it seems like "accident" is the same as "problem," though "accident"
>doubtlessly has many more citations and a richer history.
>I sure agree that you need a diaper context to get wetness/solids, but
>is this simply an issue of frequency or is there something more
>important at issue?

I think the last point is the key; if the local "diaper context" is
necessary, the narrowing reflects use rather a meaning shift.  To
shift examples, it would be as if "drink" were only interpreted as
specifically referring to alcoholic beverages when you're in a bar,
and not when you mutter "I sure could use a drink" at a faculty

One analogy comes from the interpretation of compounds. 30 years ago
Pam Downing published a nice paper in Language in which she
distinguished "deictic compounds", which get their interpretation
from a local context--"apple juice seat" for a seat in front of which
a glass of apple juice had been placed, "starch bowl" in Julia
Child's references to the bowl in which a mixture of cornstarch and
other ingredients were to be placed in the course of a recipe, and so
on. (It's easy to find examples from newspaper headlines which are
interpretable only if you've been following the story, e.g. "Ferrari
woman" in the headline of a story about the legal wrangling involving
a woman whose will specified that she be buried in her Ferrari).
These may eventually become lexicalized, but there's no guarantee.
Similarly, the deictic instances of denominal verbs in Eve and Herb
Clark's _Language_ 1969 article "When Nouns Surface as Verbs".

In both cases, the formations are created when necessary and can even
catch on within a larger speech community under certain circumstances
as opposed to remaining one-off, nonce forms like some of Downing's
or the Clarks' cases. I agree that it's a slippery slope and that
there are marginal cases, but the distinction between lexicalized and
non- (or not-yet-) lexicalized formations is a real one, and the
necessity of invoking the local context of use to obtain the intended
interpretation plays a crucial role.


>On Jun 6, 2008, at 6:10 AM, Laurence Horn wrote:
>>---------------------- Information from the mail header
>>Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
>>Poster:       Laurence Horn <laurence.horn at YALE.EDU>
>>Subject:      Re: Solids and wetness - euphemisms
>>At 12:30 AM -0700 6/6/08, Benjamin Barrett wrote:
>>>I wonder if the AHD4 adequately covers the diaper meaning of solids
>>I wonder if these are actual diaper meanings or recoverable narrowed
>>uses in context.  I'm pretty sure we want euphemistic uses of
>>"accident" (let's see...yup, AHD: 1c. 'An instance of involuntary
>>urination or defecation in one's clothing'), but it seems to me that
>>the parallel uses of 'solids' and 'wetness' are still more tethered
>>to their, shall we say, context of occurrence (or direct allusions as
>>in the commercials/ads).  In general, there will be uses of most
>>words (sometimes but not always euphemistic ones) that narrow down
>>the frame of reference from 'X' to 'relevant X', but (while I'm no
>>lexicographer) I think we'd need to find a sufficient critical mass
>>of context-untethered uses of this sort (as with 'accident' or
>>'waste') to warrant a separate subentry.  In those E.D. commercials,
>>the guy often refers to his "problem" by meaningfully lowering his
>>voice and it's clear what sort of problem he has in mind, but I
>>wouldn't expect dictionaries to list 'impotence' (itself, of course,
>>a narrowing-derived euphemism of centuries past) as a separate
>>subsense of "problem".
>>>Relevant definitions:
>>>solid n. 1. A substance having a definite shape and volume; one that
>>>is neither liquid nor gaseous.
>>>wetness n. 1. The condition of being wet. 2. Moisture
>>>Citations -----
>>>1. Why you'll LOVE using Fuzzi Bunz Cloth Diapers:[...]
>>>(a) Soft, waterproof outer material keeps wetness & messes where they
>>>belong preventing leaks....
>>>(b) Fleece is naturally stain resistant and prevents solids from
>>>sticking. (
>>>2. Just dump solids in toilet, if it [sic] does not fall out then put
>>>in hamper, the washing machine will do the rest.
>>>3. (a) On most packs of disposable diapers, the user is instructed to
>>>dispose of solids in the toilet before putting the diaper in the
>>>(b) While they do, in some ways, present less of an impact on the
>>>environment, they still contain many of the same chemicals, most
>>>importantly the polymers that absorb your baby's wetness and form gel
>>>4. Also, the fact that the diaper doesn't immediately wick away
>>>wetness like the disposables means that our little one tells us when
>>>his diaper is wet and this will make toilet training much easier.
>>>5. Chaffing or contact allergies can be culprits, but most often the
>>>cause is simply wetness - chemicals and enzymes in urine and stools
>>>can constitute quite the toxic cocktail when left to marinate a soft
>>>baby's bottom.
>>>"Solids" seems the easier case. In citations 2 and 3 (a), in
>>>particular, the item being referred to isn't solids in general, but
>>>specifically feces. "Solids" seems to derive from "solid wastes."
>>>"Wetness" is a little murkier. Nobody would confuse the nature of "my
>>>jacket is wet" with "my diaper is wet" or "the wetness (of my
>>>with "the wetness (of my diaper)" but as there isn't a better
>>>adjective readily available (such as urine-soaked), context is
>>>potentially what makes the difference, rather than an actual separate
>>>In citation 4, both "wet" and "wetness" seem to be ordinary on the
>>>surface, but "wick away wetness" indicates the process of a diaper
>>>funneling urine away from the source (the penis) to an absorbent pad
>>>where the urine will not cause skin irritation. In citations 1 (a)
>>>3 (b), "wetness" seems to clearly indicate urine, though citation 5
>>>specifically includes fecal moisture in the concept of "wetness."
>>>I'm not sure how the line is defined, but it seems that both of these
>>>have very specific meanings that deserve separate definitions. What
>>>others think? BB
>>>The American Dialect Society -
>>The American Dialect Society -
>The American Dialect Society -

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