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The Toilet Papers

January 20, 2018
by Pat Joseph

President Trump, as usual, dominated the news this week, first with his “Fake News Awards.” As Ed Wasserman, dean of the Berkeley J-School pointed out in a panel discussion last year, “fake news” as Trump uses it is simply “a catch-all, a pejorative, for news that you don’t like or you disagree with or that you mistrust” as opposed to, well, demonstrably fake news, like the story, perpetuated by citizen Trump, that Obama was born in Kenya.

Then there’s the question everyone desperately wants answered: Did the chief executive refer to certain countries as shitholes or shithouses?

Wondering what the difference is, CALIFORNIA’s Krissy Eliot reached out to Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at Berkeley’s School of Information and our go-to word guy. Professor Nunberg responded:

Green’s Dictionary of Slang defines ‘shithouse’ as “a dirty, messy, disgusting place,” and ‘shithole’ as “a disgusting place, an absolutely worthless place.” (‘Shithole’ can also mean anus, but not when it’s used as an adjective.) Both can also mean toilet or outhouse, though it’s unlikely Trump heard that usage growing up in Queens. The Oxford English Dictionary says the words are synonyms. Perhaps some scatological connoisseurs will discern a shade of difference here, but my guess is that most of the people in the nations Trump was referring to would find small comfort in being told he had only described their country as a shithouse and not a shithole.

While we’re on this unlikely topic, the term “scatological connoisseur” calls to mind the late great Berkeley folklorist Alan Dundes who once wrote a book about the national character of Germany called Life is Like a Chicken Coop Ladder, after a German saying, the punchline of which is “short, slimy, and full of shit.” Dundes not only insisted there is such a thing as national character but also that it is revealed in a country’s folklore. A thoroughgoing Freudian, Dundes argued that a close study of German folklore revealed a Fatherland obsessed with Scheisse.

His papers now reside in the Bancroft Library. He died in 2005. Writer Evan Ratliff profiled Dundes, sometimes called the Joke Professor, for a long-ago humor issue. He wrote: “So singular a presence was he for students—some of whom called him ‘the Master’ or simply ‘Himself’—that they collected their own Dundes folklore, known as Dundesiana.” The Berkeley Folklore Archive even has a folder devoted to Dundes-inspired “latrinalia,” the bathroom wall scribblings he established as a legitimate object of study. One entry reads “Keep Alan Dundes working! Write graffiti!”

The Toilet Papers, by the way, is also the title of Cal architecture professor Sim Van Der Ryn’s classic book, a treatise for so-called back-to-the-landers, who wrestled with the age-old topic of how to handle the problem of human waste. It’s serious business, by the way. Just ask the people at the Berkeley Water Center.

Serious business. We’ll get back on that next week.

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