The Orthosphere of course deplores the rank vulgarity that nowadays infests every quarter of our society, and was therefore disappointed, but not surprised, by reports that the President had used a coarse expression to indicate what polite society knows as a pit privy. Many people call these useful buildings an outhouse, but we eschew the word as ambiguous on farms where the pit privy is but one of many small outbuildings. This is a matter on which your author knows whereof he speaks, having spent many happy days of his youth on farms that lacked indoor plumbing, and having often sat, sometimes shivering like the dickens, atop his uncle’s well-appointed four-holer.
Readers with similarly rustic roots may challenge me on this point, but in my not negligible experience of pit privies, the word “hole” was used to refer to the aperture, or apertures, that had been cut (and, one hoped, sanded) in the board on which one sat. In my uncle’s four-holer, these came in various sizes, so that us “little fellas wouldn’t fall in,” as my uncle liked to say, with a not altogether agreeable laugh.
The very nasty receptacle into which I might have fallen, had I mistakenly settled on one of the adult-sized holes, was known as the pit. I don’t know it for a fact, but this may have been why a man in a very low and uncomfortable circumstances was described as being “in the pits.” My grandfather often spoke of his first, hardscrabble farm as “the pits.”
As a passing aside on today’s vulgarity, I must note that I never once heard my hardscrabble relations use the word s#!t, and this despite the fact that they spent much of their day shoveling it, wading through it, spreading it, and sitting above it in their pit privies. Is there, I wonder, an inverse relation between contact with the thing and contact with the word?
Outrage over the President’s remarks will no doubt blow itself out in a day or two, but until that happens, there is a chance you may find it necessary to explain his allusion to primitive sanitation, and, if you like, to point out its defects. To help with this, I furnish you with illuminating diagram. The component to which the President was alluding is labeled A, is called a “pit,” and is said to be three feet deep.
I took this diagram from George M. Warren’s indispensable Sewage Disposal on the Farm (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1917), a work that deserves a wider readership. One important thing we can learn from Mr. Warren is that a pit privy is necessarily a portable facility, first filling a pit here, and then there, and then in yet another place. Warren explains the process this way:
“When the pit becomes one-half to two-thirds full, the privy can be lifted readily by the handles and carried by two persons to a new location.”
And here we see what some might see as a flaw in the President’s metaphor (on top of its regrettable vulgarity). It’s not the pit that moves, but the privy, although wherever the privy is moved to, there will be, of course, a new pit. And this is why George M. Warren is less than full-throated in his advocacy of the portable pit privy, and even goes so far as to say,
“A pit privy, even if moved often, cannot be regarded as either safe or desirable.”
The portable pit privy was safe only where land was “abundant and cheap,” and even they had to be “handled with judgment.” Otherwise, the farmer who relied on this device soon found that he had s#!t holes everywhere!