July 08, 2004

Lavatory lexicography

I happen to know the word that is used by flush toilet designers and testers to denote the solid object or objects that it is the purpose of flush toilets to dispose of. And you probably don't. So that certainly puts me one up on you. Unless you read on. Though you probably don't really want to.

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Well, I was wrong, you did, so here it is. The flushable matter is called the insult. Really. I learned it from a program I heard on the radio. R&D guys at toilet factories talk about how effective particular designs are at flushing away the insult.

You're probably thinking there will be some point to this post. But there isn't.

Except perhaps, if you press me, that it is a good example of why I am not very interested in words per se. You get these odd little factoids and then... what follows from them? Nothing. I'm not really a word man. I know, I know, it does seem strangely sort of fascinating to learn that the Somali vocabulary for concepts relating to camel spit is so rich. But in the end, so what? The interesting stuff, to me at least, is in the whole complex system that does the work: the grammar. The grammar is the working mechanism of lift wire, trip arm system, ball and float rod assembly, refill shutoff valve unit. Words are just individual parts like the flapper or the flush level handle. But I won't go on; this metaphor is not working like I wanted it to (if grammars are toilets, then what are conversations?). And I don't want to offend lexicographers by... adding insult to injury.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at July 8, 2004 01:41 AM