The Grammarphobia Blog

Between two stools

Q: I’ve often wondered if there’s a connection between the “stool” one sits on and the “stool” one evacuates. So I’m asking.

A: The noun “stool” has referred to a toilet seat for hundreds of years. Hence, the use of “stool” for the fecal matter discharged while sitting on the toilet. Here’s the story.

When the word “stool” showed up in Old English in the late 800s, it could refer to “any kind of seat for one person,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED’s earliest example is from Pastoral Care (circa 897), King Ælfred’s translation of a treatise by Pope Gregory I. The king uses “stole” (the objective form of the Old English “stool”) in translating cathedra, Latin for “chair.”

In case you’re curious, the English word “cathedral” is a shortening of “cathedral church,” which refers to the church housing a bishop’s throne, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

The OED notes that “stool” was often used for “a chair of authority, state, or office; esp. a royal or episcopal throne,” though this sense is now obsolete.

However, a similar term, the noun “see” (from sedes, Latin for “seat”), is now used in reference to the Papacy. In church Latin, the Holy See is Sancta Sedes.

Getting back to that other throne, in the early 1400s, according to Oxford, the term “stool” took on the sense of “a seat enclosing a chamber utensil; a commode; more explicitly stool of ease”—in other words, a potty chair.

The dictionary cites James E. Thorold Rogers’s A History of Agriculture and Prices in England from 1259 to 1793, which includes two 1410 examples that refer to commodes as “close stoles.”

Although you don’t hear “stool” used much now for a commode, many standard dictionaries still include the usage.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, says it can mean “a toilet seat” or “a commode.”

The OED notes that the “groom of the stole” originally oversaw “the room containing the king’s close-stool.” And the dictionary’s citations indicate that the position  was often referred to as the “groom of the stool.”

Oxford has examples for this royal usage going back to the mid-1400s, but we’ll skip ahead to this 1526 citation from a collection of royal household ordinances and regulations:

“It is the King’s pleasure, that Mr. Norres shall be in the roome of Sir William Compton, not onely giveing his attendance as groome of the King’s stoole, but also in his bed-chamber.”

And here’s a more interesting citation, from John Harington’s A New Discovrse of a Stale Svbiect, Called the Metamorphosis of Aiax (1596):

“A seuenth (whome I woulde guesse by his writing to be groome of the stoole to some Prince of the bloud in France) writes a beastly treatise, only to examin what is the fittest thing to wipe withall, alledging that white paper is too smooth.”

Over the years, the position of “groom of the stole” evolved to become what the OED describes as “a high officer of the king’s household … ranking next below the vice-chamberlain of the household.”

Although the word “stole” here is sometimes said to be a reference to the royal robe or a stole-like ornament, the dictionary pooh-poohs this “unauthenticated sense” and says “there seems to be little doubt” that “the word is properly a variant of stool n.”

Not surprisingly, the use of “stool” in the potty-chair sense led to the “stool” that means “a discharge of fæcal matter” or “the matter discharged,” as the OED puts it.

Oxford’s earliest citation is from a 1598 translation of Jacques Guillemeau’s Frenche Chirurgie [Surgery]: “His vrine bloodye; his stoels like matter.”

Finally, if you’re wondering, the expression “to fall (or sit) between two stools” showed up in the late 1300s, meaning “to incur failure through vacillation between two different courses of action.”

We’ll end with this OED citation about the quandary facing Lily Dale in The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867), the final book in Anthony Trollope’s six Barsetshire novels:

“She was like to fall to the ground between two stools—having two lovers, neither of whom could serve her turn.”

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