Q: After separating the recyclables into three bins and dragging them out to the street, my hubby turned to me and said he was pooped. Speaking of which, where does “pooped” come from?
A: The adjective “pooped” (or “pooped out”), meaning exhausted or worn out, showed up in the early 20th century in American English.
The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Sergeant Eadie (1928), Leonard H. Nason’s fictional account of an artilleryman in World War: “I haven’t had any sleep in two nights, and I’m a little poobed [sic].”
The OED inserted the bracketed “sic.” Nason, a sergeant in World War I and a lieutenant colonel in World War II, used “poobed” two other times in the book, so that’s probably what the word sounded like to him.
The next Oxford citation, from Soldiers March! (1930), a World War I novel by Theodore Fredenburgh, uses the usual spelling: “The whole outfit is too pooped to have any goldbricking.”
The OED says the adjective is derived from the somewhat earlier verb “poop” (or “poop out”), meaning to break down, stop working, or give out.
The dictionary’s earliest example for this colloquial verb is from a 1927 issue of the journal American Speech: “Poop out, fizzle.”
The OED says the origin of the verb is uncertain, but it points the reader to the verb “poof” (1915), meaning to appear or disappear like a puff of air, and the interjection “poof” (1868), an expression of such appearing or disappearing.
In case you’re curious, the adjective “pooped” is not related to the “poop” having to do with defecation.
When the verb “poop” showed up in the Middle Ages, it had nothing to do with defecating. Rather it meant, Oxford says, “to produce a short blast of sound, as with a horn; to blow, toot.”
The dictionary’s earliest citation, with the past tense “pooped” spelled “powped,” is from “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” in The Canterbury Tales of Chaucer (circa 1390):
“Of bras they broghten bemes, and of box, / Of horn, of boon, in whiche they blewe and powped” (“They brought out trumpets of brass and boxwood, / Of horn and bone, on which they blew and tooted”).
In the late 1600s, the OED says, this now-obsolete musical sense of “poop” evolved to mean, in nursery slang, to “break wind.”
The dictionary’s earliest example for the farting sense of “poop” is from Richard Hogarth’s Gazophylacium Anglicanum, a 1689 etymological dictionary: “To poop, from the Belg. Poepen, to fart softly: both from the sound.”
Oxford notes that the verb “now usually” means “to defecate.” The first example is from an 1882 book by Frederick William P. Jago about the Cornish dialect: “Poop, or Poopy, to go to stool. (Said by children.)”
Since we used the noun “poop” in the title of this post to mean the latest information or the inside story, we should discuss the origin of this sense too.
The OED says this colloquial usage apparently evolved from its use in the early 1900s as cadet lingo at the US Military Academy at West Point.
The dictionary’s first citation is from the 1911 issue of Howitzer, the military academy’s yearbook: “Poop, a speech; a thing to be memorized.”
The Oxford entry for the noun includes 1904 and 1908 citations from the yearbook in which “poop” is used as a verb meaning “to memorize completely” or “to be able to quote verbatim.”
The first citation for “poop” used to mean the inside story is from the Jan, 6, 1945, issue of the New Yorker: “That’s pretty confidential poop, and it wouldn’t have done for us to tip off the Japs about our course.”
The earliest example for its use as up-to-date information is from a 1947 issue of American Speech: “The word poop, which indicated the latest information, whether official or unofficial, was also incorporated into poop sheet, denoting the latest bulletin or directive.”
In explaining the origin of the usage, the OED cites this passage from Military Customs and Traditions (1956), by Mark Mayo Boatner:
“Poop, information of any sort, usually written (on a ‘poop sheet’). Of West Point origin, probably from the fact that the cadet adjutant makes important announcements in the mess hall from a balcony known as the ‘poop deck’ (from its resemblance to a ship’s poop deck).”
When “poop” showed up as a nautical term in the late 15th century, it referred to the stern, or rear end, of a ship.
English borrowed the term from Middle French, where the stern was referred to as la poupe. The ultimate source is puppis, classical Latin for the rear or afterdeck of a ship.
The earliest example in the OED is from The Book of Fayttes [Feats] of Armes and of Chyualrye, a 1489 translation of a French work written by Christine de Pisan in 1410: “The pouppe whiche is the hindermost partye of the shippe.”
Today, the “poop” (or “poop deck,” first recorded in 1717) refers to the superstructure at the stern of a ship. This modern OED example is from The Agüero Sisters, a 1997 novel by Cristina García:
“The nebulous lights Christopher Columbus saw from the poop deck of the Santa María were probably Bermuda fireworms.”
Meanwhile, the nautical noun “poop” gave rise to a related verb in the early 18th century. A large wave was said to “poop” when it broke over a ship’s stern. This is the OED’s earliest example:
“We again scudded, altogether ignorant where we were; for a Sea which pooped us the second Day, had carried away the Binnacle with the Two Compasses.” (From A Voyage to Cacklogallinia, a 1727 satire by the pseudonymous “Captain Samuel Brunt.”)
This later fictional example is from Patrick O’Brian’s novel Thirteen-gun Salute (1989): “It was then … that we were in the greatest danger of being pooped, and broaching to.”
As we imagine struggling sailors, worn out and drenched to the skin, battling to keep their vessel afloat, we wonder: Could there be a connection between the two senses of “pooped”—being exhausted and being swamped by heavy seas? Well, it’s a compelling question, but we haven’t found any evidence of a link.
Finally, we’ll conclude with an example from the July 7, 2016, issue of the New York Post that combines nautical and excretory usages:
“New Yorkers who want to sail across the pond with Fido on the Queen Mary 2 will now be able to make their pooches feel right at home, thanks to the British cruise ship’s new kennel lounge and refurbished poop deck—which has been fitted with an authentic city fire hydrant.”
[Note: This post was updated on Jan. 9, 2019.]