The Grammarphobia Blog

Urine analysis

Q: I’ve had quite a few doctor’s visits and laboratory tests lately and the medical personnel I’ve encountered use “pee” for urinate, both as a directive (in a cup) or while discussing results. I don’t object to this usage, but I wonder if it isn’t a bit informal in this setting. What do you think?

A: We’ve had this experience, too. At doctors’ offices, not only are we invited to “pee” into a cup, but sometimes we’re even asked how regularly we “poop.”

It may be that in medical settings, this deliberate informality is intended to make patients comfortable and put them at ease—a welcome contrast to the bewildering technical terminology the patients are faced with.

Or perhaps it’s an extension of the calculated familiarity that’s sometimes called the “hospital we,” as in “How are we feeling this morning,” a usage we wrote about in 2011.

We aren’t bothered by these usages in a medical setting, largely because our minds are focused on more important things—like whether we’d better start putting our affairs in order!

As for the words themselves, we’ve written before about the etymology of “poop,” which didn’t mean “defecate” until the late 19th century.

And though we have discussed “piss” and words derived from it, we’ve never written about “pee.” So here goes.

As a verb meaning to urinate, “pee” is simply a shorter form of “piss.” It originally developed in the 18th century, when it stood for “the initial letter of piss,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

When it was first used, “pee” was a transitive verb—that is, it required an object, the thing that was urinated in or on.

The dictionary’s earliest example is about a cat: “He never stealt, though he was poor, / Nor ever pee’d his master’s floor” (from Ebenezer Picken’s Poems and Epistles, Mostly in the Scottish Dialect, 1788).

Early in the 19th century, the verb was also used intransitively (without an object), and again the OED’s earliest citation is Scottish: “To pee, to make water” (from John Jamieson’s Supplement to the Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language, 1825).

Standard dictionaries in the US and the UK now describe the use of “pee” to mean urinate as informal—that is, acceptable in speech and casual writing.

Here’s an example from Lexico, formerly Oxford Dictionaries Online: “In the bathroom, the girl in the next stall answers her cell phone while she’s peeing.’

In modern British English, the phrase “peed off” is used in the same sense as “pissed off,” according to Lexico, which includes this among its examples:

“She looked really rather peed off but it made for a nugget of great telly.”

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