Q: I came across your “waste paper” posting online, but it didn’t answer a question that’s been puzzling me. Which is correct, “bodily waste” or “bodily wastes”? I’m referring to the undigested food eliminated by human beings.
A: When “waste” refers to an unusable or unwanted byproduct, such as “bodily waste” or “industrial waste,” it’s usually a mass or uncountable noun, one that doesn’t typically have a plural form (like “air,” “knowledge,” “water,” etc.). However, the plural is sometimes used to make clear that different kinds of waste are intended.
We’ve seen written examples of both “bodily waste” and “bodily wastes,” but the “waste” version is much more common in comparisons done with Googles’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks digitized books, and the News on the Web corpus, a database from online newspapers and magazines.
“Waste” is also a mass noun when it refers to the unnecessary use of resources, as in a “waste” of time, money, electricity, and so on. And “wastes” is a mass noun in plural form when it refers to a large, barren area, such as the “the icy wastes of Antarctica” or “the arid wastes of the Sahara.”
Interestingly, the noun “waste” had that barren sense when it first appeared 800 years ago. As John Ayto explains in his Dictionary of Word Origins, the “etymological notions underlying waste are ‘emptiness’ and ‘desolation.’ ” Ayto says the source of the English word is the classical Latin vastus (empty), which has also given English “vast” and “devastate.”
When the noun entered Middle English around 1200, it meant an “uninhabited (or sparsely inhabited) and uncultivated country; a wild and desolate region, a desert, wilderness,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The first OED citation is from the Trinity Homilies at the University of Cambridge:
“Ac seðen hie henen wenden, atlai þai lond unwend and bicam waste, and was roted oueral and swo bicam wildernesse” (“But it’s true that after they [the old tillers] left, the land lay idle and untilled and became a waste, and took root all over and so became a wilderness”). The citation is from a homily on the Assumption of Mary that compares the sinful world to a field not tilled.
The OED, an etymological dictionary, notes that an even older, now obsolete adjective had a similar meaning in Old English: “Of a place: uninhabited and uncultivated; wild, desolate, waste.” The Anglo-Saxon term (woeste, woste, wæste, etc.) comes from prehistoric Germanic, but it’s ultimately derived from the same Indo-European root as vastus, the Latin source of “waste.”
The dictionary’s earliest citation for the Anglo-Saxon adjective is from Psalm 69:25 in the Vespasian Psalter, an eighth-century illuminated manuscript written in Latin as well as Old English:
“Fiat habitatio eorum deserta, et in tabernaculis eorum non sit qui inhabitet. Sie eardung heara woestu & in geteldum heara ne sie se ineardie” (“Let their dwelling place be desolate [deserta in Latin and woestu in Old English], and let no one dwell in their tents”).
Getting back to the noun “waste,” its sense of a “useless expenditure or consumption, squandering (of money, goods, time, effort, etc.)” appeared in late 13th-century Middle English. The dictionary’s first citation is from The Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester (1297), an account of early Britain: “Wiþ so gret prute & wast & so richeliche” (“With such great pride and waste and so richly”).
The sense of “waste” as trash, including an unusable or unwanted byproduct, was recorded in the early 15th century. The earliest OED example is from Libeaus Desconus (1430), a Middle English version of a romance about Gingalain, son of King Arthur’s knight Gawain:
“For gore, and fen, and full wast, That was out ykast” (“For all the filth and dung and waste that was cast out”). The Middle English wast here means trash, while both gore and fen could mean either filth or dung.
Interestingly, the OED entry for the noun “waste,” which hasn’t been fully updated since 1923, doesn’t include an example in which the unwanted byproduct sense refers to the undigested food eliminated by the human body.
As far as we can tell from a search of digitized newspapers and books, the excretion sense of “waste” first appeared in the 19th century. Here’s an example that we found in a medical textbook:
“There is a direct sympathy between the stomach and the rest of the body, by means of which the stimulus of hunger becomes unusually urgent where the bodily waste has been great, although a comparatively short time has elapsed since the preceding meal” (from The Physiology of Digestion, 1836, by the Scottish physician Andrew Combe).