Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Silent Pee

Posted by Neal on December 15, 2004

I could tell something was on Adam’s mind last night as I got ready to brush his teeth. He was staring into space as I put the toothpaste on the brush, and said, almost to himself, “Silent P.”

“Silent P? Where?” I asked. I looked all around the bathroom, but didn’t see any obvious text anywhere that he might be noticing, much less one with a silent P in it. I mean, he’s familiar with the concept of silent letters (and likes to listen to this song in the car), but I didn’t think he’d ever seen any words with a silent P. Psychologist, pneumonia, he’s never seen those written. Pteranodon, maybe, but he’s really not into dinosaurs* as much as Doug was, so we hardly ever read him books with that word in them. So what word was he seeing that had a silent P in it?

As I was thinking about all this, Adam said, “Tinkle.”

Ohhh, now I got it. He was thinking about the library book we’d read the night before. The book was I Have to Go, in which the phrase, “I have to go pee!” appeared in several places, in large print. Out of consideration for Doug and Adam’s mom, when I read the book I’d systematically replaced pee with tinkle, using the terminology that Doug and Adam learned from her and their grandma and their aunt. Little did I know that for 24 hours, Adam had been silently struggling, trying to reconcile the phonetic string tinkle with the orthographic string P-E-E that he saw on the page. And now he’d finally arrived at his conclusion: It must be a silent P. I had to admire his reasoning–I do believe he’s gonna turn out to be a real whiz kid!

BTW, I personally don’t care for the word tinkle, and much prefer pee. But standardly using tinkle from the time Doug and Adam were in diapers has honed my appreciation for the strange semantic journey it’s undergone. First there’s its onomatopoetic meaning, which I assume is the basis for its use as a euphemism for “urinate.” From there, the verb tinkle can be used to refer to the bodily waste itself, reproducing the verb-noun polysemy seen in pee, piss, poop, and shit. Tinkle the noun can be turned into the adjective tinkly, as in, He has a tinkly diaper. And at this point the irony kicks in when you try to get back to the original meaning of the word. It’d seem that tinkly ought to refer to things like windchimes or ice cubes in a glass, but instead, we find it describing something that goes squish when you poke it and plop when you drop it on the floor.

*Yes, I know, Pteranodon is not a dinosaur.

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6 Responses to “Silent Pee”

  1. Anonymous said

    “I do believe he’s gonna turn out to be a real whiz kid!”

    boo hiss groan. where is the bad pun police?

    ~Kelly (a faithful reader)

  2. Anonymous said

    Neal, you son of a gun!! At first, I thought what you meant by silent Pee was that Adam was tinkling down his pant leg while you brushed his teeth. Darn it, you were being literal-minded again. Silent “P” meant that you wouldn’t pronouce the word “pee” at all! In this instance, you were too clever for words; two can play at this literal-minded game!

    –Trumpit

  3. Alex said

    Thank You

  4. [...] I came back the next day and knocked them all down with a big pole. But they did make a pleasant tinkling sound during the process. Explore posts in the same categories: Christmas-related, Syntax, The [...]

  5. [...] As the subtitle says, this blog contains linguistic commentary, which includes everything from how words are pronounced all the way to the meaning of things that are left unsaid. OK, not everything: The in-between area covers word formation (i.e. morphology), phrase formation (syntax), word and phrase meaning (semantics), plus a little bit of other linguistic topics here and there. Morphology, syntax, and semantics are typically what people think of when they think grammar, so if grammar’s what you came here for, you might want to look around in the tabs for those categories. Of special interest may be one of the tabs under Semantics:Ambiguity, namely Ambiguous Song Lyrics. If you like grammar mixed in with funny stories about kids, I have a category for my sons’ linguistic adventures, too. (My wife’s favorite: Silent Pee.) [...]

  6. [...] present. She hates the word fart; it’s another of her word aversions like the one she has to the word pee. So out of necessity, I came up with circumflatulate as an alternative. I’m not claiming to [...]

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