Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Hate to Poop the Party…

Posted by Neal on October 12, 2009

Every party has a pooper; that's why we invited you.Regular reader and Beatles fan Gordon P. Hemsley had a question:

I just came across the phrase “poop the party” (as in, “sorry to poop the party”). I’ve never heard this phrase before, but it appears to be a back-formation (of sorts) from “partypooper”. Google gives me ~55,000 hits, but many of them appear to include punctuation like colons and hyphens within the phrase.

Perhaps you could do better research?

There would seem to be a need for a verb denoting what a party pooper does. As I’ve written before, compound nouns of the form [Noun]+[Verb]+er/ing often give rise to backformed verbs, such as rollercoast, sightsee, arm flap, problem solve, serial kill, fence sit, and peoplewatch and underage drink.

What those examples would lead us to expect for a backformed verb would be the compound verb (to) party poop, not the verb phrase (to) poop the party. And indeed, this verb is attested. The earliest I’ve found is from a 1994 Miami Herald article, courtesy of the Google News archive:

So the officials opted to party-poop again, moving the Raiders back to their 28.

And here’s another one from ESPN last year, also from Google News:

Far be it from me to party poop on Bryan Robson’s big day….

However, the mere existence of party poop as a verb does not necessarily mean it was backformed from party pooper. In a message to the American Dialect Society email list, Arnold Zwicky argues that some particular Noun+Verb compound patterns are so productive that they are most likely produced by direct compounding, rather than by Noun+Verb+er/ing and subsequent backformation. His example is the pattern Noun+shop, which is widespread enough that he stopped collecting examples; as he writes, “it’s hard for me to believe that people had to experience the noun vegetable-shopping before they could produce the verb vegetable-shop.”

Still and all, the apparent recency of the verb party poop suggests that it was, in fact, created via backformation from party pooper. The OED has its earliest citation from 1954, in an American Speech article commenting on humorous word coinages:

1954 Amer. Speech 29 293 Such comic masterpieces as lounge lizard and party pooper are of American origin.

1954 was also the publication year for the play A Hatful of Rain by Michal Gazzo, which contains the line, “Aw come on, don’t be a party pooper!” I found that attestation through Google Books, which also provided the earliest attestation I’ve found. It’s a caption on the cover of a 1926 publication by the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company, which asks:

Can you find the party-pooper who won’t make way for change?

One wrinkle in the picture so far is that party poop can be found as early as 1946 — not as a verb, but as a noun, synonymous with party pooper. The OED provides a 1959 attestation from William S. Burroughs:

1959 W. BURROUGHS Naked Lunch 131 Such people are no better than party poops.

The 1946 attestation, from Google Books, comes from what appears to be a periodical called The School Executive:

In company he is a good mixer, neither a conversation hog nor a “party poop.”

So far, then, it looks like party pooper has been around since the 1920s, followed by the clipped form party poop, with the backformed verb party poop coming several decades later. But what about poop the party?

To begin with, if the backformation associated with party pooper is (to) party poop, what would be the status of the verb phrase poop the party? On the one hand, I’m inclined to say that it’s no more a backformation than if someone were to say that they tended bar, watched people, or saw the sights. The morphological rules allow you to create compounds of the form [Noun]+[Verb]+er/ing, and the syntactic rules allow you to create verb phrases of the form [Verb]+[Noun Phrase], and that’s all there is to say. Bartender and tend bar; peoplewatcher and watch people; sightseer and see the sights: all are generated by English grammar rules, and there’s no reason to say that one member of the pair was the source of the other.

On the other hand, in order to form the compound party pooper, there first had to be the verb poop, with the meaning of taking the fun out of something. Was there? The Random House dictionary suggests that party poop(er) may be related to the “become exhausted” meaning of poop, but isn’t certain. Or as the creators of my illustration have envisioned, it could be related to the “defecate” meaning of poop. Either way, let’s see if the “spoil others’ fun” meaning shows up in the form of poop the party before party pooper does.

The earliest citation I find, in the Google News Archive, is in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette of Feb. 26, 1975, in an article by Bill Christine:

The referee baiters, for fear they would poop the party, remained in their locker rooms until the give-away was completed.

So it looks like Gordon may have been onto something. Even though poop the party is not a backformation like those we’ve been seeing, it does look like the noun party pooper was created before poop had its meaning of spoiling something for everyone. Even today, though, it seems that when speakers want to talk about what party poopers do, they’re more comfortable using a workaround and leaving the noun intact. The Corpus of Contemporary American English has zero hits for any version of poop {a/the/etc.} party or party poop, but four for be a party pooper.

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5 Responses to “Hate to Poop the Party…”

  1. Hmm… a Twitter search is revealing that some people are unaware of the “spoil others’ fun” meaning of poop, opting instead for the phrase “poop on the party”.

  2. [...] blogs writing posts about topics I’ve brought up, and I wouldn’t want to poop the party and have you find out about my new website from them. Perhaps I’ll have made more progress on [...]

  3. Philip Whitman said

    Pretty gross picture.

  4. Ingeborg S. Nordén said

    I’ve been accused of “pooping [my host's] party” as a houseguest before–no on and no compound party-poop. (The latter sounds as odd as sightsee or ünderage drink to my ears; but the poop on [a] party reanalysis makes sense, especially since “bathroom metaphors” for negative attitudes are already common. (Indian guru to Homer Simpson: “Must you dump on everything we do?”)

  5. [...] Hate To Poop The Party… « Literal-Minded1954 was also the publication year for the play A Hatful of Rain by Michal Gazzo, which co… [...]

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