Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Steaming Piles

Posted by Neal on February 13, 2012

Once upon a time, Doug and Adam and I were sitting in the waiting room at the vet’s office. I don’t even remember which cat we had brought in that day, although it was probably Nick, with his chronic nasal problems. What I do remember, and what Doug and Adam remember, is a terrier with curly black fur, a terrier they now refer to simply as Smelly Dog. Smelly Dog was agitated, whining and restlessly shifting side to side while his owner tried to calm him down. Then, suddenly…

Maybe you’ve seen fountains of blood spurting from severed arteries in some of the gorier videogames, or in the Black Knight scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, or in real life. That’s what it was like in the vet’s waiting room, except that the blood wasn’t shooting out of a brachial, femoral or carotid artery, but Smelly Dog’s rear end. And it wasn’t blood. It squirted, and squirted, and squirted. As we watched in disgusted fascination, the smell reached us.

“Aww, do you feel better now?” Smelly Dog’s owner cooed, while Doug and Adam scrambled for the exit.

Every now and then Doug or Adam will remember that story and reminisce with his brother, or me. The last time it happened, I was busy heating up a serving of chana masala for the wife, who’d gotten home after we’d had supper.

“… until there was just a big, steaming pile of liquid!” Doug said as I pulled the bowl out of the microwave.

“More like a puddle,” I said.

“That’s why I said ‘of liquid,’” Doug answered. I didn’t pursue it, because I was busy getting a napkin and a spoon for the chana masala. As I handed it to my wife, I said, “OK, here’s your hot, steaming pile of–”

“Oh, don’t be disgusting!” she blurted out.

“What are you talking about? Here’s your hot, steaming pile of chana masala!”

So did my wife have a point? Is the string steaming pile of enough to warrant disgust? Clearly, it was for her, but that was with some vivid priming from Doug and me. The association was strong enough for Doug to forgo the word puddle to call the spreading brown mess on the waiting room floor a “steaming pile of liquid.” In a thread on the online Word Reference Forum, one participant asks what steaming pile means, and another, “In many situations the ‘steaming pile’ alluded to is a steaming pile of bullshit, horseshit or just shit,” and another adds, “If the author of that had only said My life is a steaming pile, I’m fairly sure that most native English-speakers would have easily been able to supply the missing [of shit].”

A COCA search for “steaming [pile] of”, looking for the most common words within four words to the right, brings in only about two dozen hits, but seven of them are guano, excrement, scat, poop, dung, and shit. COCA will let you sort results by mutual information, which is a statistical measure of how closely associated with each other two words are. In the extreme case, if the probability of word B appearing after word A is no different than the probability that word B will appear anywhere, then these words’ probabilities are independent, and their mutual information will be 0. On the other hand, if word A always occurs with word B, and word B always occurs with word A, their mutual information will be much higher. According to the COCA tutorial page, a mutual information score of above 3.0 generally indicates “semantic bonding”.

Steaming pile(s) of and shit within four words of each other have mutual information 9.48. Pretty good, given the 3.0 threshold, right? But in fact, there’s only one example with shit:

They’ve left a steaming pile of dog shit on my desk, and now it belongs to me.

The word that yielded the highest mutual information score was actually another singleton hit, roadkill, at 15.87. Guano followed closely, with 15.85.

For comparison, I did a search with a string that I thought would have higher mutual information with shit, namely lying sack of, limited to words that occurred immediately to the right. That got eight hits, four of them with shit, one with manure, one with (censored), and two left incomplete. The mutual information with shit was 14.18, more than the 9.48, but still less than the score for steaming pile(s) of followed by guano. It just goes to show you can’t jump to conclusions.

But back to our steaming piles, I found that the steaming pile of chana masala I served up to my wife was not without precedent in the Corpora of Contemporary and Historical American English and in Google Books:

  • His last meal was more than twenty-four hours behind him, and all he could think about were steaming piles of roast boar and warm ale, right from the goat’s teat. (2009)
  • there was a steaming pile of peas and a casserole of sweet potatoes with broiled marshmallows on top. (1995)
  • The pot had been drained of water and dumped on its side; they sat close to the steaming pile of potatoes, hunched over, ripping off the salt-stained skins with small knives. (1957)
  • They returned to the tent just as the last streak of daylight disappeared from the western horizon and at once set about the consumption of a steaming pile of boiled mutton and huge bowls of dough strings floating in mutton broth. (1918)
  • Isidora saw that Bill had the food he liked best for breakfast; a steaming pile of buckwheat cakes trimmed round the edges with crisp brown lace, and oozing syrup at every pore. (1910)
  • It was not the time — just after tea — to eat an immense dish of coos-coosoo, or a steaming pile of hot mutton and raisins, cooked in oil,
    (1903)
  • “Naw, Amy ain’t took wid no spell no sich a thing,” interrupted Caroline, as she placed another steaming pile of eggs on Sam’s plate. (1886)
  • he will hereafter be held in grateful remembrance around many a steaming pile of Saur-Kraut and Speck. (1869)
  • they rushed upon the steaming piles of meat like half-famished wolves.
    (1848)

I also found, in the first half of the 20th century and earlier, steaming piles of rubble:

  • in no more time than it takes for a tangle of tubes and drums to fly up and fall down again, the whole plant is a steaming pile of brick, mortar (1937)
  • The wall crashed down, demolishing the office completely and leaving nothing but a steaming pile of bricks and debris. (1917)
  • the lovely mother, who had led him to behold her son as he slept, at this moment a blackened corse under the steaming pile [of a burned-down house] before him. (1832)

The earliest example I’ve found in which steaming pile refers to excrement is from 1890, in Light on the Cloud, or Hints of Comfort for Hours of Sorrow, by Minot Judson Savage:

It is not the fault of the sunlight that, beneath its shining, a bed of flowers lifts up its fragrance to God, and that, beneath the same shining, a steaming pile of filth reeks offence and disease in all nostrils.

And on that inspirational note, I leave you to your own steaming piles, whatever their composition.

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7 Responses to “Steaming Piles”

  1. John Duffy said

    Surely, though, steaming pile of guano is being used as a euphemism for shit, or a deliberate variation, and understood to be so by both the speaker and his or her audience.

    Also, the liquid variety wouldn’t make a pile of any sort…

    John

  2. Jake said

    The afterlife of the Left Behind books famously (among those who find the books a bottomless source of so-bad-it’s-good entertainment) features “steaming piles of fresh produce, drenched in butter”. Rarely has something actually pretty decent been described in so wholly unappetizing a way.

  3. Glen said

    Why is “steaming pile of fresh dog shit” included in your list of precedents for “steaming pile of chana masala,” when every other item in the list is some kind of food?

  4. Philip Whitman said

    Ii is interesting to me that you opened your narrative with “Once upon a time”. For some reason, I use that phrase pretty much only when I am telling tales of fiction, fairy tales in particular. But I’m not stating a rule; it’s just what I do.

  5. EP said

    I’m a veteran of vet visits, but man oh man. That’s one of the grossest waiting room stories I’ve heard yet. But hey, you-know-what happens, right?

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