Have you been? The lavatorial ‘be’
‘To be’: the most simple, unassuming and innocent-looking verb. Yet it is jam-packed with more meanings, forms, and uses than any other English word – 1,812 to be exact.
When researching the lexical mountain that is the Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for ‘be’, David Crystal discovered a story of history, language, and identity – as well as this curiously euphemistic usage…
Have you been? This expression must have started out as a shortened form of a full sentence, such as Have you been to the lavatory?, avoiding the potentially embarrassing ‘dirty word’. Its first recorded use is quite recent, 1959. Go is used in a similar way (I need to go), and there’s evidence of that from the 1920s. I suspect that this use of be is much older, reaching back to an era of Victorian fastidiousness. Exploring its history introduces us to a shadowy domain where words hide unpleasant realities—a world of euphemisms. Because it’s not the sort of thing one often writes about in polite society, records of earlier usage are sparse. Even the Romantic poets, with their fascination with things earthy and everyday, avoid the subject. Do we know anything about the toileting practices of William Wordsworth? We do not. But there is some evidence that these colloquial expressions are very old indeed. How did the Anglo-Saxons say they’d ‘been’? Abbot Ælfric, writing a sermon around the year 1000, tells a story about Arrius, a heretic who called a council to attack the local bishop. The bishop prayed that God would show who was right, and Ælfric tells what happened (in my translation):
They came there in the morning to the council. Then the heretic said to
his companions that he wished to go for his necessary purpose. Then he
came to the privy and sat down. Then all his entrails turned out at his
stool, and he sat there dead. Thus God showed that he was just as
empty in his belief as he was in his intestines.
Ælfric writes: ‘he to gange com’—literally, ‘he to a going-place came’. The word for ‘privy’ in Old English was gang, also spelled gong. It comes from the verb ‘go’, gangan—a verb we still hear in Scots English: ‘Will ye gang along wi’ me?’ In Anglo-Saxon times there was a whole family of words based on gang. A privy could be called a gangern (‘going-urn’), a gang-pyt (‘going-pit’), a gang-setl (‘going seat’), or a gang-tun (‘going house’). One of the worst jobs in the world must have been that of an Anglo-Saxon gang-feormere (‘privy cleaner’).
One ‘goes’ to the toilet. More elegantly one might ‘visit’ it. But, having gone, we do not usually say I’ve gone or ask children if they have gone. We can say I went an hour ago, but not I’ve gone an hour ago. Been does the job instead. I’ve been. Been as a past form of go. Unusual.
Have you been? Parents know that this is a very important question before starting out on a long car journey with children, or engaging in some similar enterprise where the inaccessibility of a toilet is a critical factor. But it’s an odd usage, for it’s socially highly restricted. It’s only used by adults talking to little children or to people they are treating like little children. One of the complaints adult hospital patients have is when nursing staff speak to them patronizingly in this way: ‘Have you been today, David?’ ‘Yes, nurse.’ And then David gets praised. (Or told off, if the answer is ‘No’.)
There’s an echo of this at the end of a chapter (‘Talkers’) in Klare Sullivan’s 2002 memoir on changing times in the American South, A Full Cup: Living, Loving, and Laughing in the 80’s. In the last of eight scenes of ‘girl talk’ (presented along the lines of Jacques’ ‘seven ages of man’ speech in Shakespeare’s As You Like It) we read:
Act III, Scene II. We see two ladies—most definitely over-the-hillers.
They are speaking, but their words are more like a whisper. One of them
is saying, ‘Have you been today?’
‘No, but I’m hoping,’ and the curtain closes with that great expectation!
The usage is also restricted to the have/had been form of the verb. If a child says ‘No’, and is promptly despatched to the bathroom, the parent does not then call out Are you being? Nor are there such questions as Will you be? or Were you being? The only possibility is I’ve been, or a variant thereof.
In William Golding’s Free Fall (1959) we read:
. . . finally, among the singing stars, I’d been, three times, and couldn’t pee any more.
And I once heard a sufferer from diarrhoea say I’ve been being all morning. It was not an existential reflection.
This excerpt is from David Crystal’s book, The Story of Be, which offers a verb’s-eye view of the English language and the fascinating history of ‘be’ in all its uses.