Le besoin naturel

Anyone who has watched the Tour de France (or de Yorkshire) with a keen ear may have noticed the commentators talking about the riders taking ‘nature breaks’. We can all work out what this means: if you imagine riding your bike for six hours without a stopping, you know that at some point you’re probably going to have to ‘spend a penny’, ‘have a wee’ or, quite literally since you’re by the roadside, ‘water the flowers’. (For the logistics of this when riding le Tour – and when the cameras are rolling – see this blog).

I sometimes answer ‘the call of nature’ in my English, but ‘taking a nature break’ isn’t a euphemism which I’m familiar with. If you follow some of the roadie chat however you find out that this is an anglicised version of a lovely French euphemism, ‘un besoin naturel’ (‘natural need’). Très chic!

This reminded me of a euphemism which LSJ – the big dictionary of Greek – uses in its definition of the verb χέζω (che-dzoh). As LSJ puts it, this verb means ‘to ease oneself, do one’s need’. In all the literary texts which we have from Classical Greece, this verb is found only in comic plays: this suggests that it is obscene in nature and something not to be used in ‘polite’ literary discourse. One example from the playwright Aristophanes serves to illustrate what it refers to, with our verb and its translations in bold; here we find Blepyros – an old man – sheepishly leaving his house in the middle of the night to ‘do his business’ (Eccl. 320-2):

ἀλλ᾽ ἐν καθαρῷ ποῦ ποῦ τις ἂν χέσας τύχοι;

ἦ πανταχοῦ τοι νυκτός ἐστιν ἐν καλῷ.

οὐ γάρ με νῦν χέζοντά γ´ οὐδεὶς ὄψεται.

But where, oh where can I find a place to shit?

Perhaps it doesn’t matter during the night:

No one will see me shitting as early as this.

A ‘besoin naturel’ can also apply to doing what Blepyros needs to do, or ‘go serious bathroom’ as the man in the video in the link puts it (even more tricky on a road bike).


Detail from a red-figure Rhyton from the Walters Art Museum (Walters 482050), c. 450 BC. Explore the object at: http://art.thewalters.org/detail/20024.

It is certain that the compilers of LSJ knew that χέζω was a word with this non-euphemistic tone, as did their subsequent revisers, but rather than use a four-letter word equivalent (e.g. ‘crap’, ‘shit’), the lexicon goes for something more metaphorical. This attitude is perhaps unsurprising in a work which was put together at the beginning of the nineteenth century, although the dictionary isn’t always as prudish as you might think (I’ve written a paper on this: see future blog posts). Similarly, if you look at the Greek-German dictionary by Passow on which LSJ was based, you find something quite different: this defines χέζω as ‘scheissen, kacken, seine Nothdurft verachten’ (‘to shit, crap, to do one’s necessary’). Whatever the tone of ‘scheissen’ and ‘kacken’ in early nineteenth century German, these are not euphemisms. And if you think this is bold, you should see how Passow definition for ψωλή, for which LSJ retreats to four words of Latin… Suffice to say that different cultures have different levels of tolerance of unsavory things, and also of words which refer to such things: this is as true of contemporary British society as compared with the ancient Greeks as it is of us and the Victorians, or early 19th century Germany.

We might think that we have moved beyond the time when classical texts were denuded of their rude words, but this is not necessarily the case: the translation of Aristophanes above is Haliwell’s from the Oxford World’s Classics series, whereas the same lines of Greek are rendered in a translation from Methuen Drama as ‘…and come out here to find a place to … | But where? Not here… it’s a bit public… | Oh, I don’t know though, it’s dark, who’s to see?. The reader or performer is left to provide their own (hopefully suitably obscene) term, if they can work out what is going on. ‘Shit’ is a good word to use in the right circumstances, but I’m still taken by ‘besoin naturel’.

Text copyright © 2014 Amy Coker. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Image from Walters Art Museum reproduced under Creative Commons License.


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