“Crapulence” Doesn’t Mean That

By Maeve Maddox

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A reader called my attention to a sentence in which these words appeared:

…a cesspool of its own crapulence

I turned to my browser and found so many examples of “wallowing in their/his/its own crapulence” that I conclude that the expression has already become a cliché.

Apparently a lot of people imagine that crapulence means excrement.

Columnist Jonah Goldberg thinks so:

Two decades of crapulence by the political class has been prologue to the era of coprophagy that is now upon us. It is crap sandwiches for as far as the eye can see.

Actually, crapulence and its related forms crapulent and crapulous, come from a Latin word meaning “intoxication.” and have to do with drunkenness.

crapulence: great intemperance especially in drinking –Merriam-Webster

crapulence: 1. Sickness or indisposition resulting from excess in drinking or eating; 2. Gross intemperance, esp. in drinking; debauchery. –OED

crapulous: “sick from too much drinking,” from L. crapula, from Gk. kraipale “hangover, drunken headache, nausea from debauching.” The Romans used it for drunkenness itself. English has used it in both senses. –Online Etymology Dictionary

The vulgarism crap, on the other hand, is used as a noun to mean excrement, and as a verb to mean defecate.–

Merriam-Webster gives the etymology of crap as:

Middle English, from Middle Dutch crap, crappe pork chop, greaves [“cracklings”], grain in chaff, from crappen to tear or break off

The use of crap with excremental associations has been in the language since the 19th century. The Online Etymology Dictionary indicates that crap belongs to a

cluster of words generally applied to things cast off or discarded (e.g. “weeds growing among corn” (1425), “residue from renderings” (1490s)… “dregs of beer or ale”

The OEtyD entry concludes that the word probably comes from the Middle English word crappe, “grain that was trodden underfoot in a barn.”

In case the meaning of coprophagy in the quotation above is not evident from the context, here’s the definition from Merriam-Webster:

coprophagy: the feeding on or eating of dung or excrement that is normal behavior among many insects, birds, and other animals but in man is a symptom of some forms of insanity

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29 Responses to ““Crapulence” Doesn’t Mean That”

  • Ellen

    This may be the most important post I’ve ever read. Seriously, I love this!

  • Rob

    Don’t forget Thomas Crapper a sanitary engineer who improved the workings of the flushing toilet, he couldn’t have had a better name for his job

  • ChrisB

    At what point does a word’s meaning change? When I read the original Goldberg piece, I didn’t know “crapulence” was a real word, and I assumed the meaning was related to, well, crap, and I think most people would.

  • Deborah H

    As ChrisB said above, most people think the word “crapulence” is a contemporary superlative for “crap.” I did not know that the root word “crap” had such distinguished antecedents.

    However, Goldberg could have been making a smart and subtle pun: Two decades of crapulence [excessive eating and drinking, with resulting nausea and waste] by the political class has been prologue to the era of coprophagy that is now upon us. It is crap [the people get the waste] sandwiches for as far as the eye can see.

  • Charlie

    Learned another new thing! This reminded me of a word my youngest uses – craptacular – for something that is spectacularly bad.
    “I’ve had a craptacular morning between kids and dogs and cleaning up.”
    Don’t know if it is a real word or one she made up, but I think it can be useful in a number of ways, just like crap.

  • Deb Kincaid

    You uncover the most fascinating stuff. I’m in word nerd bliss. More than once your clarification of terms has saved me from making a fool out of myself. Please keep up the good work; I love it!

  • Eric C

    I always assumed crapulence was a portmanteau of crap and excellence, meant ironically.

  • Deb Kincaid

    Ooooh…portmanteau? Two new words in one day!! I’m on sensory overload. Gotta pull out my Merriam-Webster’s. Thanks, Eric.

  • John

    Are people serious? This shouldn’t even need to be addressed. Don’t assume crapulence has something to do with crap just because they sound the same. More importantly, don’t try to use the word if you don’t know what it means because that will confuse more people. When I first encountered the word ‘crapulence’ I didn’t know what it meant, I figured it couldn’t be related to the word ‘crap’ and so I looked it up.

    End rant.

  • cmdweb

    The word ‘crap’ is a relatively modern word derived from the name of Mr. Crapper (of above referenced fame) which has come to be associated with the contents of one’s crapper. Toilets are still called crappers in the UK, and elsewhere no doubt.
    The crap in crapulence is mere coincidence.

  • cmdweb

    …and just for light relief. My favourite use of the word, ever.

  • Maeve

    I think you’ll find that the association of the word “crap” with Mr. Crapper is also a coincidence:

  • Maeve

    I just read the letter you linked to. Isn’t that a superb example of answering rudeness with courtesy! Love it. Thanks.

  • cmdweb

    Thanks Maeve, another of my long held beliefs shattered! Oh well …everyday’s a school day.

  • Peter

    Isn’t that a superb example of answering rudeness with courtesy!

    If sticking a gun to your head and politely asking for you wallet is “courtesy”, I suppose it is. Personally, I’d take issue with the gun, never mind the language!

  • Stephen Thorn

    Rob, in case you care, you might want to double-check that Crapper post. It’s my understanding that it’s a myth (see “The Pedant’s Revenge” if you can find it in your local used book shop — it’s a great book for those of us who make a big issue of facts being correct instead of fuzzy and imprecise [in other words, pedants]).

  • Per H

    The first time I ever heard this word was in an early episode of The Simpsons. In fact, it was used in that very phrase, “wallowing in my own crapulence”, in an episode about Mister Burns trying to block out the sun. It would be quite interesting if this is where the phrase and misunderstandings originated — from a language joke in a television show.

  • mailav

    Excellent post.I want to thank you for this

    informative read, I really appreciate sharing

    this great post. Keep up your work.

  • wotan

    Given some of Jonah Goldberg’s interest, he was probably referring back to the aforementioned Simpson’s episode.

  • Joe

    Actually, the usage in the episode of the Simpson’s is quite correct. Mr. Burns was both self indulgent and showing out of control behavior or intemperance so therefore “wallowing in my own crapulence” is indeed correct and also a clever and humorous usage of the word.

  • Jonah Goldberg

    The Goldberg sentence actually works. Way to confuse the issue.

  • Alex

    It’s from the simpsons when mr. Burns gets shot trying to take candy from a baby. Jonah goldberg is a horse’s arse. On a side note isn’t giving candy to a baby worse than taking it away, what with the sugar epidemic & all…

  • Kirk

    Used in a 16th C. Latin poem, almost as if it’s something that can be vomited up. Here’s the snippet:

    Infame donec sitis intuentibus,
    Foedam vomentes crapulam, spectaculum

    until you become a disgraceful spectacle
    for those watching, as you vomit up your foul crapulence

    In this case (and, of course, this is poetry), it stands, not for the nausea of intoxication itself, but the end result of it.

  • Tim

    This may come from a Simpsons pun. Burns describes his attempt to steal candy from a baby: “With Smithers out of the picture, I was free to wallow in my own crapulence.” Burns uses the word correctly, while the viewer imagines Mr. Burns bathing in feces.

  • Jmm6614

    Come on guys don’t be so incredibly out of touch. Mr burns used this word in the episodes “who shot me burns,” and while burns uses it essentially correctly (in the sense that only smithers’ presence was keeping him from indulging his baser impulses, he is now drunk on his own power, wallowing in it), it has come to mean, to the viewer at least, the state of being a crappy person. The current use of the word is not due to a common misunderstanding of its meaning – I know almost certainly that this word was very archaic before the Simpsons kicked it back into usage – it is due to a slight tweak by popular culture. And anyway, can’t we say that the archaic meaning – engaging in debauched consumption to the point of sickness – is quite close to the post-simpsonian meaning – the state/condition of being richly crappy? It’s a perfectly cromulent use of the word.

  • Jmm6614

    PS: Jonah Goldberg writes for the national review and this is not the first time he has used Simpsons quotes in his writing – I don’t read the national review, I’m not a reactionary idiot. Please also consider that as an archaic term no longer in use there doesn’t seem to me to be a problem with dusting it off and tweaking it. And btw, they put cromulent in websters, so the Simpsons is an accepted source of neologism.

  • John Miller

    The Spanish word “crápula” comes from the same Latin root: one who exhibits crapulence. It’s interesting what you can learn about your own language by learning another. Shame Mr. Goldberg didn’t do so.

  • Nick Lento

    I get the etymological correctness of the article, I don’t doubt the factual accuracy of the history being cited. However, much as some would have language become an ossified dead tribute to their own predilections toward being “right” and “authoritative”. The reality is that language and meaning are determined by usage in the real world in the context of real experience. Crapulence is in the nose of the beholders who speak, listen…read and write! Language is alive, long live meaning!!!

    ; )

  • Matt N

    Even if one is using the phrase “Wallowing in (…) Crapulence” to refer to literally sitting in their own feces, you can’t really argue that is NOT intemperate behavior.
    Thus, the usage IS correct.
    Also, as several people have mentioned, it’s a Simpsons reference.

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