Monday, October 27, 2008

Going potty

Potty has a number of meanings, but here I'm interested in what the OED lists as sense #2
"colloq. (chiefly N. Amer.; usu. euphem. or in children's language). to go potty: (esp. of children or animals) to urinate or defecate; to use the toilet or potty."
My son was reading aloud from Ricky Ricotta's Mighty Robot vs. the Jurassic Jackrabbits from Jupiter, when one of the characters said she had to "go potty". "What," I wondered, "is potty?" If a child has to go pee, pee is a verb, just like see in I have to go see her. But potty certainly isn't a verb. You can't say, "I pottied," or "I'm pottying."

A potty is a chamber pot, and by extension a toilet, and that would make it a noun, except that you can't typically just stick a noun after go like that. I mean, as far as I know, we don't have people going school, work, house, way, war, or even bed (though they can go this way or that).

Then I remembered an episode of an ABC Radio program called Lingua Franca, which featured Geoff Pullum. In said episode, Geoff discusses his realisation that a common noun is sometimes a preposition.
"I discovered it on the lower slopes of Mount Coot-tha in Brisbane, one glorious day in the Botannical Gardens. The eastern water dragons were out sunning themselves near the rainforest section, a brass band was doing a free concert, and a few scrub turkeys were out, wandering around. I stopped near the bandstand to read a plaque that described the lifestyle of this bird, the scrub turkey, which is rather odd. Female scrub turkeys are fast-lane chicks, promiscuous loners who don't care for raising the young, and they wander through the forest and have sex with any male they meet who seems attractive, and then they lay a few eggs for him and move on. The male does all the child-rearing. He builds a huge compost heap to keeps the eggs warm, he regulates the size of the compost heap to keep the eggs at just the right temperature until the time comes for the chicks to hatch. And what happens then is described on the plaque with the following sentence, which had me whipping out the notebook immediately:

'On hatching, the chicks scramble to the surface and head bush on their own.'

Do you see it? Do you see the new preposition? The clue lies in that verb, 'head'. You see, there are verbs that absolutely have to be used with a preposition. The verb 'put', for example, can only be used with a locative preposition. You can say 'Put the milk in the fridge', but you can't say, 'Put the milk', because without a preposition after 'put' you've got nothing but nonsense.

Well the verb 'head' can only be used with a directional preposition. You can say, 'He headed into town', but you can't say, 'He headed'. Without a phrase like 'into town' or 'towards the wall' or 'away from the house', you can't use that verb sensibly at all. So what follows 'head' simply has to be a preposition.

And there it is! 'They head bush on their own.' 'Bush' is a preposition. Sure, it used to be a noun, just like 'home'. But a long time ago 'home' took on a second job as a directional preposition. That's why you can say 'He headed home'. And in Australian English, it seems, you can say, 'He headed bush', and it means 'He headed for rural Australia.'

Now, I'm not sure if you can head potty or not, but I found the following advice about toilet training:

"Talk about it all the time. Make it fun, something to look forward to. But without pressure. I'd say something as I was heading potty to my girls and leave it at that. If she followed me in, I'd ask if she wanted to sit too."

So, could it be that potty is a preposition here?


Anonymous said...

Maybe not a preposition, but more an adverb (cf. "home" or "there", which I think are typically analyzed as adverbs?), I think. Also, "go potty" is typical of babytalk, which does not necessarily have quite the same grammatical requirements as standard english

Brett said...

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language takes words such as home and there to be intransitive prepositions and not adverbs. I agree with the reasoning there and am following that terminology.

Yes, it is babytalk, but even babytalk must have its own constraints. In babytalk, do people use "go school" or other such constructions?

Jan said...

I always took "go potty" as just an elliptical version of "go to the potty." "Head potty" is weird, though. I'll bet we used "go school" with our daughter, meaning day care, though I can't claim to remember it. And babies go beddy-bye, go bye-bye, go Grammy's house, and the like.

Brett said...

It's certainly likely that it started as simply an elliptical construction, and it may very well be one still. The question is why only potty, unless of course, as Jan claims, other nouns are available in this construction. I think that beddy-bye and bye-bye are different again, perhaps quotative go.

The Hickory Wind said...

As Brett points out obliquely, what Geoff Pullum calls a preposition isn't what most people call a peposition. In any kind of standard analysis, 'potty' is here clearly an adverbial complement. 'Go', like many verbs, requires not a preposition, but an adverb; the frequent use of a preposition after 'go' is incidental, since these prepositions are part of an adverbial expression. He gives a brief (not very convincing, to me) decription of the category at (scroll down comments).

GAC said...

Particle, maybe. I wouldn't say preposition, because it doesn't head a prepositional phrase, but maybe my definition is off.

Also, you can most definitely say "He headed" (or I know I do). Might be a different verb though -- it generally means "to leave" -- often with an understood destination implied.

Anonymous said...

Here's the link for your "heading potty" example:

Rocky said...

Clearly potty is understood by millions of parents and people to mean. I could say did you pee, did you piss or did you potty. They all mean the same thing but to my daughter I prefer to say did you potty. It just sounds more innocent Baby doll go piss.