Monday, 16 January 2012

Pure filth

‘Why?’ and ‘how?’ are the first questions that come to mind on finding that the word used to describe collected dog-poo for the nineteenth-century tanning industry was ‘pure’.  A more improbable word for this substance would be hard to imagine.  Curious too that the first documentation in the OED dates from 1842,  by which time the word had several centuries of being associated with the complete absence of defilement.  In the four quotations in the OED entry for this usage there are three given spellings – pewer, pure, and puer.  The first one, from the Penny Magazine, 1842, specifically states that the spelling is conjectural since the writer had only heard the word, and not seen it written down.  This rings true, as the people who took on this job would be unlikely to have the benefits of reading and writing, though tanning companies must have kept some records of payments made to collectors.  Mayhew, 1851, suggested the substance was called ‘pure’ because of its ‘cleansing and purifying properties’.  Partridge gives it as changing from a colloquialism to a jargon word (i.e. a technical term) about 1905.

Three centuries earlier ‘pure’ was used to describe ‘pured’ fur, in this case fur trimmed in such a way as to show only one colour – this was also known as  ‘pured’ and ‘purray’.  These derive from the verb ‘to pure’ in the sense of refining impurities, particularly impurities of colour – which links to another OED mention - 'purwyt', meaning ‘pure white’, dating from the fourteenth century.  This usage, applied to white, survives in the phrase ‘pure white’.  So a conjectural passage is from ‘purifying’ to ‘preparing’ to ‘the substance which was used in the preparation process’.

Hotten’s Slang Dictionary, 1865, gives ‘Pure Finders – street-collectors of dogs’ dung’, as a footnote with no explanation – as other footnotes do give explanations this implies that the process was generally known.  Grose's The Vulgar Tongue, 1785, does not have it (but does give as a meaning for ‘pure’ – ‘a harlot, or lady of easy virtue’, which might be a joke or wishful thinking or placatory, or any combination of these).  As a final twist, a Google search for ‘pure tanning’ provides pages of businesses which offer to turn you brown rather than white.

I am grateful to Lucy Inglis for the information (17th Jan) that Ned Ward's London Spy, 1690, uses 'pure' in the sense of dog excrement, which would support the idea that the usage had a long pre-nineteenth-century existence as a spoken word.

1 comment:

Julian Walker said...

Further research (18th Jan) reveals that 'puer' appears as 'dog droppings', collected for the tanning industry, as Northumbrian dialect (Oxford Dictionary of English Dialects)