On Bumfodder

It’s not quite the end of the week for me, as I am on duty all day tomorrow for the Summer Open Day at Maynooth University, but I thought I’d end the penultimate working day of this week with a post about a piece I read in the Times Literary Supplement a few weeks ago. I subscribe to this mainly for the crossword, but also because some of the reviews are extremely interesting.

In the May 31st issue of said organ, I came across a review of a book charmingly entitled Bellies, bowels and entrails in the eighteenth century, which is published by Manchester University Press. I’m not planning to buy a copy as it costs £96, but it I was intrigued by the review, which includes such vivid insights as

Stomachs and bellies, hiccups and flatulence dominate the last third of the book…

The thing that really caught my attention however was the issue of toilet paper. As far as I am aware, paper in a form specifically designed for the use of wiping one’s bits clean after defecation wasn’t introduced until the middle of the 19th century, but waste paper was commonly used for that purpose much earlier. In the 18th century it was apparently commonplace to tear pages out of cheap books to use as lavatory tissue, and it appears some people would buy books both to read when on the job and for cleaning up afterwards.

This practice gave rise to the word bumfodder, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as:

  1. Toilet paper. Also occasionally: a piece of this.

  2. attributive and allusively. Worthless or inferior literature; any written or printed material that is perceived as useless, tedious, or unnecessary.

In case you didn’t know, this is also the origin of the word bumf, which the OED gives as

  1. slang (originally in British public schools). Paper (of any kind). Now rare.

  2. Toilet paper. Now somewhat archaic.

  3. orig. Military slang. Written or printed material that is perceived as useless, tedious, or unnecessary, as bureaucratic paperwork, advertising, etc. Also occasionally: worthless or inferior literature.

I have to admit I’ve used the word `bumf’ in the third sense on a number of occasions without realizing quite how indelicate is its origin.

The first instances of `bumfodder’ quoted in the OED date from the mid-17th Century, which surprises me a little because I was under the impression that paper was an expensive commodity then. By the 18th century, however, it was obviously much cheaper, presumably because of mass production, and so consequently books and newspapers were much less expensive. Waste paper was then used quite frequently not only as toilet paper but also for wrapping groceries and other goods. I should mention, however, that paper was used at toilet tissue in China as far back as the 6th Century AD, so Europe was obviously a bit behind on the matter.

Anyone who has read any 18th Century literature – the humour in which is often rather coarse – will not be surprised by the number of scatalogical jokes about bumfodder going around. Obviously I couldn’t repeat any here.

P.S. Now wash your hands please.

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6 Responses to “On Bumfodder”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    During a cold snap a few years ago somebody twigged that the wholesale price per kg of unwanted secondhand books was less than that of coal, and started buying them to burn in order to keep warm; I recall that an article in a German newspaper misled some Germans into thinking that Brits were reduced to burning their books to keep warm. So that is at least two uses for political memoirs.

    The Chinese invented paper as well as many other things!

  2. Dave Carter Says:

    In Liverpool occasionally there is found a copy of the Sun. Usually because someone abandoned it on the train from Euston. Some use has to be found for it.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      For bonus marks: which of these is more appropriate?

      “I wouldn’t wipe my backside with The Sun.”

      “I would wipe my backside with The Sun.”

  3. “paper in a form specifically designed for the use of wiping one’s bits clean after defecation”

    Wiping your bits clean after defecation? You’re definitely doing something wrong!

  4. The Roamns used spongers on sticks and had communal toilets! When we were kids, we were taken to Hadrian’s wall where there were pictures and postcards of the Roam soldiers sitting in rows on their latrines!

    • telescoper Says:

      I understand that people who lived in coastal areas often used mussel shells to clean themselves…. :-/

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