An Eye for Bumfodder

Deliveries of my subscription copy of Private Eye have been a bit unpredictable recently but the latest edition arrived today, with the following hilarious cover:

That reminded me of a thing I wrote recently on the issue of toilet tissue. 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.

6 Responses to “An Eye for Bumfodder”

  1. Thanks for the etymological anal retentiveness, Peter — it’s good to be privy to the origin of “bumff”, for one.

  2. No, surely not. You’ve got to be codding, Phillip.

  3. telescoper Says:

    Newspaper was used as an outer wrapping not meant to be in contact with the food but just to keep your fish supper warm. I don’t think it was an EU regulation that led to the practice being banned, more a realisation that it wasn’t a very hygienic practice.

    https://www.thelondoneconomic.com/politics/brexiteer-looking-forward-to-getting-fish-and-chips-served-in-newspaper-back-discovers-its-a-uk-law/19/07/

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      This Brexiteer was well aware of what Peter just explained. I was told, however, that “Bombay duck” (smoked dried fish) was removed from curry house menus some 20 years ago due to EU regulations. Perhaps you could check that up?

  4. Anton Garrett Says:

    Would anybody like to suggest some more suitable newspapers – or bad physics texts?

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