Anna Piccoli

Pee, where do you come from?

All you need to know if you have ever wondered about the etymology of such a common word

We have been talking about pee and urine, but we haven't looked at the origin of these words yet. It's now time to fill the gap with some etymological insights.


Theophilus Protospatharius - A Greek physician holding a uroscopy flask in his hands

I am a bit of a nerd when it comes to words and their roots. I really like understanding where they come from and I am convinced that this knowledge can add a certain something to the appreciation we have for and to the use we make of words. This is why I decided to see if I could find anything regarding the topic of this blog. Below you can read what I discovered. There you go!

According to Gilles de Corbeil, a 12th-century French royal physician, there are three hypothesis regarding the etymology of urine. Each of them illuminates a different aspect of the golden liquid and it might be difficult to choose the most plausible one.

1. The word could derive, through a process of substitution and contraction, from the expression una renibus to be found in a description that defines it as something which finds an own identity in the kidneys (renes in Latin): urina dicitur quia fit in renibus una, “it is called urine what becomes one thing in kidneys”;

2. urine, though, may come from the Greek orisma, which means “characterisation”. As a matter of fact, pee can be regarded as characterising, or defining because it mirrors our body's internal conditions and tells something about our health status;

3. however, the root could also be found in the Latin verb urere, whose meaning is “to burn”. This hypothesis highlights the irritating effects of urine.


Uroscopy manuscript - Text, map and illustration of uroscopy from Sfera Mundi (folios 3 verso and 4 recto)

What about pee and piss? Well, the explanation in this case seems to be pretty simple: in many languages urine is also named using an onomatopoeic word. An onomatopoeia is a term that resembles the sound of the action or object it refers to. It is very practical in kids' language because it offers an almost immediate referent and it is easily understandable. Call it pee, wee-wee, pis, pipì, Pipi, pipí, xixi, chichi, or siusiu, it won't be too difficult to make clear what you are hinting at.
Nonetheless, there are people suggesting that pissing comes from the Greek verb pytízein, “spitting something with impetus out of your mouth”. Over time the action would have been used to describe a lower bodily function. It sounds a bit forced, but it is up to you to select the hypothesis you like the most.