The entry for niti in Lewis and Short includes meaning I.B.3: "to strain for a stool". One passage of such use is mentioned:

Suet. Ves. 20:
Statura fuit quadrata, compactis firmisque membris, vultu veluti nitentis…

English translation (Alexander Thomson, ed., 1889):
He was broad-set, strong-limbed, and his features gave the idea of a man in the act of straining himself…

To me it seems as if this could be included in the meaning I.B.2, "to strain in giving birth". In general, niti seems to mean "to rest against something" or "to make an effort", and even that general idea might be enough here without specific reference to birth. The man's face was as if (veluti) he was giving birth. I would argue that niti used in this sense here, not referring to what the man was actually doing.

This leads me to a couple of questions:

  1. What does "straining oneself" or "straining for a stool" actually mean? I get the impression that they are euphemisms for defecation in an attempt to avoid profanities, but I'm not sure if something else was intended. I had never heard of "straining for a stool" before. (More literal translations, however profane or offending, are often useful in getting the meaning and tone right. Bear in mind that English is not a native language for me.)

  2. I argued above that the one in Suetonius doesn't even have that particular meaning — assuming I understood the English correctly. Do you agree with this judgement? How would you interpret the word in that passage?

  3. Are there other examples of niti in meaning I.B.3? (Or are there any examples at all if you agreed with me?)

This question was inspired by brianpck's comment under Hugh's answer to this question.

  • I would just like to point out that this is not the only meaning of nitens. Vita nitens, in the context I found it, meant 'a life of chores.'
    – Hugh
    Jun 27 '19 at 14:12

Concerning your first question, "straining for a stool" has an unambiguous meaning in English. "Straining oneself," on the other hand, can mean any number of things. I'm not sure what else needs to be said on this point.

Expanding the context of the Suetonius quote makes it pretty clear why this particular meaning is inferred:

Statura fuit quadrata, compactis firmisque membris, uultu ueluti nitentis; de quo quidam urbanorum non infacete, siquidem petenti, ut et in se aliquid diceret: 'dicam,' inquit, 'cum uentrem exonerare desieris.'

My translation:

He was broad, thick-set and strong, with a face like one who is straining himself. Concerning him, a certain city dweller, asked to make some joke against him, wittily said: "I will do so, when you have finished emptying your bowels."

My intuition in this case is that it is overly generous to give nitor a separate entry for this meaning. In the quote provided, nitor is as ambiguous as English "strain," and it takes a city wit to reinterpret this "determined" look as something far more ridiculous.

If I'm right, there should not be any examples where nitor, outside of any other clarifying context, has this specific meaning.

  • 1
    Thanks! This confirms what I thought. I had never heard of "straining for a stool" before so it was very confusing at first. The inference of that particular meaning is clear, but if someone says "he was laughing and it looked as if he was singing", that would not make me say that "to sing" can mean "to laugh". It looks like a minor misjudgement in L&S to me, and now it all makes sense.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Jul 28 '17 at 14:16
  • Thanks from me too! The strained face of Vespasian in stone leaves such an enduring impression, I wonder if it became a schoolboy joke. Vita nitens was dropped from a song in 1300; although they retained the other double entendre about an old man complaining that he is 'a hostage to old age':*"De-crepitate deditus,"* The onlooker, laughing, hears him say he's preoccupied with wind.
    – Hugh
    Jul 28 '17 at 22:52
  • 1
    I agree with "overly generous". In the Suetonius passage urbanus presumably means "witty" rather than "city dweller": Vespasian wants the man to say something funny about himself because he's a known wit. (A less scatological parallel: the English wit Theodore Hook boasted that he could make a pun on any subject; asked by the king to make a pun about him, Hook replied that he couldn't do that, "for the king is no subject".)
    – TKR
    Jul 29 '17 at 1:24
  • 2
    There is an actual word for 'straining for a (or at) stool' — tenesmus (from Gr. tenesmon). According to Smith's, Pliny uses it at 28.14.59 (which I have not verified). Nepos on the death of Atticus (Vit. 24, 21) has putarunt esse tenesmon, cui remedia celeria faciliaque proponebantur.
    – Tom Cotton
    Jul 29 '17 at 18:48
  • @TomCotton I love LSJ's definition of τεινεσμός - 'a vain endeavour to evacuate'. Straining at stool indeed!
    – Penelope
    Jan 13 '18 at 4:47

I know that this question has already been ably answered by @brianpck but I wanted to add a little about the etymology and background of the notion of ‘passing stool’ because it does in fact have links to Latin, and my entry is too big for a comment!

‘To pass stool’ to mean 'to open one's bowels'*, or ‘stool’ alone to mean a bowel movement, is quite formal and mostly used in a clinical context (including between doctor/nurse and patient). This turn of phrase dates to the 15th century when a toilet was a chamber pot placed in a chair or stool. This arrangement was referred to more fully as a ‘close stool’, a ‘privy stool’, or a ‘stool of easement’. From there, ‘stool’ alone came to refer to the bowel movement itself.

The etymology of the English word ‘stool’ is Germanic yet French uses the same imagery in the phrase aller à la selle which means literally 'to go to/on the seat', and figuratively, 'to pass stool', while les selles is 'stool' in the sense of faeces (note that la selle (singular) is simply a seat or saddle). And of course, selle is derived from Latin sella – a seat, chair, or stool or a close-stool (definition II.E). This last definition is exactly how Varro uses it in the following:

in eoque quidam sellas familiaricas ponunt

and there also they place the toilets for the servants

On Agriculture

As does Martial:

sellas ante petit Paterclianas

et pedit deciesque viciesque

first he finds Paterclus’ toilets

and farts ten or twenty times

Epigrams, 12.77.9-10

With this in mind, it’s interesting to note that Celsus often uses desidere (from sedere) to mean to open one’s bowels or, as Lewis & Short write, to go to stool. That is to say, to be seated (sometimes for quite a while) upon a stool.

*'to strain for a/at stool' is just a variation on 'to pass stool', meaning 'to have difficulty passing stool'

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