Recounted from stories of those attending a one-room schoolhouse: when a student needed to go to the outhouse, (s)he would raise a hand with one finger extended to indicate the need to urinate–two fingers to defecate. I assume this was to inform the teacher on how long to expect the student to be out of class.
Now, the subject phrases are used verbally and euphemistically to avoid voicing ones need to urinate or defecate. They do not appear to be listed in the OED and I wondered how widespread these euphemisms are used; I relatively often hear this in southwest Missouri.
Any wider use?
We used in growing up, especially in school. Likewise, in school during class to indicate you needed to go to the bathroom. Looking back, I’m not entirely sure why the teacher needed to make the distinction between number one and number two, but I do remember raising my hand holding up the appropriate number of fingers. It also followed as a verbal euphemism that could be used in any informal setting.
FWIW, some dictionaries do include them: Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English.
And we do sometimes use them here jokingly.
In the early 1950s, my aunt, who had never been outside of Buffalo, NY asked me this question when I asked to use the bathroom in the park. “Do you need to do number 1 or number 2?” I was perhaps 4 or 5. I recall not understanding what she was asking. When she explained, my response was, “Why do you want to know?”
She probably wanted to know because, when using a public restroom, additional sanitary precautions are required for #2. For #1, no contact with the toilet (or urinal) is required. She probably felt that, at age 4-5, you could benefit from her advice.
We used to get that question when we raised our hand to be excused in grade school. In that situation, the question is irrelevant and nobody’s business.
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