Friday, 6 September 2013

Bog - For Peat's Sake

Peat, Fuel, Rural, Westmeath
Cutting turf in Co. Westmeath, Ireland
(photo by Fiona MacGinty)


Noun. Middle English.
[Gaelic (and Irish) bogach, from bog soft.]

(A tract of) wet, spongy ground too soft to support heavy body; ECOLOGY wet land with acid, peaty soil. Compare with fen.

Also: bogginess noun boggy quality. M17. boggy adjective of the nature of, or characterized by, bog. L16

Toilet, Dirty, Filthy, Disgusting, School
Ah school toilets. The memories ...
(photo by Phineas Jones)


Noun. Colloquial. Mid-17th century.
[Origin uncertain: perhaps same word as preceding.]

A privy, a lavatory. Originally as bog-house (now archaic).

Oops, Accident, Fail,
A boggin' tractor bogged down in a bog
(photo by TeeJayBee)


Verb trans. and intrans. Inflected -gg-. Early 17th century.
[from BOG noun.]

Sink or submerge in a bog (literally or figuratively).
Frequently in passive and followed by down.

I have bad memories of bogs. At the age when secondary school was looming, I was regaled with horror stories by my older brothers about how new kids are initiated by having their "heads flushed down the toilet". Granted, it never happened, but the school toilets, "the bogs", were no less a place of sheer horror, somewhere that would be visited only when absolutely necessary, and somewhere that, once used, would never leave you feeling clean again (at least until you went home and had a bath).

The bogs stank, you see, far worse than any natural bog, although there were a few similarities. Like a natural bog, the school bogs had standing pools of fetid liquid, and if you lost something in the school bogs (like a shoe), you'd be ill-advised to go back in looking for it. Both are also home to a variety of wildlife, particularly moulds, fungi and insects. Unlike natural bogs, however, school bogs are privy to extensive 'logging' operations and have more graffiti, nausea and noxious fumes. And the fumes are noxious - there is something deeply unearthly about the potent mix of urine, excrement and lemon-scented cleaning fluid, something that simultaneously stings the eyes and burns the soul.

Natural bogs are places of beauty, however, which is odd as the connection of bog (a type of wetland) and bog (a disgusting toilet) seems so appropriate, although the etymological connection is tenuous, according to the OED. Its root is in the Gaelic bogach, which is fitting as bogs are still an important part of Ireland, both economically and ecologically. Dried turf from bogs is still burnt as fuel in many rural houses, and in the cities every petrol station and local shop will sell solid peat briquettes which are burnt in fireplaces. For many visitors, the smell of burning peat is part of Ireland's flavour, a pleasing and welcoming smell that tells of warm homes and fireside chats.

And if you're wondering (and who hasn't?) what the difference is between a bog, a fen, and a swamp, steady yourself, because you're about to find out: in a bog, the water comes mainly from precipitation, the soil is acidic and low in nutrients, and the flora is largely made up of moss; in a fen, some of the water comes from streams and groundwater, the soil is alkali and higher in nutrients, and they often look like meadows; in a swamp, the wetland is usually adjacent to a river or other body of water and it is forested. So there. Now we all know, and that vital piece of trivia that has escaped us our entire lives has been set into our synapses.

The Slieve Bloom Mountains, Ireland
(photo by David Bergin)
Is bog slang for toilet where you're from?

If not, is some other natural feature sullied in this way?

Do you live, work, play or frolic in a bog?

Do please leave your wettest, peatiest and mossiest comments below.


  1. You should've posted a picture of a bog body. Here, I'll link one for good measure -> click! <-

    1. I found a lot of things in the bogs during my years at school, but I never found a body.

    2. I can only imagine how scary that would be. That's a more or less intact person. Only hundreds of years old.

    3. I've analysed the photo, and I've determined that she died in suspicious circumstances. Or maybe ... she was just at a loose end ...


      *cue The Who CSI theme music as Ed puts on his sunglasses*

    4. It's actually a he, called the Tollund Man -> click! <-

    5. That's a man?? Well didn't I just get kicked off the case.

      *turns in his gun and badge*

    6. And you used to, like, what? Search for people and solve mysteries and shiz? Tssssss... How could you not see that this 2000+ year old body is male?

    7. In fairness, Bibi, the best detectives only solve their cases after they've been kicked off them.

    8. You're both wrong - it's clearly a smurf.


  2. That picture of the bog-house is making me tummy turn. Blech!

    I hope this doesn't sound like too daft a question, but how does peat burn?
    I know it's been used as a fuel for aeons, but I have always wondered if it burns like wood, or if it smoulders?

    Thanks for clearing up the bog-fen-swamp differences!

    1. We burn both peat briquettes and occasionally turf in our fire.

      The briquettes burn very quickly - much quicker than coal. We'd go through a bale of about 12 in one evening. They're very clean, however; much cleaner than coal, so you can handle them without getting really mucky.

      Both turf and briquettes burn nicely. They disintegrate, which means you don't get the beautiful glowing embers that you do with coal. You do get the delicious peaty smell however.

    2. Ah, thank you!
      It's a shame though you can't get both the glow and the smell!
      And now I am trying to imagine the smell. Smoked dirt??

    3. Oh, the smell. It's earthy, rich, homely and warm; as delicious as an open fire can be. How's that?

  3. If you ask anyone who's worked on the bog they always tell you they got the worst sun burn they've every had there. Not sure why. Acidity? Moisture proximity? Reflective properties? Despair?
    One of life's mysteries.

    O well. Time for the bog.

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