This One Is Full o’ Piss and Vinegar…

I had a hard time using the word, “piss” in my title, since in Canada it is, or was, a vulgarism.  Mind you, the expression, “Piss off” to inform someone that you are no longer enjoying their company–or perhaps that you are having difficulty believing something they’ve said–is fairly commonplace now.

It used to be that when I heard someone in the U.K. asking, in polite company, if someone were ‘taking the piss,’ I’d feel a teensy bit startled for a split second.  It is, as I discovered, another fairly commonplace expression, and simply means ‘are you being facetious?’ or ‘are you pulling my leg?’

I also used to be a bit surprised when my U.K. friends and relatives would ask to use the ‘toilet’…since the ‘t’ word is rigorously avoided in Canadian culture.  We will ask for ‘the ladies’ or men’s room’ or ‘the rest room’ or ‘the washroom’ before we’ll ask for ‘the toilet.’  In fact, we’d probably pee ourselves before asking for that.  I will always ask for ‘the loo’ when I’m in the U.K., because I still can’t bring myself to ask for the toilet.  When I first visited Scotland back in the 1970s and asked one of my husband’s aunties if I could use the washroom, she was a little perplexed that I suddenly wanted to do some laundry a few short hours after my arrival.

Anyhow, it’s all to do with accepted word usages, and it’s just that some words did not become commonplace in Canada (within my experience).  We talk about toilets to our plumbers and that’s it.  In the U.K., the word ‘toilet’ probably means the room where the toilet is located, and not necessarily the fixture itself—although I’m not absolutely sure.  We in Canada would expect it to mean the actual receptacle, and so by asking for it by name, everyone within hearing might then know what we intend doing when we get to ‘the washroom’—and, good heavens, we can’t have people knowing that!

We, as Canadians, believe that the necessity to perform bodily functions, even though in a hygienic manner, should be disguised by every means possible.  I suppose that’s why women (in North America, at least), used to excuse themselves from the table at a restaurant by saying that they needed to ‘powder their nose’ or ‘freshen up.’  Perhaps the fact that women habitually retired to the ladies’ room in pairs was to reinforce the notion that the purpose of the trip was for hairdo and makeup restoration.  Chances of two people needing to use the plumbing fixtures at precisely the same time would be remote, right?  So by venturing forth together, one woman would be a cover for the other.

“How on earth did she get onto THIS topic,” you say?  Good question.  I’ve been mentally cooking up an article on vinegar, and wanted to pair it with something.  So I thought, “What goes with vinegar?”  I expect you can answer that by now.

I suppose we don’t know the first appearance of the expression ‘full of piss and vinegar,’ but John Steinbeck used it in his 1938 novel, The Grapes of Wrath:

Grampa walked up and slapped Tom on the chest, and his eyes grinned  with affection and pride.

“How are ya, Tommy?”

“O.K.,” said Tom. “How ya keepin’ yaself?”

“Full a piss an’ vinegar,” said Grampa.

…which generally means, ‘full of vim and vigour,’ apparently, although I’ve been under the impression that it meant, ‘feisty’ (spirited, plucky, gutsy, etc.).  Similar, but not quite the same thing.

And at this point we shall switch from piss to urine, shall we?  (If you don’t want to go there, I will understand…Bye for now, and have a nice day.)

Urine and vinegar have both been around a very long time, and humans have apparently wanted to put them to beneficial use whenever possible.  This has required a great deal of experimentation, as you might imagine.

We know where urine comes from, so let’s talk about where vinegar comes from.

The word vinegar comes from the French word vinaigre (vin for wine and aigre for sour).  Bacteria spores in the air convert a fermented liquid into a weak form of acetic acid.  So basically it is this second fermentation of sugars or starches while the liquid is exposed to air that produces vinegar.  Vinegar can come from the juice of sweet fruits and grains such as barley (malt beer), apple (cider) and grape (wine), yet it can also be made from roots or wood (often the base of white distilled vinegar).

As for how we use vinegar, we have records dating back to the ancient Greeks.  Hippocrates (460 – 377 BC) recommended a vinegar preparation for cleaning ulcerations and for the treatment of sores.  Also, a popular medicine composed of honey and vinegar was prescribed for persistent coughs and other uses…

On the Articulations, by Hippocrates, written 400 BC, translation by Francis Adams:  “The treatment, if no fever be present, consists in the administration of hellebore, but otherwise it is not to be given, but oxyglyky (decoction of honeycombs and vinegar) is to be given for drink, if required.”  []

Today, vinegar is being investigated for cardiovascular benefits, improved calcium absorption, antitumor effects in cancer, and so forth.  Home remedies suggest vinegar as a treatment for ALL sorts…arthritis, hemorrhoids, insect bites, athlete’s foot, you-name-it.

Modern medicine (non-home-remedy) findings on the benefits of vinegar are interesting…

Blood Pressure Regulation, Cardiovascular Disease, and Vinegar:

In the rat model, acetic acid administration enhanced calcium absorption and retention; moreover, in humans, calcium absorption in the distal colon was enhanced by acetate. Clearly, much work is needed to establish whether vinegar ingestion alters calcium absorption and/or blood pressure regulation in humans.

Whether chronic vinegar ingestion affects other risk factors for cardiovascular disease in humans is not known.  Hu and colleagues reported a significantly lower risk for fatal ischemic heart disease among participants in the Nurses’ Health Study who consumed oil-and-vinegar salad dressings frequently (5-6 times or more per week) compared with those who rarely consumed them…”  []

Good enough reason to use oil-and-vinegar salad dressings!

Cancer and Vinegar:

In a separate trial, mice fed a rice-shochu vinegar-fortified feed (0.3% to 1.5% w/w) or control diet were inoculated with sarcoma 180 (group 1) or colon 38 (group 2) tumor cells (2 x 106 cells subcutaneously).  At 40 days post-inoculation, vinegar-fed mice in both experimental groups had significantly smaller tumor volumes when compared with their control counterparts. A prolonged life span due to tumor regression was also noted in the mice ingesting rice-shochu vinegar as compared with controls, and in vitro, the rice-shochu vinegar stimulated natural killer cell cytotoxic activity.

The antitumor factors in vinegar have not been identified.


Thus, because acetic acid in vinegar deprotonates in the stomach to form acetate ions, it may possess antitumor effects.

Reducing Cancer Risk with Vinegar:

Vinegars are also a dietary source of polyphenols, compounds synthesized by plants to defend against oxidative stress. Ingestion of polyphenols in humans enhances in vivo antioxidant protection and reduces cancer risk.

A case-control study conducted in Linzhou, China, demonstrated that vinegar ingestion was associated with a decreased risk for esophageal cancer.  However, vinegar ingestion was associated with a 4.4-fold greater risk for bladder cancer in a case-control investigation in Serbia. []

Well, the fact that vinegar DOES have antitumor factors is all I need to know.  I don’t have the details of the Serbian study that indicated a greater risk for bladder cancer, but perhaps if vinegar is consumed with other foods there will be less likelihood of any problems in that area.

Some comparisons between home remedies using vinegar, and modern medicine, are instructive:

Disinfecting Using Vinegar, Home Remedy:

Apple cider vinegar’s ability to draw out toxins is one reason why it is good for applying to insect bites. As an immediate solution, you can place vinegar directly on the area and rise it off.  Dip a cloth in the vinegar, press it against the bite and the itchiness will cease, sealing some of the broken capillaries at the surface of the skin.

If the bite has drawn blood, the vinegar will disinfect the area and prevent further bacteria from entering the wound. []

Disinfecting Using Vinegar, Modern Medicine:

Recent scientific investigations clearly demonstrate the antimicrobial properties of vinegar, but mainly in the context of food preparation.   Experts advise against using vinegar preparations for treating wounds.

“…experts caution against using vinegar as a household disinfectant against human pathogens because chemical disinfectants are more effective. However, undiluted vinegar may be used effectively for cleaning dentures, and, unlike bleach solutions, vinegar residues left on dentures were not associated with mucosal damage. []

Seems that modern medicine does not advocate vinegar for wound treatment, but it might be good for cleaning your kitchen countertops or dentures.

Dentures are made of acrylic, so the acid in vinegar should not damage them.  I notice in one of my ‘uses of vinegar’ sources that they recommend brushing your teeth with undiluted vinegar…not sure that it’s a good idea to brush teeth with anything acidic. In fact, I would guess that it’s not.  There might be damage to tooth enamel.

Swimmer’s Ear, The Home Remedy, using Vinegar:

If the itchiness is more than you can bear, try a few drops of white vinegar in the ear canal (much like medical ear drops). Ensure the vinegar gets deep into the ear canal by moving your head slightly. Then after 30 seconds allow the fluid to drain out.  Aim for two drops for each ear and continue for five days.   []

Swimmer’s Ear, Modern Medicine, using Vinegar:

Although investigations have demonstrated the effectiveness of diluted vinegar (2% acetic acid solution at pH 2) for the treatment of ear infections (otitis externa, otitis media, and granular myringitis), the low pH of these solutions may irritate inflamed skin and damage cochlear outer hair cells.   []

Sounds like there’s an acknowledgement from modern medicine that ear treatment with vinegar is effective–but with caution.

Jellyfish Stings, The Home Remedy, using Vinegar: 

To treat the stings immediately, pour vinegar over the affected area to inactivate the stinging cells.  Any kind of vinegar will do,. If tentacles cling to the skin, avoid touching them with bare skin. Above all do not rub or scratch the skin as this will further inflame it.  []

Jellyfish Stings, Modern Medicine, re using Vinegar:

Immediate vinegar application at the site of jellyfish stings is practiced at various coastal locations around the world because vinegar deactivates the nematocysts. However, hot-water immersion is considered the most efficacious initial treatment for jellyfish envenomation because the venom is deactivated by heat.  []

Well, if one is on a beach after having just been stung by a jellyfish, and a bottle of vinegar is available from an attendant for first-aid treatment, I think that more immediate relief is to be had from that source.  Chances are that it will be more difficult to treat with hot-water immersion quickly.

Nail Fungus, Home Remedy, using Vinegar:

Fungus growth under the toenail can become extremely painful if not treated properly.  If possible cut the dead part of the nail off and soak the toe in diluted white vinegar for ten minutes.  Repeat this twice daily, once before putting your shoes on and again at the end of the day when you take them off.  []

Nail Fungus, Modern Medicine, re using Vinegar:

In the popular media, vinegar is commonly recommended for treating nail fungus, head lice, and warts, yet scientific support for these treatment strategies is lacking.  []

I note that the ‘Modern Medicine’ statement does not actually refute the Home Remedy recommendation.  Chances are that ‘scientific support is lacking’ because there has been no investigation.

Weight Loss, Home Remedy, Using Vinegar:

Allow your system to adjust to the process. Apple cider vinegar can assist with dieting as it works as a diuretic, draining the body of excess fluid while also reducing the appetite.

Take one teaspoon in two cups of warm water before each meal, coupled with regular exercise.

Weight Loss, Modern Medicine, Using Vinegar:

Subjects were also asked to rate feelings of hunger/satiety on a scale ranging from extreme hunger (-10) to extreme satiety (+10) before meal consumption and at 15-minute intervals after the meal. Bread consumption alone scored the lowest rating of satiety (calculated as area under the curve from time 0-120 minutes). Feelings of satiety increased when vinegar was ingested with the bread, and a linear relationship was observed between satiety and the acetic acid content of the test meals.

In a separate trial, healthy adult women consumed fewer total calories on days that vinegar was ingested at the morning meal…. Thus, vinegar may affect satiety by reducing the meal-time glycemic load. Of 20 studies published between 1977 and 1999, 16 demonstrated that low-glycemic index foods promoted postmeal satiety and/or reduced subsequent hunger. []

Seems to be something promising there, of which I am taking note!  If bread is desired at a meal, perhaps providing a dip of oil-and-vinegar dressing to have with it would be helpful.

And now let’s explore the uses of urine, shall we?  How about running your car, for starters…

Sarah DeWeerdt for Conservation Magazine, Wednesday 9 March 2011 11.57 GMT

“…Gerardine Botte, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Ohio University who has developed a technology to generate hydrogen fuel from urine.

Botte recognized that urine contains two compounds that could be a source of hydrogen: ammonia and urea. Place an electrode in wastewater, apply a gentle current, and voila: hydrogen gas that can be used to power a fuel cell.

Her system operates similarly to the electrolysis of water, a process that can be used to produce hydrogen for fuel cells – except that ammonia and urea hold their hydrogen atoms less tightly than water does, so less energy is required to split them off. Botte isn’t the only scientist with her mind in the sewer. A group of scientists in the UK, for example, is working on a fuel cell powered directly by urine.

Okay, now there’s a sustainable resource put to good use!  And as for medicinal purposes…

Urine has, in fact, had an impressive range of practical uses for much of history. A key area was medicine. In Rome, Pliny the Elder recommended fresh urine for the treatment of “sores, burns, affections of the anus, chaps and scorpion stings”, while stale urine mixed with ash could be rubbed on your baby for nappy rash [a.k.a. ‘diaper rash’]. In early-modern Europe numerous medical luminaries went further. Pioneering French surgeon Ambroise Paré noted that itching eye-lids could be washed in the patient’s urine – provided that it had been kept “all night in a barber’s basin” first. The father of chemistry, Robert Boyle, advised certain patients to drink every morning “a moderate draught of their own urine”, preferably while “tis yet warm”. Anyone indignantly demanding a second opinion would find that Thomas Willis – the richest doctor in England at the time – was instructing a young gentlewoman to drink her own warm urine against “extreme sourness” in her throat.

Other cases could be far more urgent. In about 1550 the Italian doctor Leonardo Fioravanti  saw a man’s nose sliced off in an argument, and promptly urinated on the fallen organ before stitching it back on. Henry VIII’s surgeon, Thomas Vicary, recommended that all battle wounds should be washed in urine; and others advised the same for potentially gangrenous ulcers, or poisonous bites and stings. Being sterile when it leaves the body, urine was then a far safer cleaning agent than the kind of water typically available.

Ingesting urine as medicine seems to have been thought efficacious in France during the 17th century.   On 13 June 1685, for example, we find Madame de Sévigné telling her daughter of how, “for my vapours I take eight drops of essence of urine.”

I have the book, Lettres Choisies de Madame de Sévigné (published 1866), and her letter to her daughter of June 13, 1685, does say, “ Pour des vapeurs, ma chère enfant, je voulus, ce me semble, en avoir l’autre jour : je pris huit gouttes d’essence d’urine, et, contre l’ordinaire, elle m’empêcha de dormir toute la nuit : mais j’ai été bien aise de reprendre de l’estime pour cette essence, je n’en ai pas eu besoin depuis.”   Evidently she thought the treatment served its intended purpose, other than causing insomnia through that night (unusual, as she says, for her), since she did not require a repeat dose.

And if you’re wondering whether you can drink your own urine in a survival situation where you’re dehydrated and unable to find water, you basically can, IF you distill it.  Apparently the sodium and other minerals in urine actually make you more dehydrated, in much the same way as drinking sea water.  And best only use your own urine, since pathogens from your own body are not likely to cause problems for you.

Apart from its potential uses as a medicine taken by mouth (which has limited appeal for some of us, I have to say), urine had other uses in the ancient Roman world…the fullers who washed and dyed Roman clothing used it in their processes, and tanners used it in theirs.

Ancient Roman Fullers

It might not be surprising for the advocates of urinotherapy, but our pee has been used for centuries as a cleanser. The Romans not only brushed their teeth with it, but regarded it as an effective laundry soap. In order to wash the tunics, pee was collected on the street by means of vessels that were carried away as soon as they had been filled up by the urine of passers-by. Specific workers called fullones (fullers, washers) had the task to stomp (always with bare feet, of course) on clothes placed in tubs full of water and old urine.

Do you wonder how this worked? Well, urine contains urea, a nitrogen-based organic compound. If stored, over time it decays into ammonia. This has a high pH and is a caustic, yet weak base when added to water. Therefore, it serves to break down organic material, neutralise dirt and grease, produce cleaning foam and help disinfect fabrics. Tellingly enough, most of the household cleansers we use nowadays do actually contain it. Ammonia was also helpful in keeping the clothes white and soft and make the colours brighter. Oh yes, stale urine can work both as an extracting agent and as a mordant too, that is it serves to bind dyes to a cloth. In the first case (pee as extracting agent), soaking certain natural substances in stale urine provides fine pigmentation, which is useable to dye wool and cotton. Let’s say you want to get purple: then let lichen orchil ferment in old pee and you’ll have the desired colouration.


And this from the Ancient History Encyclopedia []

Arguably the most important job in the Roman clothing industry was that of the cleaners, or the fullers (Latin fullones). The fullers’ shops serviced an entire town, where they dyed, washed, and dried garments of all types.

The typical fullonica needed tanks for washing, dyeing, and rinsing the garments, as well as space to dry and finish them. Garments were usually washed in human urine, which would have been collected from the public restrooms around the town, and also possibly imported from outlying areas.

Okay, that’ll do for corroboration for urine’s use in cleaning and dyeing clothing.

Then we have cosmetics…

The Elizabethan surgeon William Bullein advised those “whose faces be unclean” to wash their skin with “strong vinegar, milk and the urine of a boy”. In 1675 The Accomplish’d Lady’s Delight in Preserving, Physic, Beautifying, and Cookery told of how one’s own urine was “very good to wash the face withal, to make it fair”. Compare the northern Scottish author Mary Beith, who (writing in 1995) emphasises that, “today, urea remains an important ingredient in medicinal skin creams,” also recalling “babies having their faces wiped with their own wet nappies” by way of skin care…”

And urine must have been a handy commodity during WWI…

“…soldiers of the first world war…used cloth patches soaked in their own urine as rudimentary gas masks (the ammonia in the urine counteracting the chlorine in the gas).

Wikipedia offers this bit of information…

Starting in 1918, British naturopath John W. Armstrong prescribed urine-therapy regimens that he devised to many thousands of patients, and in 1944 he published The Water of Life: A treatise on urine therapy, which became a founding document of the field.

But…”There is no scientific evidence of a therapeutic use for untreated urine.”

As J. R. Armstrong says in the introduction to his book:

It has been argued that it cannot be right to take back into the body something which the body is apparently discarding. Yet this objection ignores the principle of composting as practised by organic gardeners. Rotting dead leaves, when dug back into the soil, provide valuable mineral salts to nourish new plant life.

Not sure I can wholeheartedly agree with that.  But, on the celebrity front, British actress Sarah Miles has drunk her own urine for over thirty years…

Published 16/09/2007

“…Miles has a dottily eccentric English charm that makes it impossible not to warm to her — even when our chat turns to what she is most well-known for after acting. “On my tombstone will be engraved: One of the untouchables — she drank her own pee,” she told the New Statesman in 1998. “That’s what all Indians do!” she harrumphs. “That’s what Ghandi did. That’s what Nero did! That’s what everybody that I think looks fantastic in old age does! I thought: ‘Well, if they all look that bloody good, I think I’ll have a go!’ It tastes like good beer. You take it mid-flow every evening and morning. You just swig it down. It tastes fine.”

And for how many years have you been drinking your own urine, Sarah? “Thirty.”

She can tell by the look on my face that I’m horrified. “Urine! It immunises you against your own allergies. Clinics use it for cancer. It is used for all kinds of illnesses.

“Why does humanity have a problem with me drinking my own urine? I can’t wait to get off this planet!”

Some would say Sarah Miles was never truly on it.


Well, I think that after looking at all this, I will probably try to use more apple cider vinegar in my diet, and continue to use vinaigrette dressings for salads.  I already soak my fish and chips in malt vinegar, just because I like it.

As for the benefits of drinking urine, well…umm…yuck to that.  Have to wonder if they’re ‘taking the piss.’



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