From The Comedy of Errors, Act III Scene II:

DROMIO OF SYRACUSE: No longer from head to foot than from hip to hip: she is spherical, like a globe; I could find out countries in her.
ANTIPHOLUS OF SYRACUSE: In what part of her body stands Ireland?
DROMIO OF SYRACUSE: Marry, in her buttocks: I found it out by the bogs.

This is funny to me as it plays on the double meaning of "bog" as a habitat well known in Ireland and a British slang word for toilet. The latter meaning, however, feels to me like something relatively modern, and it doesn't exactly fit the context since one's buttocks wouldn't contain bogs/toilets, as barrenness might be found "in" her hands in the next exchange (although being laid open to pedantic nitpicking might be a price Shakespeare was willing to pay for such witty repartee). Did the slang meaning of "bog" as toilet exist in the late 16th century, or was Shakespeare playing on a different (perhaps etymologically related) slang meaning of "bogs"?

What would viewers in Shakespeare's day have made of this line in the play?

1 Answer 1


Stanley Wells's edition of the play (The New Penguin Shakespeare, 1972) has the following gloss for "bogs":

bawdy; it is not certain whether bog meant "privy" in Shakespeare's time

R. A. Foakes's edition of The Comedy of Errors (The Arden Shakespeare, Routledge, 1962) does not gloss "bogs" at all.

A Shakespeare Glossary by C. T. Onions (revised by Robert D. Eagleson, Oxford University Press, 1986) has no entry for "bog".

Eugene F. Shewmaker's Shakespeare's Language: A Glossary of Unfamiliar Words in His Plays and Poems (Facts on File, 1996) has the following entry for "bogs":

ref. to the bogs in Ireland; here in poss. wordplay with slang sense of "latrine": "Marry, sir, in her buttocks; I found it out by the bogs." Errors, III, ii, 115-116.

However, W. W. Skeat's A Glossary of Tudor and Stuart Words, Especially from the Dramatists (completed by A. L. Mayhew and published at the Clarendon Press in 1914) has the following entry for "bog":

a privy, latrina, Shirley, Witty Fair One, iv. 6 (end).

And, indeed, James Shirley's play The Witty Fair One contains the following lines (quoted from The Best Plays, 1888):

[A cry within] A Teague! a Teague! Make way, for shame!
Mis. Bonavent: I think they are started.
The two Runners cross the stage, followed by Lord Bonavent, Venture and others.
[Exeunt all but Mis. Bonavent and Mis. Carol.]
Mis. Bonavent: He may be in the bog anon.
Mis. Carol: Can they tell what they do in this noise?
Pray Heaven it do not break into the tombs
At Westminster, and wake the dead.

The Witty Fair One dates from 1628, just over a decade after Shakespeare's death and it is not entirely obvious that "bogs" here means "latrine".

Following a hint from Gareth Rees, I found "boggard" in the Huloet's Abcedarium anglico latinum, pro tyrunculis Richardo Hulœto exscriptore, printed in 1552, but I found that entry too difficult to decipher (except for the last word "Siege").

However, Huloets dictionarie newelye corrected, amended, set in order and enlarged ... by Richard Huloet, printed in London in 1572 has the following entry for siege, which lists "bogard" as a synonym, making it plausible that Shakespeare used "bogs" also in this sense:

Siege, iacques, bogard, or draught. Latrina, ae, Fo∣rica, ae. f. g. Vn priue, ou retraict. S.

  • 2
    The OED has "boggard" with a very clear citation from 1552 (Huloet, Abcedarium Anglico Latinum, "Siege, jacques, bogard, or draught, latrina") so it is plausible that "bog" meaning "latrine" was known to Shakespeare. Commented May 11, 2021 at 16:58
  • In Huloet (1552) you want the entry for "siege", here. The entry for "bogard" says "Boggarde or drawght. Loke [look] in Siege" Commented May 11, 2021 at 18:29
  • Regarding the aspect that "one's buttocks wouldn't contain bogs/toilets", one could parse "I found it out by the bogs" to mean that Dromio had opportunity to see the lady's buttocks while she was at the latrine.
    – CCTO
    Commented May 12, 2021 at 3:58

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.