Subject: The taboo. “Check the prop”.
Interviewer: “Would you care to tell us a little about what it means to ‘check the prop’?”
Interviewee: “So… um… growing up water skiing… the old parents were always in a hurry when the kids were skiing to get up and get going, so they could get back to drinking their beer. Well… every morning, upon jumping in the water, us kids would proceed to take our time saying, “hit it…” by checking the prop. Which meant we were warming the water.”
His Wife: “Which means?”
Interviewee: “Taking a pee.”
Background Info: S. Taylor grew up in Southern California he grew up snow skiing, water skiing, motorcycle driving, jet skiing, playing volleyball, and racing cars. He first heard the expression as a kid from his parents and the other adults on trips to the river, the Salton Sea, and Canyon Lake. Today, S. Taylor lives in San Clemente, CA with his wife, Carol Taylor.
Context: This was story was shared at dinner while asking my father about unique sayings or practices he had with his buddies from his days of racing off-road in Mexico. This phrase was suggested to him by his wife after she incorrectly asked if the men who he raced with in Mexico would have to knock on wood if they were checking the prop. I inquired as to the meaning above. He still uses this phrase today if he needs to use the bathroom on a long road trip on the side of the road or otherwise in nature.
Analysis: The expression “checking the prop” is indicative of the cultural tradition to find coded ways of speaking about bodily functions. Talking about bodily excretions is typically frowned upon as a topic of civilized conversation and is largely seen as something private. “Checking the prop” tackles this issue. It, first and foremost, allowed the adults to talk about what they were doing with one another with the hopes that it would, at least for a little while, go over their children’s heads. Over time, as the children catch on, they begin using the phrase and it creates a sense of bonding between participants; learning to “check the prop” comes as a rite of passage. The expression also addresses the discomfort associated with going to the bathroom for children (often developed as child) and replaces it with humor.
The primary participants on the trips were fathers and their sons. The specific reference to a part of the boat, the prop, allows the men to bond with their sons through humor over a universal activity (urination) about these bonding excursions (water skiing). It developed out of a specific tradition and, even when removed from that environment, retains explicit reference to its roots. S. Taylor and his friends still use the phrase today and it calls upon those memories for them of their childhoods and the times their families spent together water skiing. While the phrase has been adopted by their children or wives, there is a reinforced exclusivity within the community who attended the trips. His family and friends would spend most of the summer out at the Salton Sea, composing large chunks of their life. To call upon these memories by using the phrase today reinforces belonging to a familial community. Furthermore, the prop, or propeller, is typically suspended out below a boat by a metal bar. This maritime appendage is, especially in this context, phallic in nature; the item itself suggesting and adding humor to the activity for the men.
It is counterintuitive that something usually kept private becomes thrown into the open as it is happening. However, on trips into nature, as these were, the rules are changed. People can urinate wherever they want with discretion, especially if they are in water or are a man. Escapes into nature are essentially an escape away from civilization and the constraints it puts on an individual. In this case, one way the men and boys decivilize themselves by drawing attention to these bodily functions and bonding over them.
For Further Readings: Extensive records of bathroom humor can be found at “http://www.jokes4us.com/dirtyjokes/toiletjokes.html”. Most of these are straightforward jokes containing a question as a punchline. They illustrate the phenomena of coping with discomfort through humor and laughter.