What exactly is the meaning of the phrase “The morning constitutional”? Is it an early morning walk or the first visit to the bathroom during the day?
What is the origin of this phrase? What is the word “constitutional” doing here?
It literally means "something that is good for your constitution", usually a walk, but it's also a common euphemism for the first visit to the washroom, particularly in areas where heading out to use the facilities is not a very distant memory. It was much more common in my youth (and it's been a while since I was a youth) among older people, and it seemed to carry a bit of feigned poshness among the working class (who didn't need to go for a purposeless walk to get their exercise).
The New Oxford American Dictionary has for constitutional:
noun (dated): a walk, typically one taken regularly to maintain or restore good health.
Regarding etymology, constitution means “a person's physical state with regard to vitality, health, and strength”, so the constitutional comes from its supposed benefits to the health. (Think of it as a “walk to improve one's constitution”, if you will.)
It also frequently refers to a morning bowel movement. Its a euphemism for a bowel movement. (From a time when using the bathroom meant going for a walk to the outhouse--the original meaning was still "going for a walk", but this idea was used in the euphemism for going to the bathroom.)
I've only ever heard of it as a morning walk. I'm a little disillusioned! I'm 55 — is that old? Got a good vocabulary from reading, maybe a bit sheltered as far as "the vernacular of the peasantry" (a line of the Wizard of Oz' no-doubt self-professed Professor Marvel, aka the wizard).
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