What Is a Cesspool?

A cesspool is a covered pit that holds the drainage or sewage from a building, often a house. While cesspools are still used in some parts of the world, they are widely discouraged or even prohibited because of sanitation risks.

What Is a Cesspool?


There is some disagreement over the etymology of the term "cesspool." Some attribute "cess" to the Latin "recessus," which means "place of retirement." Add that to "pool," which is a "small body of standing water," and you get "cesspool." Others claim that "cess" comes from "cistern," which means "tank" or "reservoir." Another theory is that it comes from the Middle English term, "suspiral," which means "drainpipe." Yet another possible connection is to the French word, "souspirail," which means "vent" or "air hole."


Essentially, a cesspool is a hole in the ground. The walls are lined with bricks or concrete to lessen sanitation risks. Solids settle to the bottom in the hole while liquid is absorbed into the soil underneath. Other scum collects atop the solids. Cesspools must be emptied periodically to keep them from overflowing. Furthermore, care must be taken that the absorbed fluid doesn't get into clean water sources, as serious health problems can arise in this case.

Historical and Modern Usage

Cesspools first came about at around the time the Renaissance began. They were a more sanitary alternative to simply tossing sewage into the street. However, since the modern septic system was developed in the late 19th century, cesspools have moved slowly toward becoming obsolete. Cesspools are still used, though, in regions where sewer systems aren't present, although public health advocates support the replacement of this unsanitary system of waste disposal. Among the chief risks are water contamination and the attracting of vermin such as rats, which often carry disease.

Benefits for Historical Study

When it comes to studying past civilization, though, cesspools can be extremely useful sources of information. Archaeologists often use the material that lingers in dried-up cesspools to learn about the eating and hygiene habits of a particular region.

Figurative Meaning

Because cesspools are literally conglomerations of filth and decay, the term is often used to refer to any dirty place. This may mean literal dirt ("Your dorm room is a cesspool") or moral decay ("That nightclub is a cesspool of iniquity").

Whitney Arana

An American living in Prague, Whitney Arana holds a Bachelor of Arts in English language and literature from Davidson College. Currently, she works as a teacher of advanced business and exam-prep English plus conversational Spanish. She contributes regularly to both Czech and American publications on topics including health, literature, food, and travel.