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Friday, February 14, 2014

WHAT'S IN A NAME: TOILETS

BRYCE ON OUR VERNACULAR

- 15 interpretations for the same thing.

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For some reason, Americans insist on giving multiple names to the same object. I'm not sure why, perhaps it is because of our melting pot of ethnicities where we bring different languages and customs to the table. This seems to be particularly true when discussing matters related to religion, race, sex, or the bathroom. For example, consider the word "Toilet" and the many derivatives thereof.

Toilet -
According to the Online Etymology Dictionary (OED), it comes from the French "toilette" (cloth, wrapper). In 1819, it came to mean "a dressing room," especially one with a lavatory attached. "Toilet paper" is attested from 1884 (the Middle English equivalent was "arse-wisp" which, to me, is a bit of a visual).

Bathroom -
You would think this goes back to the Roman bath houses, but evidently it does not. OED explains it goes back to 1780, from bath + room. Originally a room with apparatus for bathing; in the 20th century, it became a euphemism in the United States for a lavatory and often noted as a word that confused British travelers.

Washroom -
I heard this term frequently up in New England, but it dates back to 1864 as a euphemism for toilet in this country.

Powder Room -
I couldn't find much on this expression, other than it has been used by the ladies for several years. Men have always wondered what was being powdered in there.

Lavatory -
Is the most popular term for toilet. When I first heard it as a youngster in school, I innocently thought they were saying "laboratory" and pondered what experiments were being conducting in there. Perhaps something by Dr. Frankenstein. According to OED, the expression is derived from the Latin: "lavatorium," which in turn comes from Latin "lavo" ("I wash"). The word was originally used to refer to a vessel for washing, such as a sink/wash basin, but eventually came to mean a room with such washing vessels and, consequently, a "place for washing." I believe Igor hands out towels there.

Latrine -
Is often used by the military (as is "The Head"). The term is actually derived from the Latin "lavatrina" meaning bath. Its appearance in the 1640s is probably borrowed from the French. "Latrine rumor" is gossip of the kind spread in conversations in latrines, and is military slang, first recorded in 1918 during World War I.

Outhouse -
I thought this was as American as apple pie, but it definitely is not. According to OED, it goes back to the early 14th century and is simply a combination of out + house. Its first use in America is attested in 1819. I wondered if they had any Sears catalogs back then?

privy -
Is a term more familiar to Europeans than Americans, and is nothing more than another word for "outhouse." OED claims it is from the Old French privé, privee "latrine," meaning "private place."

Loo -
This is a British expression that usually produces a giggle from Americans unfamiliar with it. Although is is likely it is a slang derivative of "lavatory," the origin of the word is unknown. I originally believed it to be spelled "lieu," but the British got to it before I did.

Water Closet -
Another British expression. OED explains it was an early term for an interior or exterior room with a flushing toilet in contrast with an earth closet usually outdoors and requiring periodic emptying as "night soil." Originally, the term "wash-down closet" was used.

Pail closets -
An outdoor solution featuring a pot and outhouse arrangement. They were introduced in England and France in an attempt to reduce sewage problems in rapidly expanding cities.

Chamber pot (aka "The Pot")
- a receptacle in which one would excrete waste in a ceramic or metal pot. Among Romans and Greeks, chamber pots were brought to meals and drinking sessions. I think I would pass on such an appetizing engagement.

The Head -
is primarily used in the military. According to Wikipedia, it is a ship's toilet. The name derives from sailing ships in which the toilet area for the regular sailors was placed at the head or bow of the ship.

Little boy's/girl's room -
a euphemism for toilet. It is certainly not restricted to children or those that are vertically challenged.

Crapper -
is named for Thomas Crapper, a London plumber who popularized the toilet in the 19th century. It's hard to believe a man who greatly facilitated sanitation, saw his name change into an uncomplimentary slang expression. Such is the price of fame.

pissoir -
according to Wikipedia, it is a French invention common in Europe that allows for urination in public without the need for a toilet building. Such facilities can be found throughout Europe and Asia. But blame the French for the name.

So there you have it, 15 names for essentially the same object. There is probably many more I have overlooked, but you get the idea.

Now about all of the names we use for religion, race, and sex... Only in America.

Keep the Faith!

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Tim Bryce is a writer and the Managing Director of M&JB Investment Company (M&JB) of Palm Harbor, Florida and has over 30 years of experience in the management consulting field. He can be reached at timb001@phmainstreet.com

For Tim's columns, see:   timbryce.com

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