The language of loos and johns

"Deluxe Portable Restroom" / photo courtesy Don's John's

“Deluxe Portable Restroom” / photo courtesy Don’s Johns

“Inauguration planners rushed to wipe away a potential controversy Friday after porta-potties on the National Mall happened to be adorned with the President-elect’s first name. Workers were spotted Friday morning covering the “Don’s Johns” logo with blue masking tape. … Trump, whose middle name is John, will be inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States at the US Capitol next Friday, an event expected to draw thousands of onlookers onto the National Mall who will use the facilities, of which there are about 2,000. The company [Don’s Johns] is the number-one provider of sanitation services in the Washington area.” So reported CNN a couple of weeks ago, before the country started going down the lav (or the toilet, or the WC …). Oh, where to start …

Perhaps surprisingly, the language of loos is something Glosso hasn’t yet addressed. It’s such a mess of expressions that stream from our mouths and tongues when we refer to that little room of excretion, and yet it’s a topic that no-one can really avoid, even if only when you have to ask how to get to the lav — or the john. With their various whiffs and odors of place, class and manners — from the perfumery of hair powder in the 17th-century French toilet to the stench of Don’s Johns in dirty D.C. — the words for our potties plastic and porcelain and where we house them are teaming and flowing with linguistic innuendo. Let’s dive in …

Potties on either side of the Big Pond (and our slang for soiling stations)

When asked the way to the loo or the john, we’re all pretty hip to modern terminology, whichever side of the Atlantic we’re on. Although a New Yorker may never feel comfortable uttering the word “loo” or “lav,” she knows exactly what her guest is asking for when the “L” word slips with a British blush from an Englishman’s tongue.  And most Brits probably understand the amusing news story described above, involving the American President’s first and middle names and their uncomfortable relationship with the nation’s leading brand of porta-potties. “Toilet,” “loo”  and “lavatory” are all polite and widely used names for the littlest room in standard British English (although see the section below for a finer analysis of these word-choices and their social significance); their most-used counterparts across the pond are probably “bathroom”, “restroom”, and the gender-specific “ladies’ (room)”  and “gents”. Older English gents or ladies might be heard heading to the WC (or watercloset), the cloakroom (yes, that’s what my grandma used to call it) or even to the latrine. But this is where we start sliding down the slightly slimy slope of slang. Offering a comprehensive list of British and American slang words for potty-dwellings is probably a tad ambitious, even for Glossophilia, but here’s a brief survey of the most common toilet slang and lingo on both sides of the Atlantic:

Brit: loo, lav, bog, privy, powder room, cloakroom

American: can, john

Both/other: latrine, ablutions, crapper, dunny (Aus), bogger (Aus), brasco (Aus), khazy, outhouse, head, pissoir

Social class in loo language

As Glosso pointed out in an earlier post on U and non-U speak, “lavatory or loo is U, but toilet is so very non-U.” (Read that post for an explanation of U and non-U.) I think I’ll hand you over to the so-called “etiquette expert” William Hanson to explain the various British social class nuances that are rife in toilet lingo, as he did so recently in the Daily Mail (but please note that the grammar and syntax have not been edited by Glosso):

“Even before your host has allowed you access to their lavatory, much can be gleaned about which rung on the social ladder they belong just by what they call it. You can easily spot a lower-middle household if a euphemistic term is used like ‘littlest room’ or ‘powder room’. It is only a bathroom if it has a bath in it. Neither is it a restroom, as you’re hardly going in there for a rest. Lavatory or the slightly twee ‘loo’ are always acceptable and used by those from stronger social backgrounds, or those who ‘get it’. ‘Toilet’ is both down-market but also incorrect. Historically, a toilette was a person’s make-up (hence ‘toiletries bag’, ‘eau de toilette’, etc). The actual ceramic object that you use is a lavatory (or loo).”

A Glossary of Lavatorial Lingo and Its Etymology
(from Online Etymology Dictionary)

Bathroom: 1780 … Originally a room with apparatus for bathing, used 20c in U.S. as a euphemism for a lavatory and often noted as a word that confused British travelers. To go to the bathroom, euphemism for “relieve oneself; urinate, defecate,” from 1920 (in a book for children), but typically used without regard for whether an actual bathroom is involved.

John: “toilet,” 1932, probably from jakes, used for “toilet” since 15c. Meaning “prostitute’s customer” is from 1911, probably from the common, and thus anonymous, name by which they identified themselves.

Lavatory: late 14c., “washbasin,” from Late Latin lavatorium “place for washing,” noun use of neuter of Latin adjective lavatorius “pertaining to washing,” from lavat, past participle stem of lavare “to wash,” from PIE root *leu(e). Sense of “washroom” is first attested 1650s; as a euphemism for “toilet, W.C.,” it is attested by 1864.

Loo: “lavatory,” 1940, but perhaps 1922 (based on a pun of Joyce’s); perhaps [Dictionary of American Slang] from French lieux d’aisances “lavatory,” literally “place of ease,” picked up by British servicemen in France during World War I. Or possibly a pun on Waterloo, based on water closet.

Restroom: also rest-room, 1897, as a room with a toilet

Toilet: 1530s, earliest in English in an obsolete sense “cover or bag for clothes,” from Middle French toilette “a cloth; a bag for clothes,” diminutive of toile “cloth, net”. Toilet acquired an association with upper class dressing by 18c., through the specific sense “a fine cloth cover on the dressing table for the articles spread upon it;” thence “the articles, collectively, used in dressing” (mirror, bottles, brushes, combs, etc.). Subsequent sense evolution in English (mostly following French uses) is to “act or process of dressing,” especially the dressing and powdering of the hair (1680s); then “a dressing room” (1819), especially one with a lavatory attached; then “lavatory or porcelain plumbing fixture” (1895), an American euphemistic use.




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