Why are there so many words for “toilet”?

Four dunnies (photo by yosoyjulito - cc-by)

The numerous words for “toilet” arise because:

  • There are various types of toilet, many of which have distinct names,
  • Some people don’t like to allude to bodily functions by referring to a toilet by name, so many euphemisms have been devised, and
  • The colloquial names for toilets are often regional, so different places use different names

In the United Kingdom, a toilet can mean either the porcelain fixture or the room that contains that fixture. In some countries, including the United States, you may hear the word bathroom used as a euphemism—and indeed the toilet fixture is frequently found in the same room as a bath. Other euphemisms include the john, the littlest room, the loo, the powder room, the cloak room, and the lavatory.

On a house plan, a toilet might be described as a WC, which is an abbreviation for water closet. Why this odd name? A closet, of course, is a walk-in cupboard. Centuries ago, when it became practical to provide a toilet within a house, it was naturally put in a small room and became called the closet. Later, Thomas Crapper’s flushing mechanism made it practical to install flush toilets. It became necessary to distinguish the older non-flushing toilet from the newfangled flushing type, and the two types became known as the dry closet and the water closet. The dry closet is now rarely seen, so we no longer need the term “water closet”, but it has lived on in architectural drawings as the abbreviation “WC”.

An outdoor toilet was commonplace in the past. It’s still found in many rural areas. The term outhouse is a general name for any outdoor toilet, but an outhouse may also be called a pit toilet (in parts of Africa), a dunny (in Australia), a liklik haus (“little house”) in the Tok Pisin language of Papua New Guinea, or a longdrop (in New Zealand).

(The longest drop that I ever saw was at a castle in Wales where the seat was built out from the castle wall, suspended over an open-air drop of around 15 meters.)

Public facilities containing multiple toilet stalls are known as public toilets. Euphemisms include public conveniences and rest rooms. Public toilets are generally segregated, so we may instead refer to the Ladies or the Gents.

I recently saw an architect’s plan of a Methodist Church built in the 1890s. It showed an outbuilding labelled as Offices. The plumbing showed that the “offices” were a toilet block, and the Oxford dictionary confirmed that the word “offices” was indeed used in this sense, to mean a set of toilet cubicles.

Nowadays, of course, offices are places where people work. So, ironically, are cubicles. What does that tell us?

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1 Comment

  • Myoarin says:

    Well, an office is where one does one’s “business” (just one of innumerable euphemisms). Lavatory describes a place where one can wash, but usually one can wash one’s hands in a loo. A polite expression is to ask where one can wash one’s hand, maybe just gesturing with them to suggest what one means.
    And “loo”:
    “loo: “lavatory,” 1940, but perhaps 1922, probably from Fr. lieux d’aisances, “lavatory,” lit. “place of ease,” picked up by British servicemen in France during World War I. Or possibly a pun on Waterloo, based on water closet.” etymonline.com

    Small communities may have their own expressions. At one summer camp, they were called “halves”, located between numbered cabins. At another, they were “Egypts”: “little Egypt”, the ones near the cabins. “Big Egypt” was a row of cubicles a few steps up, the name suggested perhaps by this:

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