I think we can all agree that the years 2020 and 2021—with their pandemic closings, attack on the Capitol building, chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, endless mask wearing, and ever resurging coronavirus variants—should be flushed down the toilet. Or should I say commode? There seem to be almost as many euphemisms for “toilet” as there are pine needles on the floor after Christmas—which should not be flushed down the…. Thing-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named. This particular appliance is on my mind right now, not because it has seen so much use lately, but because on Christmas Eve my granddaughter flushed a vintage Christmas charm bracelet down mine—leaving me up the proverbial creek without a paddle… Merry Christmas to my plumber! But it seems that the act of using this particular seat in the house is so embarrassing that it cannot be spoken of in polite conversation.
Euphemisms are words and phrases used to avoid naming unpleasant concepts directly. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines euphemism (from the Greek for “speak well”) as “a less distasteful word or phrase used as a substitute for something harsher or more offensive.” Classic examples are “passed away” for died, “let go” for “fired,” “adult beverage” for the liquid you may have drunk on New Year’s Eve, “affordable” for cheap, or—along with taboo words for many other bodily functions and parts—“behind” for buttocks. Euphemisms help us to sanitize words that might otherwise make others uncomfortable.
The most common names for (to be completely straightforward, if crass) the “crapper” involve total avoidance by naming the room where it resides in terms of the other activities we do there. Where do civilized people take a bath, wash their hands, or indulge in the feminine practice of powdering one’s nose? So we coyly call it the “bathroom,” “washroom,” or “powder room.” Yes, we are visiting that room, but please don’t ask us what we plan to do there! Bathroom, in fact, has become the most common, acceptable name for the place where few actually take a bath. This is an example of the literary figure of speech known as synecdoche—i.e., using a part to stand for the whole, or vice versa (for example, “boots on the ground,” “100 head of cattle,” or “pour me a glass of bubbly”).
An attempt at Latinate elegance turns washroom into “lavatory.” Apparently, some people make a habit of taking naps in this room, because “restroom” is a strong contender—but in the past, smokers did take rest breaks there. I won’t mention the many euphemisms for what we DO do in this room (no pun intended)! Amazingly, all of these euphemisms are acceptable substitutes for “Pardon me, I have to pee”—although whichever nickname you use, everybody knows where you’re going. “Pee” simply comes from the first letter of “piss,” which in turn derives from the Vulgar (vernacular) Latin verb “pissiare.” Now you can feel erudite (as well as vulgar) whenever you mention it!
The word “toilet” derives from the French “toilette,” which simply referred to a dressing room. In 19th century America, the toilet became associated with the room where people got dressed. This meaning still adheres with euphemisms like “privy”—short for private—and even the British “water closet.” Many people still get dressed in their closets, so if you add water, then presto! But the British, a notoriously modest bunch, have further sanitized the term with its even more innocuous acronym, “WC.” As for the more low-brow British name “loo,” I have wondered if it is an historical joke, a shortening of Water-loo—a pun which, according to the OED, is made by James Joyce in Ulysses. Certainly, battles do take place there…. But as for the true etymology of “loo,” the OED declares “origin unknown.” Meanwhile, in Britain this usage has birthed the offspring “loo brush,” “loo paper,” and “loo seat.” Maybe I won’t name my dog Lulu after all.
Although “water closet” sounds like a riff on “lavatory,” the true origin of WC is historical, and also related to the use of “john” to name this essential appliance. Sir John Harington (1560-1612), one of Queen Elizabeth I’s 102 godsons, is credited with developing the first flushing toilet used in Britain (although he was not the first in the world to invent one). He called it “Ajax”—from “Jakes,” the slang term for toilet at that time. He installed one in his home and made one for the queen around 1596. The device worked by pulling a cord that would allow water to rush in from the “water closet”—what we now call the toilet tank—which would flush away the waste. Also, many believe that it has been called the “john” ever since Harington’s introduction of this major innovation to Britain.
For some reason, we think that adding “y” (the “ee” sound) to the end of any word makes it child-friendly—as in kitty, puppy, baby, nappy, or dolly. This impulse probably changed the more descriptive “piss-pot”—literally a chamber pot kept beside the bed before Harington’s invention, and emptied by hapless housewives or servants—to the diminutive “potty,” which anyone who has raised a child has used more times than s/he can count! This cozy-sounding nickname—where we “tinkle” or go “boom boom”—is gentle enough for mixed company, or for public construction sites. I still remember when my young grandchildren, busy with potty training themselves, pulled down Raggedy Ann’s pantaloons and placed her on their little seat! The toilet is also known, among the truly old-fashioned, as the “Little Girls’ (or Boys’) Room.”
Perhaps the most delicate euphemism is “commode,” derived from a French cabinet with a washbasin fitted on top, and implying comfort—as in commodious or accommodate. In the 17th century, American colonists brought to America the British name “necessary-house” or “necessary-vault,” shortening it to one of my favorites, because so accurate: the “necessary.” That’s certainly calling a spade a spade! Before indoor plumbing, it was aptly called the “out house.” Sailors like to call it the “head,” because it is typically located in the bow of the ship.
Since unisex facilities are a fairly recent development, we can also coyly say we are going to the Ladies’ or Men’s room. Many restaurants play with these identifiers to echo their culinary theme, such as Roosters and Hens at a fried chicken spot, Senors and Senoritas at a Mexican place, buoys and gulls at a seafood restaurant, or Guys and Dolls at a vintage-themed bar.
Who would have thought we could come up with over 20 eupemisms for the “necessary”? Now that you’ve learned more about it than you probably ever wanted to know, you can laugh when you hear its many variations. No matter what you call it, we all—from paupers to potentates—gotta use it. So why not call it the “throne,” so we can feel like royalty whenever we go there?
May your 2022 be full of joy, laughter, and fun words.