On April 18th, 2016 we learned about

How the word ‘toilet’ passed from preening to plumbing

Hundreds of years ago, toilets were just cloth. Not cloth diapers or some kind of sanitary hammock, but any kind of cloth covering, because originally, the word toilet had nothing to do with a trip to the potty. Originating from the French word toile, for cloth, toilets could be cloth to bundle your clothing in, a shawl, or even some kind of fringed bonnet. Most importantly, it could also refer to the cloth draped over a lady’s dressing table, which is where the word started it’s journey from the world at large to the confines of our bathrooms.

Primping, not pooping

This transition started in the 1660s, when women would sit at a table, most likely with a mirror, to get made up for the day. The collection of grooming activities, like brushing one’s hair and applying makeup, was eventually bundled up as “taking one’s toilet,” possibly since the most consistent part of any individual’s routine was where it took place. While there was some leeway in what a person’s daily toilet could include, it didn’t involve relieving one’s bowels or bladder in a person’s bedroom (for that, you might have had a commode with a piss-pot sitting in it.) A private place for such relief would actually first be invented in public locations, when buildings started installing toilet rooms.

In the nineteenth century, public buildings in the United States were likely to have toilet rooms. Carrying over from the toilet you had at home, these rooms were ostensibly for touching up one’s appearance, which may have just been a way for people to talk about them without mentioning the fact that they also housed privies. The ruse seems to have worn thin though, and by the early twentieth century references to a toilet were very likely to be aimed at the porcelain throne itself, not just the room that housed it.

Maintaining room for imagination

The desire to be indirect about this critical piece of plumbing likely gave rise to the variety of new terms for what was once the toilet room. Lavatory, water closet, bathroom, loo and restroom all let us bring up a universal need without going into specifics, unless you’re just needing to go powder your nose of course. This desire for discretion isn’t new though, as the term privy stemmed from the Latin word privatus, for privacy. On the other hand, names that seem to be more bluntly connected to the task at hand, like the crapper, are merely fortunate coincidences. While Sir Thomas Crapper did own a number of plumbing-related patents, he did not invent the flush toilet, and the word crap was already coined as a synonym for poop before his time.

My three-year-old said: “HAHAHAHAHAHAHA! TOILET!”


Source: The origin of ‘toilet’ by Edmund Weiner, Oxford Dictionaries Language Matters

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