Since humans first walked the earth we have of course had a few basic needs. One of them being to relieve ourselves of our human waste. This has adapted many different sayings from "I am going to the Toilet" to "One's off to powder one’s nose". My question is where do these terms come from and what is the history behind it all? I decided to run a poll on Twitter to see what the general public felt about these terms and the results were fascinating but I will come back to these results later in the blog.
You may well ask, how long have we had the luxury of toilets/bathrooms and sewage works? Amazingly the answer is thousands of years. The Romans and Egyptians were the first to have had working sewers. Sir Mortimer Wheeler wrote, "The high quality of the sanitary arrangements could be envied in many parts of the world today". Sir Mortimer was the director general of archaeology in India from 1944 to 1948. He was of course referring to the fact that in 3000BC "Toilets" and sewers were invented in several parts of the world, with the Indus Valley civilisation being one of the most advanced in 2800BC. They had lavatories built into the outer walls of houses which were made with bricks and wooden seat tops with vertical chutes where the waste fell down into the street drains or cesspits.
An example of "toilets" with flowing water to remove the waste were discovered early in Skara Bra in Orkney, Scotland which were occupied between 3100BC and 2500BC. These had a drain running directly underneath them. In the 18th Century BC Egyptians were using "toilets". Roman "toilets" are thought to have been in the sitting position, however sitting "toilets" only came into general use in the 19th Century in the western world. The Romans also installed "toilets" in the Bath Houses using running water.
It was in 1596 that Sir John Harington, who was a prominent member of Queen Elizabeth I court, invented the modern flush "toilet" in his house in 1596. It was here that Queen Elizabeth I tried out his new invention. It was however Thomas Crapper who increased the popularity of the "toilet" and invented the ballcock. Thomas's product became high demand and was issued with several Royal warrants. Thomas Crapper also owned the worlds first bath, "toilet" and sink showroom in Kings Road, London until 1966. It should also be noted that sadly, this is where the word “crap” does indeed hail from due to his association with Lavatories.
There is also interesting debates as to what you should call the daily ritual. It is for this reason that I am going to explain where the different variations come from.
The word toilet is of course French. Many things in the 18th century Britain had French influence as it was fashionable for the times. Toilet means toile which is French for cloth. This toile or cloth would be draped over the lady or gentleman's shoulders while there was a series of operations been carried out on their hair and in relation to body care, which included the morning routine of washing, shaving, and making the person up. This took place around the dressing table which was also covered with a cloth on which the toile service was displayed. It consisted of a mirror and various brushes and it also contained the powder for make up. This ensemble would be called toilette as was the time spent at the table during which close friends and tradesmen were being received. It was only in later years that the word "toilet" became a euphemism for lavatory, as it would be said in the expression "powder my nose" meaning they were going to the "toilet".
The word Lavatory is Latin for lavātōrium, which in turn comes from Latin for lavō ("I wash"). The word was referring to a sink or wash basin for washing, but eventually became a room for washing which would be found for example in medieval monasteries. Later the word became associated with "toilets" because the "toilet" would move into the same room that you wash in, and the meaning has over the centuries evolved into the present meaning.
The term Loo has many theories but a personal favourite of mine is that it evolved from the word Waterloo, with the first recorded entry of the word in 1922. Waterloo or Watercloset would of course be shortened to Loo.
Chamber pots were a pot in which you would excrete waste. These were made of ceramic or metal. Romans and Greeks brought them for meals and drinking sessions to other Roman or Greek homes. There were large receptacles in the cities into which the pots of urine would be emptied which was then collected and used for the urea in various production. In the ancient times pilgrims took chamber pots with them on the journeys, in the early modern era they would be made from China and copper with decoration. They were popular in the Victorian era.
Before the flushing Loo, people would use the chamber pot at night. I should add before flushing loos, the Loo was situated in a separate building or an outhouse next to the main house. Indoor lavatories were first provided for the upper classes and over time became available for the lower classes. In 1890 building regulations stated that the working class homes did not require indoor loos. Today we don't use chamber pots except in hospitals which we now call bedpans.
Now to the interesting debate and the correct term; in 1954 Alan S.C Ross coined the terms "u and no u" (us and non us) in an article on the differences that social class makes in the usage of the English. Author Nancy Mitford wrote an essay on "The English Aristocracy" in 1954 using u and non u and provided a glossary of terms used by the upper classes. In this the world "toilet" was referred to as Lavatory or Loo but never "toilet", and to this day the term is still used by the upper classes. I personally find it amusing considering the term originally was "toilet" as used by the French, and let's not forget a French King created etiquette. It is interesting therefore that we choose not to use the French term but rather go with the term that refers to a waterloo (watercloset). This of course is how the British have developed etiquette into their own. The world now seems to look to us for this guidance.
The question I ran in my poll last week was ‘what is the corrects term, Toilet, Lavatory or Loo, or Other’. The results were interesting and are as follows:
Lavatory or Loo 66%
So it appears the majority agree with Nancy Mitford that the correct term is of course Loo.
A huge thank you to everyone as always who took part in this week’s Twitter poll, without your wonderful votes and comments this would not be possible. This week I will run my next poll on Wednesday.