Language police inquiry

Before we even get to our big question, we need to clear preliminary underbrush aside.  English does not really have a word for the small room furnished with a water closet (incorrectly called a toilet, a word that properly denotes not an object but the process or activity involving a hairbrush, innumerable lotions and unctions, a dressing gown, a mirror, and the like) and lavatory (semi-correctly called a washbasin and incorrectly called a sink).  Perhaps because there is no possible way to bathe in it, we call it a bathroom or even more strangely, a bath.   Other languages known to me are awash in similar fogs of euphemism and indirection here.   Spanish-speaking countries often have these marked for caballeros (but I have never seen a hitching rail), and none for peatóns.

One way or another, we get to it, and find equipment for one person at a time, marked graphically or verbally for either men or women.  Why?  what modesty is offended by using one of these, alone, after someone of the opposite sex has done so, modesty that does not demand hotel rooms be so segregated?  Why should someone be standing around waiting for the one on the left when the other is empty? But this is not a language question.

We may also find a sign that reads Unisex. Ah, and now we come to my question:  why is a uniperson, disex (or multigender) bathroom, labelled with a madeup word that is wrong both ways, with no fastidious or euphemistic result?

Update 13/VIII/13: anyone who reads this far (and I’m humbled by seeing more than 30 comments!) deserves more and better lunacy.  So with the thinnest possible connection, I nominate (i) Jonathan Miller’s immortal bit (by the way, the complete BtF is here, woo hoo!) and (ii) a Wikipedia article I never in my wildest fevered dreams imagined could exist, let alone extend beyond about fifty words.

It is a wondrous world, in so many ways

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

63 thoughts on “Language police inquiry”

  1. You know that Canadians call a bathroom a “washroom”, right? Too sensible.

    Don’t get me started on “restroom” — I refuse to stroom even a first time.

    Hungarian has it even worse, calling the room a VC. Think of it; to really trace this name to the actual concept, you have to correct to WC, then know English to expand it to “water closet”, then figure out that that’s not e.g. where you keep the boiler.

      1. The word “crap” meaning shit apparently pre-dates Thomas Crapper.

        Oxford Dictionaries web page:
        Middle English: related to Dutch krappe, from krappen ‘pluck or cut off’, and perhaps also to Old French crappe ‘siftings’, Anglo-Latin crappa ‘chaff’. The original sense was ‘chaff’, later ‘residue from rendering fat’, also ‘dregs of beer’. Current senses date from the late 19th century.

        Note that the “current senses” – i.e.g those relating to shit – date from the time that Thomas Crapper was active.

        However, the OED has a cite to a “crapping ken” meaning a privy from 1846,when Thomas Crapper was just a boy.

        Thomas Crapper did found and own a company that made many innovations in flush toilets and became a major manufacturer of them.

        The company logo featured prominently on the toilets, see

        The company was active in advertising sanitary facilities, won a number of patents in the 1880’s and 1890’s, and installed modern sanitary plumbing in the homes of members of the royal family, receiving royal warrants for doing so (a royal warrant allows a company to advertise that it is a supplier of goods to royalty).

        It would make perfect sense that an otherwise rare or somewhat obsolete word got a new burst of popularity based on the ubiquity of Crapper toilets and advertising, and that that word crapper to refer to a flush toilet may have been a coinage based on the name.

        1. Thank you, I will use this knowledge in future so that none of it goes to waste.

  2. When I first arived in Sweden I was confronted with a WC (they do call it that here) with the designation “herr” and another with no lable. I figured if the one was for “herr”s the other one must be for “him”s. Stooopid American! Fortunately nobody was around to take offense.
    As to girls’ and boys’ rooms: I’m thinking it’s because some moron guy will likely pee on the seat ’cause MEN, ya know can be like that.
    I’m reminded of a cross stitch sampler placed over the john by a friend’s mom: “If you sprinkle when you tinkle, Be a sweety and lift the seatie.” Makes me smile every time I think of it. Makes my wife roll her eyes every time I say it.

  3. The gender separation makes sense for large setups where the males have urinals as well as WCs. In small restaurants, one WC each is absurd. Most men are house-trained these days.
    You leave out the feminist claim that loo gender parité implies affirmative action for women in the form of more stalls. Will the Roberts Court stand (sic) for this?

    1. A couple of days ago, I needed the use of the whatcacallit room in retail establishment, and discovered that there were two lockable one-person rooms — one labelled for men one for women. Since the men’s room seemed to be in long-term use, I daringly used the women’s room. No one noticed and the world kept turning. I feel better knowing that I had James’ implicit approval.

    2. On my floor at the U we have a single “Men’s” room equipped with a urinal and a stall. At the other end of the building (down a set of stairs in a bridge) is a “Women’s” room. I’m unsure of the equipment contained in it.

      One of my colleagues has serious back problems, and walking down stairs is inconvenient, if not dangerous to her health. Rather walking down the stairs or riding the elevator to the floor below us, when she needed the facility she checks to see if our “Men’s” room was occupied. If it is empty (as is usually the case) she hangs a tag that reads, “Temporary Women’s Room” and takes care of her business. No one on the floor objects, it makes perfectly good sense.

      I asked her why she doesn’t petition University Facilities to change the room’s designation as a “Men’s” room. She said it’s too much trouble for an uncertain outcome. The system we denizens of the floor have agreed on suits her just fine.

      1. In very crowded situations — sporting event or theater event breaks — I have occasionally seen women use the men’s room due to shorter or missing wait lines, sometimes but not always with personal male escort. Disconcerting if one is not used to it, but no one has died from it that I know of.

        1. I think this is becoming more common. Also I think the idea that men are sloppier — except for the seat issue — is false. In fact, there may have been one of those studies that said men’s __rooms are cleaner b/c they don’t touch as many things with their hands, cold/flu germs being mostly what you will get. But, that could be wrong.

          Really, people just need to wash their hands. Everyone.

          1. Many men touch nothing but the door handle. Which is why I usually use a paper towel to do same.

          2. Ah yes, the door. This can be solved by just arranging the walls so you don’t need a door. It requires a lot of space though. Or if it’s a swing door, one can use one’s elbow somewhere on the door.

            But really we should all still wash our hands, no matter if we just went in there to fix our hair. Colds, flus, why not wash? Really, why?

    1. Last winter I was skiing on a day when, it turned out, there was some kind of women’s club visiting the ski area. I came out of the men’s room and found a line of about 20 women queued up for the women’s room and no men around. When I let them know that the men’s room was empty, half the line moved over there and everyone’s waiting time was cut in half.

      I have heard, anecdotally, from people who are responsible for cleaning both men’s and women’s rooms, that there’s no consistent difference in cleanliness, and in fact some people claim that women’s rooms can be worse. I have no particular opinion on that myself.

      1. I spent a summer working as a temporary caretaker in a large County park. One of my duties was cleaning the facilities. I dreaded coming to work on Mondays, because I knew that while the men’s side would be dirty (no caretakers on the weekends) the women’s side was likely to be much worse than dirty.

        I never understood the phenomenon, but later experience has borne it out. My wife has crossed particular rest areas and gas stations off our list of potential stops for having “disgusting” ladies facilities. A few of them have had pretty nasty mens facilities, but none I’d raise to the level of disgusting. For some reason, some women are willing to do things in shared facilities they would never think of doing in the their personal areas.

        1. there is a significant subset of women that will not trust the cleanliness of public places, and so even if it appears clean, they will squat and hover. And will not clean up any resulting mess. Then, all subsequent users will either have to fully clean the seat of whatever may be upon it, or also squat/hoover – they invariably choose the latter. Mishaps multiply…
          Men will spray more urine and may cause more toilet clogs, but if #2 is required, generally do not hover…

          1. Well. Not to make excuses, but … often there are design problems. I believe there is a phrase “bad design kills” that I’ve always been fond of, though never bothered to look up.

            I am less convinced the problem is germaphobes — though you can always tell when those are around b/c there will be discarded paper left outside the ___room, that they used to open the door handle and then dropped on the floor if there isn’t an open trashcan (not the kind you have to push the little lid to open … also a problem on the little bins you’re supposed to put your “feminine products” in (euphemism alert here too … and isn’t it funny the liquids are blue in ads?) — I think there are just some people who don’t know any better, or maybe, one person is careless and then the next jillion people are too skeezed to want to clean up after them, hence the squatting and subsequent degeneration. Also, maybe the seatcovers ran out. Sometimes it’s hard to use the regular paper for that.

            My personal peeve is when there’s no way to close the stall door without contorting yourself, if you don’t want to have your legs/clothing touch the toilet/whatever. Seriously annoying. I know nothing bad is likely to happen, but still. And the ADA is no excuse. It’s bad design.

            Same with soap dispensers. I touch them freely, but I could see a germaphobe not wanting too. Oh, and don’t forget the autoflush — biggest mistake ever!!! They spray you with water, sometimes midway through, and don’t work that well. Whereas, the autowater can be a good idea. Though, footpedals might work too.

            As you can see, I’ve thought about this a little too much.

          2. Parts of the world have toilets that are easy to clog and/or proper toilet paper is in short supply. Consequently, I been in workplaces employing immigrants where it wasn’t unusual to see used toilet paper piled beside the toilet.

          3. CharlesWT: thanks, I didn’t know that.

            In my home away from home, Costco, they have a wastebin in every stall (in the ladies at least), instead of those problematic little fem-bins. And they haven’t fallen for the auto-flush con yet, but they do seem to be phasing out paper towels (I think — not sure).

            I don’t mind getting rid of hand towels (though I’d rather keep them) if they give me, in addition to soap and water, some of that alcohol stuff that dries. The hand dryers are seriously much too loud and probably actually damage one’s hearing. No, no, no. Someone stop that, please. They are awful. The world is run by people who don’t care about their hearing.

      2. I can confirm this fact. (A scientific detachment makes things easier, when cleaning public restrooms to pay for college.) This is where I developed my hypothesis that civilized behavior only comes from mixed-sex groups. Neither sex should be permitted to congregate alone.

        1. “Civilized behavior only comes from mixed-sex groups; neither sex should be permitted to congregate alone.”

          Joe, I like that. It will be my sig file next week…with proper attribution, of course, as “Joe’s Hypothesis.”

  4. whenever my students ask to go to the “bathroom” my response is generally along the lines of “huh, i didn’t know they had put showers in the student restrooms.”

    whenever my students point out that there aren’t any beds either so why call it a restroom i say “because everyone who comes back from there is so much more relaxed than when they left.”

    i am something of a smartass but 6th graders can take it.

  5. Why 2 labeled rooms? To avoid stupid disputes about whether one must leave the seat down when done.[1] [2]

    [1]Ms. Manners says that the correct answer is that the lid must be left down, closing the toilet (and this of course leaves the seat down). If one puts the lid down before flushing this also addresses (not solves, but addresses) the issue of fecal bacteria on all the surfaces of the room.

    [2]In re: sprinkling while tinkling. Having gotten crabs during a celibate period when young, I cannot imagine why EVERYONE does not first wipe off the seat, and then use a liner or toilet-paper-as-liner on the seat before sitting down on a public toilet.

    1. A mathematician/ethicist with too much time on his hands calculated that the fairest solution to this age old problem was to always leave the seat in whatever position you found it.

      He no doubt remains unmarried and alone to this day.

      1. The Chicago economist calculated that the most efficient solution is to leave the seat the way you used it.

        1. I made that mistake exactly once. I was staying at my then girlfriend’s place. I had to get up in the middle of the night to answer nature’s call and made the mistake of leaving the seat up when I was done. Sure enough, my ladyfriend went to the bathroom a few hours later, sat down without looking and promptly took a “midnight plunge”. Needless to say, it was not the highlight of our relationship.

          1. Women with sons or who had brothers growing up learn to check the status of the seat before sitting down. Women who did not grow up with brothers (like my ex-) are particularly prone to taking the long drop. The male who caused the long drop can expect to be awakened and to get an earful.

          2. I’ve been married nearly 30 years now and while my feminist credentials are less than perfect, I hope that they are in reasonably good shape (moved several times for my wife’s career, split cooking evenly, did much, much more than half of the laundry when the kids were growing up, to the extent that there was a primary parent, it was I).

            I’ve also long felt that in this situation, no argument for what is correct (seat up, seat down) flushes the opposing ones, Therefore, it is incumbent on the person who bears the greater cost of a mistake to ensure that the seat is where they want it. If you merely assume it is where you want or expect it to be, the thing that we all know normally happens when you assume something, making an ass of you and me, does not. Rather you wet the ass of you or me.

          3. I would think being awakened from deep sleep by the ear piercing scream from the plunge would convince any guy to keep the seat positioned in the safe position. It only took me once.

    2. Marcel, I like your — is that a modified Coase? I forget? – but, in your first comment, you nailed it. If there’s a lid in addition to a seat, it should be used. There’s just no good reason not to. I know urine is supposed to be sterile(?), but that doesn’t mean one wants to be coated in it.

      And if there are two different sexes there, having to raise the lid will also make the female think about the issue and thus prevent a lot of drops, I would think.

  6. I remember being in Northern Italy, eating at a table outside in a nice restaurant and not being able to find the place. I went to the bartender and ran through, in SpanItalian, toilet, aseos, servitzios, lavatory, cuarto de bano, case de pepe etc. It was funny realizing how many words there are for the place. He finally knew one, it might have been “the head” but I can’t remember.

    As for the separate male/female thing, of course in a home you are sharing with relatives and other known persons. The thought of being walked in on (or worse) may be in women’s minds more when the restroom is shared with male strangers.

    In some countries it could also be men’s fear/revulsion of tampon machines and the can for disposing of them. In a developing country, a female friend of mine had her bags at the airport searched very aggressively by two government goons twice her size. They grabbed her tampon bag and demanded to know what was in it. She informed them calmly and they dropped it like a red hot potato, backed away in fear and told her to “move along immediately”.

  7. I had this discussion with a friend many years ago, and we concluded that the non-euphemistic term would probably be defacatorium. But then, people would start calling it the deffie, which would be sort of a euphemism.

  8. Real estate types call such a room a “half bath” . And, no, I don’t know how to take half a bath in one.

    1. And in the architecture biz, we label them “powder rooms”. How much actual powdering occurs therein is probably quite meager, in my estimation.

  9. The San Francisco name for such a room is ‘Water Closet’, mostly regarding the Victorian houses that have a separate room for elimination and bathing.

  10. “Water closet” was coined from the existing term “earth closet,” which meant an outhouse.

    “Water closet” was a perfectly reasonable name for a device that used water and not earth to dispose of shit.

    I personally like the English term loo, which is Cockney slang: Water closet => Waterloo => loo.

    1. Not much of a rhyme. What I’ve read (my old OED is mum and I don’t have a Partridge) is that it’s Scots. Edinburgh tenement-dwellers used thoughtfully to give warning to pedestrians in the street below before emptying their chamber-pots over them. They got the courtesy from the more civilised French, hence “Gardy loo!” = from “Garde à l’eau!”
      Fanciful enough to be a myth.

    2. Anther derivation for loo that I’ve seen is from the French lieu d’aisance, comfort place or maybe place of easing, which makes “restroom” not a terrible equivalent. Yet another example where the English would have adopted a French term for something considered private or shameful?

      Didn’t know about “earth closet,” but OED has the primary meaning of closet as a private room or inner chamber, nowadays mainly a small one. They’re often named for what’s in them, eg clothes closet (now the understood primary meaning of closet, I guess, so any other has to be specifically qualified), or water closet, used both for the room and the appliance. And I think reasonably so, myself.

      Not to open another line of possible metonymy, but if I understand aright, plumbers refer to the “tank” and the “stool” in this connection. But then they probably have to be more precise.

      1. Patrick O’Brian, who is a stickler for historical accuracy, has his mariners say “seat of ease” for the head on board ship.

        But Oxford is skeptical of lieu d’aisance, and it doesn’t like gardyloo at all. It is more amenable to Waterloo, but not as slang – it says that Waterloo was the name of a company that made cisterns – the part of the toilet that holds the water. I can’t find anything more about Waterloo cisterns. There are quite a few Victorian toilet cisterns for sale on eBay, but none of them have a Waterloo trademark.

        BTW, the all-knowing google tells us that Thomas Crapper & Co. still exists – or at least there’s a company trading under that name – and it makes and sells period Victorian reproduction bathroom fittings, complete with logo.

        And here’s a picture of what the Victorians called an earth closet:

      1. From “the word detective,” a newspaper column and blog on etymology.

        “Loo” is, of course, slang, primarily British, for the toilet, restroom or bathroom (or whatever your favorite euphemism might be). The origin of “loo” has been hotly, and often quite creatively, debated since the word first appeared. One popular theory suggests that servants in the 17th and 18th century, emptying chamberpots out the window, warned passersby in the street below with the shout “Gardez l’eau!” (French for “Watch out for the water!”), which was pronounced “gardy loo” in Britain and later shortened to “loo.”

        This story, however, like many of the more colorful origins proposed, runs aground on the fact that “loo” first appeared in print relatively recently, in 1922 (in the form of a joke in “Ulysses” by James Joyce: “O yes, mon loup. How much cost? Waterloo. Watercloset.”). The 1922 vintage of “loo” also casts doubt on Nicolson’s account, since it is set no later than 1911.

        There are two theories, however, that should be considered more likely. The French euphemism “lieux” (pronounced “loo,” from “lieux d’aisance,” meaning “places of comfort” or “comfort stations”) might well have been picked up by British soldiers in France during World War I (1914-17). The period between the war and the first appearance of “loo” in print would be about right for armed services slang to percolate into general usage.

        On the other hand, James Joyce may, in that quote from “Ulysses,” have been onto the actual origin of “loo.” It may simply be a joke based on the use of “Waterloo” (as in “Battle of Waterloo”) as a punning take on “water closet.” Such a linkage would make “loo” similar to British rhyming slang, where a nonsense phrase rhyming with the “real” word (“plates of meat” for “feet”) is abbreviated and obscured still further by dropping the bit that actually rhymes (leaving us with the mysterious “plates” as slang for “feet”). “Water closet” thus, in this theory, became “Waterloo,” and then just “loo.”

        1. The origin of “loo” being just plain “lieu,” meaning “place,” seems most plausible to me. It’s kind of a double euphemism.

  11. “Water closet” is just stupid. You are neither concealing nor storing water in it. “Excreta exporter” would be much closer to it’s actual function.
    “Sink” is not at all incorrect. There’s a water supply and drainage, and it’s used for washing. “Washbasin” implies no drainage, so it’s just wrong.
    As for the room, the precedents of “sitting room” and “dining room” suggest “crapping room” as an appropriate name. “Shitting room,” while appealing, would be too easily confused with “sitting room.”

  12. There have to be two so I can ask for directions to the “men’s room” and she can ask where the “ladies’ room” is.

    Or what about “facilities”?

  13. To turn to Michael’s real question, I’d propose that it’s a cognate with “unisex” clothing, meaning not specifically designed or styled for either body type or any gender-specific fashion. I think the word started to be used for facilities and clothes at about the same time– maybe the 70s?

    I don’t think I’ve actually seen the word _on_ an entrance, though. Usually the door has both male and female graphics on it, at least around here.

    1. That’s probably right, though it just pushes the illogicality back one stage. “Anysex” would have been a better departure point for this, but it’s a path-dependent world…

  14. A little over 20 years ago I was involved in working with the Chicago Police Department on the design of a building its new communication system. The officer in charge of the design had a great idea: the men’s and women’s rooms were laid out in a continuous arc, with a room divider separating them. He expected that the system would slowly increase in its percentage of women, so the room divider could be gradually shifted as the number of women increased.

  15. Joking aside, the invention and adoption of the flushing WC, which in turn led to the reinvention of sewers, was enormously important for public health – more than all medical science before say 1900.

  16. I found it disorienting and confusing when I first visited Germany, and found sex-segregated facilities with women attendants in the men’s rooms. Never made much sense.

  17. Michael, you were surprised that the Wikipedia article extended beyond 50 words?

    Geeesh … it has 130 numbered FOOTNOTES!

  18. I recently stayed somewhere that had both a toilet and a bidet. I had never used a bidet before, and I wanted to see whether one actually feels fresher after using one. Apparently, bidets are for urination only. I learned this the hard way. Did feel fresher, though.

    1. My impression is that one uses the toilet first (for whichever) and then the bidet. I like them. But those wetwipes accomplish pretty much the same thing. I don’t know though if they are bad for sewer systems. I assume someone would have said something by now.

      1. Ah, I see we need to do some more international cultural education.
        Bidet is french for “socks and underwear hand laundry”. It’s a great convenience to have that stuff soaking in it and still be able to shave.

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