So Many Names for the Toilet
So many names, and so much confusion and urban legends.
Yes, john and crapper and loo
but not for the commonly provided reasons.
We will debunk some urban legends, but we will find that the
joking term "the Royal Throne" actually has a basis in history.
We'll also see where we got the terms jordan, jakes,
gong, commode, chamber pot,
stool, commode, and more.
English has many alternatives for the world "toilet"
because of the language's history and the cultures who spoke forms of it.
The language has been based on Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Norman French
early on, and has borrowed heavily from other languages.
People want to avoid mentioning what a toilet is used for.
All of us need them.
All of us use them every day.
Just don't make us mention them!
Euphemisms and circumlocutions abound.
Britain was at the edge of the Roman Empire
from Julius Caesar's invasion in 55 and 54 BCE
until Roman control faded away through the fifth century.
The Romans controlled Britain as far north as
where Emperor Hadrian commanded the construction of a wall
across the narrowest part of Britain in 122 CE.
The Romans built sophisticated toilets which they called by the
Latin name latrina.
Portions of the U.S. military still use the Latin-based word
Here's a Roman military latrine along Hadrian's Wall.
The Latin-based lavatory [1300s — today]
The word lavatory comes from the Latin word lavare,
which led to the Medieval Latin lavatorium.
Forms of "lavatory" were first used around the 14th century,
when Middle English spelled it lauatori, lauetory,
lawatorie and similar.
Lavatory originally mean a bowl or other vessel for washing
the hands or body.
The Christian church used it for a vessel used for ritual cleansing
during the Eucharist or other ceremony.
It became a place with facilities for washing by the end of the 1500s.
Then by the 1870s it became a room or cubicle with one or more toilets
and washing facilities.
It later became a piece of furniture incorporating such a bowl,
with a water supply and a drain.
Lavatory also became a name for
the toilet fixture itself, first cited by the OED in 1903.
On U.S. aircraft the word lavatory is always used.
U.S. airlines and airports are weird.
They never say "now" or "before", they insist on the unnecessarily
longer phrases "at this time" and "prior to".
Here is the lavatory on board a B767-300ER operated
by Delta flying from Atlanta, USA, to Santiago, Chile.
This is one of the mid-cabin lavatories in Economy.
But it's not as if First Class lavatories are really any nicer.
This one was in pretty good shape, given that we were
over 5 hours into a 9 hour flight.
The Latin necessarium (and Victorian reredorter)
Monasteries and abbeys operated largely in Latin.
Dorter was the Latin term for the dormitory, the shared sleeping area.
They had to have toilets, and so that facility was called the
It was a room with a bench down one or two sides with a series of holes
opening into a channel with moving water.
Very similar to a Roman latrine.
Everyone was fine with there being a necessarium
on the back side of the dorter,
until the 1800s when everyone became squeamish.
So, they invented a new word to label the monks' toilet facility.
Latin based, to keep it classy and hide the meaning —
reredorter meaning "behind the dormitory",
This is the large necessarium or reredorter at the
Abbey of Saint Andrews in Scotland.
Here are the remains of the necessarium at
in south-western England.
The abbey was established in the 600s and operated until 1539,
when King Henry VIII had the abbot and two monks executed by hanging in 1539.
The facility was renamed the reredorter in the 1800s.
Latin but not Greek
English borrowed several words from Latin which had originally
borrowed them from Greek.
But the largest category is the neologisms,
which itself is derived from Greek —
for new word.
"Telescope", "telephone", "television", and so on.
"Plumbing" comes from the Latin for "lead", used to make pipes.
But no Greek words about toilets were passed through Latin.
The word αφεδών
meaning a Roman latrine of the time appears twice in the New Testament,
in Matthew 15:17 and Mark 7:19.
It isn't used in classical texts.
But then the Christian Bible was written in Koine Greek,
the common form of the language in that day.
Modern Greek uses
From the Old Norse Stōll to Stool [780s — today]
Neolithic Orkney Plumbing
Norse settlers arrived in the Orkney islands off the north coast of Scotland
in the late 8th and early 9th centuries.
In the 790s Norse raiders sacked Christian monasteries along the coasts
of England and Scotland.
Invasions and peaceful settlement continued into the mid 1000s.
The Norse brought their word stōll,
referring to a small seat.
In modern English it became stool.
Today "stool" refers to a small and simple thing to sit on,
or put your feet up on.
It's the smallest and least consequential thing
you would consider to be furniture.
However, stool and its antecedents have referred to,
literally, seats of power.
Forms of the word are common across Indo-European languages.
Russian uses стол or stol for "table"
and стул or stul for "chair",
with literally royal meaning.
Stolichnaya vodka takes its name from the word for "capital",
referring to the ruler's table.
The Tsar and his ministers would each sit in their own stul
at the Tsar's stol.
Old English used stōl to mean "chair" or "seat" or "throne".
It was the Old English replacement for the Latin cathedra,
the throne of a bishop.
If a bishop, including the Pope or the Bishop of Rome, wanted to
make an official pronouncement, he would sit on his throne and speak
ex cathedra or "from the throne".
That's why a church that's a base or "seat" of the bishop is called
As for toilets, people who could afford it would use a
a wooden box with a hinged lid.
Under that lid was a top surface with a large hole
and a pot below that.
Earthenware for the proletariat, pewter for the nobility and royalty.
Stool of ease was another term for this.
Groom of the King's Close-Stool
Groom of the King's Close-Stool
was the most trusted man in the royal court, and likely the most
influential person outside the royal family.
He maintained and cleaned the royal close-stool,
helped the king clean himself and put on underwear,
and sat and chatted with the king while he used the close-stool.
It sounds like an unpleasant job,
but anyone would want it because of the power it had.
The OED or Oxford English Dictionary cites uses of "close stool" or variants
in inventories from 1410 and 1558.
Shakespeare used "close-stool" or just "stool" in
All's Well that Ends Well,
Love's Labour's Lost, and
Troilus and Cressida.
By the 1500s it had come to also refer to the action of
having a bowel movement —
to "go to stool",
to be "at stool",
And then by the 1590s, fecal matter itself.
From pot de chambre to chamber pot and onward to potty [1060s — today]
The Normans invaded and conquered England in 1066.
The Normans were originally Norse invaders who settled and
came to rule northern France, an area we call Normandy today.
They spoke Norman French, and brought the language to Britain.
What came to be called Anglo-Norman French was spoken in the law courts,
schools, and universities in England.
It was the language of the king and his court until 1400.
Henry IV was the first king to take the oath in English, in 1399,
and his son Henry V was the first to write in English.
And so, the French term pot de chambre
became, eventually, chamber pot.
It was simply a pot that you kept in your chamber or bedroom,
to use during the night.
If you had a close-stool, that would make
the chamber pot far easier and more comfortable to use.
The OED cites its use with the words in the English order,
chamber potte, in 1540 and 1570.
Potty is the diminutive form,
referring to a child's close-stool,
used before they graduate to the adult toilet.
Toilet — Cloth, Toiletries, and the Fixture [1060s — today]
Our modern word toilet
comes from the French toilette,
a word which had little to nothing to do with its current meaning.
Toilette in Middle French referred to a piece
of cloth you might use as a covering for clothing, or for a dressing table.
Like a towel you might drape around your shoulders while shaving or
brushing your teeth, to keep your clothes clean.
That sense was used into the early 1700s.
Or, it could be a wrapping or form a bag or case for clothing,
used into the mid 1800s.
By the 1600s it was appearing in English in various spellings meant
to represent the French pronunciation:
It was also the activity of washing, dressing, or arranging the hair,
as to do one's toilette, or make or perform
or to be at one's toilette.
The OED cites examples from 1790 through 1909 of toilet room
or simply toilet for the room in which one washed and dressed.
As for today's meaning of a fixture into which you urinate or defecate,
typically a large ceramic bowl with a hinged seat and lid,
connected to a sewage system: The OED cites that first being used in 1894.
What has happened?
The French toilette and then toilet
had nothing to do with excretion.
They were about cleaning yourself, getting dressed — the
activity, the equipment and supplies, or the place where you did it.
But people didn't want to say "chamber pot" or other words that
clearly indicated what they were about.
"Toilet" became a vague way to hint at what you were really talking about.
A toilet case
or a toiletries case
a small piece of luggage in which you carried your toiletries.
It became, in the US in the 1920s, a Dopp kit,
named for a popular firm.
In 1940s the term train case appeared.
Then, within a few decades, "toilet" came to be a scandalous word.
Further euphemisms were needed, as we'll see below.
The Middle English jordan [before 1060s — 1750s]
Both alchemists and physicians used a clear glass flask called a
matula in Latin.
It had a roughly spherical bulb and a narrower cylindrical neck.
Physicians used it for uroscopy,
diagnosing a patient by visually examining their urine.
Judging by Sir Thomas Wriothesley's drawing of the deathbed of
King Henry VII in 1509, uroscopy was a popular medical test.
Three physicians holding pee bottles stand around the king's bed.
The deathbed of Henry VII in 1509, as drawn by Sir Thomas Wriothesley.
From the left on the near side of the bed are:
a physician holding a urine bottle,
William FitzWilliam holding a staff and closing the King's eyes,
a physician holding a urine bottle,
Hugh Denys, the Groom of the King's Close-Stool,
and another physician holding a urine bottle.
Here's the Duke of Normandy in bed with physicians examining his pee.
The Old English term was
in Middle English, when Gregory Chaucer used it.
through the 1500s,
Shakespeare used "jordan"
in Henry IV part 1
Henry IV part 2.
Shakespeare's use of "jordan"
The OED cites its use to refer to a chamber-pot instead of an
instrument of alchemy or medicine, a use it cites as "vulgar or dialect".
That's exactly the way Shakespeare used it in
Henry IV Part 1 and Henry IV Part 2,
by two freight carriers in a flea-plagued inn
and by Falstaff in a tavern, respectively.
Elsewhere in Henry IV Part 2 Shakespeare has Falstaff
receiving a report on the doctor's uroscopy of his "water".
But he doesn't use the scientific or medical terminology.
Falstaff and his page with Falstaff's chamberpot and urine,
The Hollow Crown.
The makers of the miniseries had the page bring the urine back,
instead of simply relaying the results.
Here is The Dropsical Woman, painted in 1663
by the Dutch painter Gerrit Dou (1613-1675),
from the Musée du Louvre in Paris.
I saw it when it was on loan to the National Gallery of Art
in Washington in 2017.
The physician is holding a matula or jordan
to the light to examine her urine.
The Middle and Early Modern English jakes [early 1400s — 1920s]
The word jakes had become a word for a toilet
by the early 1400s.
The OED cites its use in 1432.
It came from the male name, Jacques in French,
or the genitive or possessive of "Jakke".
So, roughly, "Jack's" meant "toilet".
Shakespeare wrote during the Great Vowel Shift,
a series of changes
in the pronunciation of English spanning roughly 1400 to 1700.
That was the same time that English spelling began to be standardized.
The Great Vowel Shift made for moving targets,
which is why English spelling often poorly represents how a word sounds.
Shakespeare's use of "jakes"
Before the shift,
the long A sound in "face" or "mate"
was pronounced like the "A" in "father" or "spa".
And so, "a jakes" was pronounced the same as the name of
the Greek hero, "Ajax".
Shakespeare used that to comic effect in
Love's Labour's Lost,
Troilus and Cressida, and
James Joyce was using the term "jakes" as late as 1922 in Ulysses.
It was also used in phrases like "jakes house" and "jakes door".
A jakesman or jakes farmer was someone who cleaned
out cess pits.
This was a slightly newer term for a gong farmer.
The Old English and Middle English gong [before 1000 — 1700s]
The Old English and Middle English word
gang or gong
meant privy or latrine.
The OED cites compounds including gonghole,
and gong man.
The cited examples go back into Old English, used from the Anglo-Saxon
settlers of the mid 400s up through the Norman Invasion and the
transition to Early Middle English.
They cite non-historical uses up through 1702.
Ernest Hemingway wrote about the gong-farmers of 1920s Paris in
A Moveable Feast.
From "A Good Café on the Place Saint-Michel",
its first chapter:
Café des Amateurs was the cesspool of the
Rue Mouffetard, that wonderful narrow crowded market
street which led into the Place Contrescarpe.
The squat toilets of the old apartment houses,
one by the side of the stairs on each floor
with the two cleated cement shoe-shaped elevations
on each side of the aperture so a locataire
would not slip, emptied into cesspools which were
emptied by pumping into horse-drawn tank wagons at night.
In the summer time, with all windows open, we would hear
the pumping and the odor was very strong.
The tank wagons were painted brown and saffron color
and in the moonlight when they worked the
rue Cardinal Lemoine their wheeled,
horse-drawn cylinders looked like Braque paintings.
A modern pissoir
As they are seulement pour l'urine,
they have a specialized name.
Pas de numéro deux, c'est interdit
Medieval garderobe and wardrobe [Middle Ages — 1500]
Richard Lionheart finished
in 1198, and the castle overlooking the Seine became his favorite residence.
He was fighting King Phillip II of France for the control of Normandy.
He is said to have picked up some design ideas from castle he had
seen in Syria during the Crusades.
A medieval castle would have a garderobe,
a toilet built as a small booth projecting from the outermost wall.
The garderobe had a seat with a hole simply opening down
the outer wall of the castle.
The word garderobe only appeared in Latin and Anglo-Norman.
The only toilets in medieval European cities, beyond chamberpots,
were garderobes typically built on bridges.
These were typically multi-user facilities,
one long bench with holes opening to the river below.
Middle English modified the word into wardrobe,
with OED citing examples from 1325 through 1500.
By 1440 wardrobe was instead being used for a room in which
you stored clothing, armor, and other valuable objects,
and later as a cabinet with that purpose.
In the Tudor period of 1485–1603 in England, there were at least
13 houses of easement in the country.
These were the bridge-mounted garderobes with a new English name.
A trip along the
à la Loire
Now Britain has lost its bridge-mounted garderobes,
but they live on as pissoirs in small cities.
Here we're in Briare, ready to start a
boat trip along the
Canal Latéral à la Loire
through the Burgundy region.
This bridge crosses a connection between the
Briare Canal and the Canal Latéral à la Loire.
The town has built a pissoir at one end of the
canal, draining directly into the canal.
The facility also includes a squat toilet,
which is plumbed into the town's sewage system.
Urine in the canal is fine.
Feces would cause health problems.
British loo [late 19th century — today]
French has used lieux d'aisances
at least since 1640 to describe toilet facilities.
Shortened to just lieux or, in the singular,
lieu, it was being borrowed directly at least
By the 1890s it seems to have been in use as loo
in England, much more often after 1940.
It has remained a primarily British euphemism.
To debunk another urban legend:
It is not
derived from the supposed gardyloo,
from the French Gardez l'eau, meaning "Look out for the water",
a warning about people throwing chamber pot contents out windows.
Modern crapper [late 1920s — today]
The word crapper
began appearing in the late 1920s.
The OED's first citation is from 1927.
A man named Thomas Crapper was born in England in 1836.
He became a plumber and then an industrialist,
founding a company selling plumbing products.
Thomas Crapper & Company operated England's first showroom of
toilets, bathtubs, sinks and other bathroom fittings.
Crapper died in
His company still operates, producing the world's most accurate
Victorian and Edwardian sanitaryware.
The most common version of the urban legend
is that U.S. servicemen stationed in England during
World War I saw "Thomas Crapper & Co" on toilet cisterns
(that is, water tanks) and this led to Army slang:
"I'm going to the crapper."
No, I'm afraid that
Thomas Crapper's name had nothing to do with
crap becoming a slang term for excrement,
or crapper becoming a slang term for a toilet.
Crap dates back to Middle English.
It has generally had a meaning of "rejected or left matter,
residue, dregs, dust", and only more recently came to be
related to excrement.
The word crapper didn't appear until the late 1920s,
ten years after the war.
Early citations are almost entirely in the U.S.
Early Middle English to Modern john [1930s — today]
The forename John has common in English
since early Middle English times, soon after the Norman Invasion,
and extremely common since the mid 1200s.
The evolution was:
a variant of
literally meaning "YHWH is gracious".
Post-classical Latin Joannes and later Johannes.
Old French and Middle French Johan, Jan,
Middle English Johan,
then Iohan through the 1500s,
and Iohn through the 1600s.
Eventually it became John in later forms of English.
It remains a popular name, and has served as a generic name
for a man —
"every man John",
a generic form of address especially for
men of lower rank or foreign origin,
a police officer, or the client of a prostitute.
By the 1930s, especially in the U.S., john
became a slang term for a toilet.
The OED's first citation is from 1931.
John Harington and the re-invention of the flush toilet
However, the slang term john does not
who re-invented the flush toilet in England in 1596.
That was 335 years before john was first reported as a slang
name for a toilet!
The Many Meanings of commode [1750s — today]
The word commode has a confusingly
broad range of meanings.
In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries it referred
to a woman's headdress.
That commode was a tall wire framework with silk, lace,
or other fabrices, with streamers hanging down over the shoulders.
Its name was probably satirical, because it would have been
extremely uncommodius, meaning inconvenient.
Then through the middle half of the eighteenth century it was used for a
woman you could hire to procure a prostitute or an illicit sexual partner.
Of interest to us, by the 1750s it was used for a chest of drawers
or cabinet for use in the bedroom or drawing-room.
Then by 1802 it was used for a piece of furniture enclosing or
concealing a chamber pot.
It might be a place where you stored your chamber pot,
or it might be a close-stool.
Or, it might be a cabinet associated with washing.
Metropolitan Museum of Art
in New York City has some period rooms,
each with a set of furniture, other furnishings,
and wall panels and ceilings removed from
large homes of the European upper class.
One of these is the Lauzun Room,
taken from the Hôtel Lauzun in Paris,
at 17 quai d'Anjou on the Île Saint-Louis.
Below, we are standing in
Claude Monet's bathroom.
And yes, he really had paintings by
Paul Cezanne and other now-famous
impressionists hanging in his bathroom.
The marble-topped cabinet in the far corner is
his bathroom sink.
There's a potted plant in the sink now.
This cabinet used for washing might be called a
Especially so if Claude stored his chamber pot in the lower section.
By the mid 20th century commode
had come to be a generic term for toilet,
especially in North America.
It is also used now in a health care setting.
A bedside commode is useful for patients who have difficulty
moving between the bed and a toilet.
The Euphemisms: restroom and bathroom and washroom [1880 — today]
Starting in the mid to late 1800s, people began looking for alternatives,
talk about the toilet without using the word, especially in the U.S..
Bath-room appeared by 1685 to mean a room where you could bathe.
But soon after 1880 bathroom began to be used
in North America as a euphemism for the room with the toilet,
or the toilet itself.
Wash room appeared by 1768, referring to a place for doing laundry.
By 1854 wash-room and
washroom appeared in North America,
especially in Canada, as a room for washing oneself, often with a toilet.
Rest-room appeared by 1856 as a room set aside for rest and
relaxation in a workplace or public building.
Later, at least by the mid 20th century, restroom
became a U.S. term for a toilet facility in a workplace or public building.
Someone in the U.S. would say that they have a
bathroom in their home, but not a
lets you track the changing use of words and phrases across the
Google Books corpus.
Restroom and washroom have never been used much in books.
They're more for signs in public buildings, or for asking directions.
Bathroom however, as a room but also the activity
of using the bathroom, zoomed past toilet in 1980.
Lower-cost hotels in France often have
toilette au couloir — the toilet is down the hall.
In the Hôtel du Palais in Rouen it's in a little cabin on a
balcony in the central atrium.
The French have taken to using an abbreviation of a British ephemism.
I suppose it's because the many visitors from Britain.
Restrooms in France are often labeled W.C.,
an abbreviation for Water Closet.
So, does water closet refer to the cistern, the flush tank?
Or to the entire toilet?
Or to the room containing the toilet?
No one wants to discuss it.
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