Molly Keane’s exceptional and darkly comic novel Good Behaviour (1981) has a telling passage on euphemisms for toilet in upper-class Anglo-Irish society a century or so ago. The first paragraph below is not of immediate linguistic interest but supplies context for what follows and no little amusement in its own right.
The narrator, a memorably antisocial creation, reports on her brother’s visit to the hospital when they were both children:
They took Hubert off to Cork that same night, and he had an appendix and tubes and nearly died. I prayed night and day for his recovery and that he might get a reprieve from pain. Constantly with me was the thought of his black hair, peaked on his forehead, smooth on his head as if painted on an egg. As I cleaned out his budgies and his mice his eyes haunted my work – his eyes that never lit and sparkled as blue eyes should, as I knew mine would, if only they were big and blue.
When at last he came home he was a very great disappointment to me. The nuns in the nursing home had spoiled him so that he was really unbearably demanding, sending me in all directions and inventing tasks for me while he lay on a chaise longue under the cedar tree with lemonade constantly at his elbow. In those days thrombosis had not been heard of, and invalids, young and old, were allowed a comfortable rest after their operations. Hubert even had a po in the bushes “in case.” Another thing these kind nuns had done was to teach him to say “the toilet” when he meant the po or the lavatory, which was a vulgarity no one seemed able to straighten out. If circumstances forced Mrs. Brock to mention it she called it the Place. “Have you been to the Place, dear?” or “Have you been?” Or else “Hubert, shouldn’t you run along the passage?” when Hubert was fidgeting frighteningly from foot to foot.
Entire books have been written about the social history of toilets and our many words for them and for what we do in and around them. Polite society prefers that we mask such activities in incongruous concoctions like ‘powdering one’s nose’; restroom, washroom, tearoom, cloakroom and (again) powder room suggest a whole host of things one might do in these rooms that are not what one is actually doing. Even bathroom is purposely coy. Slang meanwhile provides endless terms that delight in the very grubbiness of the same activities.
The po in Keane’s text refers to a chamber pot, from French pot de chambre. I assumed it was an old usage, but the OED dates it only to the late 19thC, labelling it colloquial. The monosyllabic can, head, jakes and john are all popular synonyms for the bathrooms or toilets of different English-speaking communities; bog is one of many terms common in Ireland, but I never adopted it. Jacks I use less than I once did; loo is probably the word I use most often – at least in familiar company. And I will never use little boys’/girls’ room. What do you say?
A few comments about this from Twitter:
Andrew Szmelter: ‘Visitor at work needed a slash so primly asked the receptionist where the cloakroom was. She told him there wasn’t one.’
Orlaith Finnegan: ‘Years ago when I was working in the Frascati centre in Blackrock a posh old lady asked me where the water closet was. It was the first time I heard someone say water closet and didn’t make the connection at all. WC is also used in France.’
Aoife McLysaght: ‘I can still picture the look of disgust that I received in a Californian restaurant when I asked for directions to the toilet. I also still bristle when I recall my 4th class teacher [a nun] humiliating a girl in my class because she asked to go to “the bathroom”. The teacher replied with “Is there a bath in it? Why are you calling it a bathroom?” It was in a very snarky tone. Very mean. Also happened to be one of two girls in the class who was from a Council Estate, so I feel it was just an excuse to pick on her.’
Hooray! Jonathon Green has compiled the timeline of slang terms – his 24th – for all things toilet-related.