The place for toilet euphemisms

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:

molly keane - good behaviour - abacus book coverThey 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.

69 Responses to The place for toilet euphemisms

  1. Mrs Fever says:

    I wonder if “potty” is an American euphemism. Having recently been in the company of several small children, I found my ears ringing with the repitition of the word. “Do you have to go potty?” and “Go potty first!” (before going outside, getting in the car, etc) came out of the adults’ mouths every seven seconds, and “I have to go potty!!!” punctuated by running feet was an oft-heard refrain.

    • Chips Mackinolty says:

      In my childhood “potty” was a euphemism in Australia, not sure if it still is though wouldn’t be surprised

    • Stan Carey says:

      Potty is common among children in Ireland too, and with parents in children’s company. The OED’s first citation for it, in 1937, is from a British publication, but it does note that the verb phrase to go potty is chiefly a US usage.

      • Mrs Fever says:

        It’s an interesting distinction. “Potty” as a noun seems to be both ‘place’ and ‘thing’. “What’s that room?” can be answered as “That’s the potty.” Likewise, the object ‘toilet’ is ‘potty’.

        Then, of course, there is a potty mouth, which is what gets your mouth washed out with soap.

      • Stan Carey says:

        As a young child the phrase I remember using and hearing was use the potty. It’s possible there were others, like maybe fill the potty or go to the potty, but go potty was not among them, and sounds American to me (or a different phrase altogether, in the sense ‘go crazy’).

        There’s also potty watch, prison slang for the task of checking prisoners’ waste for contraband.

      • cathyby says:

        “The potty” was the small plastic pot yoke small children used when their mountaineering skills were not developed to use the toilet, in my youth. If an adult said they needed to use the potty, the resulting mental images would be hilarious.

        As to main question, “toilet” or “loo”. I prefer jacks, but not everyone knows what it means, and this is an occasion where long explanations are…uncomfortable.

      • Stan Carey says:

        Cathy: That’s my usual current association with the word too, but potty for me can also be a porcelain pot like the one my sister and I used at my grandmother’s house when we stayed there as children, saving us a wander downstairs in the middle of the night.

  2. Chips Mackinolty says:

    In Australia? Bog and dike are most common, though of course there is the shithouse (which is also used to describe something as less than good, as in “I feel shithouse”), from which the further phrase “built like a brick shithouse” for someone who is big and solidly built.

    There is also “the can”.

    There are a few rural versions. The “long drop” for a two or three metre hole below a toilet seat which would last a few years depending on usage. One way of extending that usage was to dump some kerosene or petrol down the long drop and set it alight: thus becoming a “flaming fury” (also, perhaps apocryphally, the result of methane build up and lighting a cigarette while sitting on the can).

    Closer to towns and cities, we had septic systems, which led to “seppo” or “septic tanks”, rhyming slang for citizens of the United States, ie Yanks.

    Further, of course, we have had neologisms from Barry Humphreys along the lines of “pointing Percy at the porcelain” and “talking to the white telephone” (for vomiting in a toilet).

  3. kim881 says:

    I loved Good Behaviour and also enjoyed Time After Time. Molly Keane was wickedly witty and crafted her novels in a beautifully relaxed way – you hardly notice her presence. She wasn’t afraid of writing about anything, including toilet etiquette and ‘the love that dare not speak its name’. In a way, she was ahead of her time. I also say ‘loo’ but as for ‘the ladies’ when out.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Good Behaviour was my first encounter with Molly Keane, but I definitely plan to read more of her. I felt similarly, that she was ahead of her time: the tone and voice felt as if they might have been thoroughly contemporary.

      Re the ladies: I would quite often say the gents in more public or formal contexts.

  4. kim881 says:

    Should say ask for ‘the ladies’… It’s a bit dark in here and my keyboard has grubby white letters on black keys!

  5. Chips Mackinolty says:

    I forgot the classic Australian term: “the dunny” … no idea of its origin

    • Stan Carey says:

      Dunny is short for dunnaken (also dunegan, dunnakin, dunnick, dunnigan, dunnikan, dunniken, dunyken), according to Jonathon Green’s excellent Chambers Slang Dictionary. This in turn derives from danna + ken, where ken refers to a house or room and danna is a late-18C–mid-19C word for excrement; a danna drag was a nightman’s or dustman’s cart.

      • Chips Mackinolty says:

        Ah the “nightman”! Until I was about 15 we had an outhouse (another term) in the back yard which was emptied every Sunday night. An annual ritual was to give him half a dozen long necks of beer each Christmas. After all, he had a shithouse job.

      • Nancy Friedman says:

        And here I thought it was from “dinna ken,” as in “I don’t know what to call it.”

  6. litgaz says:

    Many years ago I read somewhere that a Welsh name for the toilet translated into English as ‘the little house’ (presumably because one left the big house to go outside and down the garden to the smaller one?) and I’ve liked ‘little house’ as a euphemism ever since.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I’ve never used the little house, and I don’t remember ever hearing it (though I’ve come across it written down), but I rather like it too. Maybe the Prairie connotations help.

    • The Welsh euphemism for ‘toilet’ is a literal translation of “little house” (tŷ bach) the standard word you’d see for example on public signs would be “toiledau” (toilets).
      There are other Welsh euphemisms for ‘toilet’ but the common North Wales dialect one is “lle chwech” which translates as “six place” usually explained as referring to workplace toilets where you’d commonly have six seats in a row?

  7. catteau says:

    I recently moved from the US to Canada, where I surprisingly quickly (at least I was surprised) adopted “the washroom” instead of “the bathroom.” Of course the words mean pretty much the same thing, but now “the bathroom” sounds crude to me and “the washroom” much more polite. No logic to that, for sure!

    I’d rather just do it as the French do. You gotta go? You ask “où sont les toilettes?” No beating around the bush pretending you’re going to wash, bathe, powder your nose, or anything else.

    • Stan Carey says:

      No explicit logic, but perhaps an implicit social one. It’s funny how the what and why of lexical taboos change over time and place. I would use bathroom fairly often, and in almost any context, but washroom has no real currency around here.

  8. astraya says:

    And po-faced is something completely different!

  9. I just stick with “toilet”, as do most people in these parts as far as I can tell. (My impressions are very different from Chip’s — his “most common” are my “very rare” — but I sense we come from very different demographics.)

    I only hear “potty” used for actual potties, i.e. the plastic things used by children still in training. It would be a remarkable thing if an adult (or even a school-aged child) remembers being young enough to use one.

    I remember frustrating arguments on the Internet — the kind where people will do anything other than stop and listen to the other side — about whether “toilet” is a euphemism. Answer: no. Sure, it used to be a euphemism, but that is history; the pertinent fact is that it is not one now.

    I also remember pooing on the ground on a class visit to another school because I was too embarrassed to ask where the toilets were. That’s mild social phobias for you. (Also, it turned out not to be as secluded a location as I thought. Let the rest of the story play out in your mind.)

    • catteau says:

      Adrian, where are “these parts?” These variations are geographic, it’s interesting to know where each person is!

      • Australia — specifically Adelaide and the relatively nearby (two hour drive) country town where I was brought up.

        “Loo” is quite common, and I’d put “dunny” at a distant third, but each of those brings to mind a stereotype of the sort of person likely to use them.

        I don’t count “bathroom”, because it’s hard to separate the euphemistic from the literal. After all, people go to the bathroom to shave, brush their teeth, wash their hands, and for other purposes.

      • Stan Carey says:

        I also say toilet sometimes, though not in contexts such as asking people I don’t know (well, or at all) for its location, where I think I default to bathroom. Aoife’s comment, which I’ve added in an update to the post, shows the potential pitfalls of using the word with strangers.

      • catteau says:

        Of course if you ask for the bathroom in France, they’ll think you’re quite odd, as that would be a room with a bathtub in it. Same in Indonesia – but there people take baths many times a day, and it might not actually be that odd to go to someone’s house & ask to take a bath. At least that’s my impression, that it was like that the first time I was there (a long time ago).

  10. Frank Norman says:

    I think it’s originally a US usage, but in the Philippines it is common to call it the ‘Comfort Room’ or ‘CR’. Seeing references to CR mystified me for a while.

    In Geordie, they call it the nettie. In the early days of the Internet, when netiquette was much talked about and promoted, this caused some mirth amongst my colleagues from Newcastle.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Comfort room and CR are very vague, and promise more than might be provided! Nettie is quite charming; I think I’ve only ever heard it on TV.

      • catteau says:

        @ Stan – Dear me, one of my few Australian friends is named Nettie! I don’t think she’d like her name being used to refer to a room containing a toilet!

        @ Frank – where’s Geordie? or what?

      • Stan Carey says:

        Geordie refers to someone from the Tyneside area in northeast England, and to its dialect. The Wikipedia page has a brief note on netty, among other features.

  11. Chips Mackinolty says:

    @ Orlaith Finnegan. The WC sign is still common in Italy (though the letter W is almost non-existent in Italy apart from a handful of imported words), and until 20 years ago it was OK to ask for “il gabinetto” (the cabinet): fully spelt out “il gabinetto di decenza” (the cabinet of decency!). These days, “il bagno”, the bathroom, works pretty universally, though there are many dialect terms, such a lu cessu in Sicilian.

    @ catteau and @adrian for regional/demographic variations in Australia, I was brought up in Sydney but have lived most of my life in the NT. I imagine the words I have put forward, then, may be Sydney terms, though “loo” is common, I agree.

    “The pisser” is also not uncommon

  12. elizdanjou says:

    English Canadians usually use “washroom,” something I had to learn when I immigrated from the U.S., where “bathroom” was standard, at age 10.

    A neighbour of mine who grew up in the 50s in rural Nova Scotia refers to a chamber pot as a “po-po.” (I wonder if the doubling is because she mostly heard/used the term in childhood, when her grandmother used one to avoid a trip downstairs in the night. Modern grandmas in Canada who have need of a bedside item tend to call it a “commode.” I rather like that—it *accommodates* one, after all!)

    Canadian children definitely often “go potty” without the aid of prepositions, though “potty” is also understood to mean either the little plastic seat many toddlers use or, sometimes, also the actual grown-up porcelain fixture—though in some households, the two items are distinguished, as in, “Why don’t you try using the toilet like a big boy instead of your potty now that you are three, Aiden?”

    I like “jakes”—-hadn’t heard of it. What’s the etymology?

    • Amy Stoller says:

      I’m not certain of the etymology of “jakes,” but it dates back to the 16th century, and Shakespeare made “punishing” use of in it naming one of his characters Jaques and another Ajax.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Po-po definitely seems like a child’s term, and goes well with the reduplicative words for what one does in a po-po.

      The etymology of jakes is uncertain. The American Heritage Dictionary and OED both suggest it may be from a proper name such as Jack, Jake, or Jacques. Chambers Slang Dictionary by Jonathon Green (aka Mister Slang, commenting below) goes into more detail, but it remains speculative, and Nares’ idea seems highly unlikely to me:

      ? jack’s or jack’s place; using Standard English jack as generic for a man. Note synonymous 1930s+ Virginia dialect jack-house; note also Nares (1822): ‘Its etymology is uncertain, unless we accept the very bad pun of Sir John (Harington), who derives it (in jest indeed) from an old man who, at such a place, cried out age akes, age akes, meaning that age causes aches.’

      • I’ve come across “jakes” in medieval period fiction, in which context it is a primitive toilet overhanging the moat of a castle, and apparently can be used for the medieval equivalent of bugging your room with microphones. That’s all I know.

      • Chips Mackinolty says:

        I know this is an impossible rhyming slang etymology, but the statement “I’m going off for snakes” refers in Australia for going off for a piss [more likely referring to the slang also for penis]

  13. misterslang says:

    Slang offers 202 such synonyms at last count. Many euphemistic too, but far from all. As for the French, they may be blunt, but Simenon at least goes for ‘le petit endroit’, the little place

    • Stan Carey says:

      The little house, the little place, the little boys’ or girls’ room – I suppose the diminutive serves to take the harm out of referring to it (as well as indicating the room’s relative size).

  14. astraya says:

    One of the first words I learned in Korean was ‘hwajangsil’, which is translated as ‘toilet’ in phrasebooks. A long time later I found out that ‘hwajang’ is ‘make-up’, so ‘hwajangsil’ is, literally, ‘the make-up room’, even for men. Perhaps ‘powder room’ would be slightly more idiomatic English.
    I would unhesitatingly use ‘toilet’ in any circumstance. Once I was having lunch at restaurant with an American colleague who had a earthy bordering on crude sense of humour, and his Korean wife. I was caught short (another euphemism) and asked the waitress (in English) “Where is the toilet?”. My colleague was utterly horrified, and said “I can’t believe you said that”. I asked “What would you say?” and he said “The bathroom”. I said “I don’t want to have a bath, I want to go to the toilet”. And there’s no bath in a ‘bathroom’ anyway. In fact there was no (Western-style) toilet, either, only a traditional-style squat-toilet (what is the faecal equivalent of ‘urinal’?), so I had to make a mad dash to my apartment – and only just made it.
    When I was on a bus tour of Europe, the tour guide referred to ‘the magic room’.

  15. declan says:

    in our family ( Ireland, Dublin, sixties) my granny referred to the Gazundah.
    On asking what on earth this was, the answer was: It’s called that because it ‘goes under the bed’ – a chamber pot

  16. I don’t think I’ve seen anyone mention “khazi” yet which you do hear in Liverpool despite it being more associated with older Cockney slang originating from London.

  17. Oisín says:

    Being treated for a bowel condition in hospital, I remember being initially amused by the nurses’ regular question, ‘Have the bowels moved?’ Thinking about it, there seemed to be quite a gulf in formality between this and alternatives like ‘Have you done a poo?’. Is there anything in between? (‘Have you been to the bathroom / toilet?’ is obviously not specific enough in this case.)

  18. pep says:

    in genoese the word for ‘place’, leugo -in other ligurian dialects written lögu- is used in this sense, too

    but it is a humorous slang term, not just an euphemism

  19. Dermot Ryan says:

    Funnily enough, “toilet” being regarded as too brusque is unfaithful to its own euphemistic odyssey.

    Toilet from Tela (web) in Latin becomes applied to the lace under a water jug, used for washing, which becomes then applied to the jug, then to the room where such washing takes place, then to the convenience that ends up located in that room.

    Spanish has “el wáter” too, to continue the discussion of “water closets” in other languages.

  20. Dermot Ryan says:

    As for jacks, here’s what I assume is an old appearance from King Lear:

    Thou whoreson zed, thou unnecessary letter!—My lord, if you will give me leave, I will tread this unbolted villain into mortar and daub the wall of a jakes with him.—Spare my gray beard, you wagtail?

  21. […] last time I wrote about euphemisms on Sentence first, it was to share commentary in Molly Keane’s novel Good Behaviour on the many ways to refer to the toilet without mentioning […]

  22. […] Less insidiously it occurs in everyday discussion of human excretion: at the Great Exhibition in 1851 almost a million people first ‘spent a penny’ to use […]

  23. […] into Keane’s writing: Previous posts on Sentence first look at the treatment of euphemisms for the toilet and the stomach in her […]

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