A euphemism is an innocuous word or expression used in place of one that is deemed offensive, suggestive, unpleasant or not considered a part of polite conversation. Some euphemisms are to convey a message or meaning, while avoiding a topic that may be considered taboo. Some were coined with an intention of amusement while others are simply bland, inoffensive terms for concepts that the user wishes to downplay.
I started writing this post to track down the history of the toilet. I recently visited with a classmate from college. While reminiscing about our college days, we recounted a weekend at the family farm house of one of our other classmates. The farm did not have “indoor plumbing”. The water pump was outside as was the outhouse – or privy if one would prefer a euphemism. The story put me on the trail of toilet’s etymological lineage. I thought I would encounter an array of words such as “crapper”, “john” or such. Turns out even the word “toilet ” is a euphemism.
On a side note, the satirist Wallace Reyburn, notable source of many urban legends, wrote a fictional biography of a real person, Thomas Crapper, an English plumber and businessman. He founded Thomas Crapper & Co in London, a plumbing equipment company. Crapper held nine patents, three of them for water closet improvements (did you notice the euphemism?). The company owned the world’s first bath, toilet and sink showroom in King’s Road. Crapper was noted for the quality of his products and received several royal warrants.
Not surprising is that “toilet” entered the English language from French. It just sounds like a French word. Specifically, it comes from the Middle French word “toile,” (and its diminutive “toilettet”) meaning “cloth” or “hunting net.” I suspect that part is surprising as it is not so obvious a transition. English speakers borrowed the word in the 16th century, and eventually settled on the spelling toilet while still making use of toilette in the realm of grooming. The word was originally used for a wrapper or covering for clothes and later for a cloth put over the shoulders while dressing the hair or shaving.
From the “shoulder cloth” sense, toilet came to refer first to a cloth covering a dressing table (or vanity) then to the articles on the table, then to the table itself. Next, a more abstract meaning developed, as the word was applied to the whole process of washing, grooming, and dressing, especially at the beginning of the day or for a special occasion.
In the late 18th century, the word toilet was transferred to the room where the grooming and washing occurred. In America, the room was most often one that included facilities for bathing, and when the water closet—which in the 1700s referred to a room with a fixture for defecation and urination capable of being flushed, or to the fixture itself—was introduced into houses that could afford one, it was typically placed in the bathroom or toilet room. In the late 19th century, the word toilet was transferred from the room to the fixture itself.
You probably did not need to know all this, but now you know.
I will probably return to the topic of euphemisms. It is bursting at the seams with potential articles. That was a euphemism for the road…. which is a euphemism. I’ll stop now.
Many thanks! Good laughs after a long travel day.
You can find one of the original “Crappers” in the underground tour of Seattle!