Glossary / A closet of ease by any other name

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The Independent Online
A FRIEND once returned home to find a message from his father on his answering machine. 'I was very disturbed,' it said, 'to read the word 'toilet' in your article (1) yesterday. I assume this was changed by an editor without your knowledge.' His father's tone held the offending term at a distance, as if it smelt bad.

The author subsequently confessed that he had indeed written toilet, though he put up a brave rear-guard action: the piece was about graffiti and he wanted that faint tang (2) of the schoolroom, of dank cement and weeping porcelain.

I was reminded of the story when I read a recent ad for Virgin Atlantic's Upper Class service. 'Not only do we give you a limo, in-flight bar and your own television,' the copy boasted, 'you don't have to ask to go to the toilet.'

Chris Palmer, the copywriter for the campaign, says that they, too, wanted the feel of the schoolroom - the 'please, miss' indignity of having to announce your needs to a room full of people.

For all I know, the ad will put bums on seats, but I suspect he has underestimated the social anxieties that surround such words. The false note is highlighted by the cheeky snootiness of 'Upper Class', because anyone who was genuinely upper class would almost certainly bridle at the word 'toilet'.

The overtones of 'lavatory' and 'toilet' are part of the continuing demarcation dispute that characterises English society. Like the difference between 'sofa' and 'settee', it presents a way in which you can plot (and announce) your position. But there is something extra here; after all, sitting on a piece of soft furnishing isn't as private or as hedged with taboo as the act of excretion. The class anxiety of toilet or lavatory is turbo-charged by the embarrassment that surrounds our bodily functions.

The case for lavatory over toilet was once put to me as a matter of English plain-speaking over Frenchified prissiness but the truth is that both words have long histories of euphemism. Lavatory (from the Latin lavatorium, a place for washing) is in essence an antique version of the American 'bathroom'.

The Oxford English Dictionary's first citation for its current use is taken from an 1845 guide to Brighton, which refers to 'the gentleman's room, denominated by a contemporary, a lavatory'; though it has a much longer history as a general word for a washing room. It isn't long before the word transfers itself from the place to the appliance within it, a process shared by 'toilet' and 'closet'.

Toilet has just as long a pedigree (3) (you can't find any substantial grounds for today's snobbery in the history of the words), evolving by a series of progressions from the French word for a piece of cloth used to wrap garments.

From there it becomes the word for a protective shawl, and then, in succession, the articles used in dressing (1662); the action of washing and dressing (1681); a bath room, and finally its modern meaning (1917).

For most of its history toilet has moved in society far more elevated and fashionable than that enjoyed by lavatory, a word with more monastic connections. It took its modern meaning more recently than lavatory but there's not much in it, and certainly not enough to explain the Batemanesque horror with which some people recoil from the word.

Perhaps it is time they were both replaced. By 'privy', say, which at least recognises the human need to retire, or by the wonderful 'closet of ease', which the OED records from 1662. But it probably wouldn't be long before those terms, too, began to carry social overtones.

The Virgin ad gives another clue here. Pay the money, it continues, and it's 'goodbye to . . . those old-fashioned looks . . . every time nature calls'. Nature may well call you to perform but it's culture that dictates what you call it.

1. From the Latin articulus, diminutive of artus, joint. From which a component part, the thing joined.

2. From Old Norse tange, point, spit of land. Tang also meant a sting, hence a penetrating taste or smell.

3. From Anglo-French pie de grue, crane's foot, the name of a mark used to denote succession in genealogies.