Amusing Monday: the true meaning of toiletry

The following was one of the more popular “Amusing Monday” entries this year. It was first posted in October. Be sure to click over to the Chive gallery of restroom signs. I’ll return from vacation on Thursday.

“The flush toilet, more than any single invention, has ‘civilized’ us in a way that religion and law could never accomplish.” ― Thomas Lynch, “The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade”

In this country, we generally call them public “restrooms,” these places to go for relief involving bodily excretions. I’ve heard them called “washrooms” in Canada. Some people call them “bathrooms,” even when they have no tubs. But, obviously, their primary function is neither resting, nor washing, nor bathing.


The English language seems a bit squeamish about labeling this place we all need to visit at times. Even before running water was common, we would venture to the “outhouse.” OK, so it was “out” there someplace, but it was hardly a house.

The word “toilet” originated not from the device used to eliminate waste nor from the room where this device was located. It came from the French toile, the word for “cloth,” which was draped over a lady’s or gentleman’s shoulders when their hair was being dressed, as explained by a Wikipedia. Eventually, the entire ensemble of the dressing table, mirror, powders and brushes came to be known as the toilette. As the article states:

“In the 19th century, apparently first in the United States, the word was adapted as a genteel euphemism for the room and the object as we know them now, perhaps following the French usage cabinet de toilette, much as “powder-room” may be coyly used today, and this has been linked to the introduction of public toilets — for example on railway trains, which required a plaque on the door.

“Vestiges of the original meaning continue to be reflected in terms such as ‘toiletries,’ ‘eau de toilette’ and ‘toiletry bag.’”

As a child, I remember being totally confused by the term “toilet water,” defined as “a scented liquid with a high alcohol content used in bathing or applied as a skin freshener.” (The Free Dictionary) My mom used the stuff, and I could never figure out why she preferred water from a toilet over a nice cologne.

As time went on, it appears the word “toilet” must have lost its genteel nature, as it now seems somewhat coarse to say, “I must go to the toilet.” Better, I suppose, than to invoke the name of an early entrepreneur of the flush toilet — one Thomas Crapper of London. I feel sorry for the poor bloke, whose name has become associated with things we would rather not mention.

Would you like to learn more about the words used to describe the private room that nobody wants to mention? “The Straight Dope,” a website that addresses all kinds of questions, wrote a concise treatise on the subject in 2009, explaining euphemisms such as “john,” “ladies’ room,” “latrine,” “loo,” and many others.

Then there are the signs — some humorous, some risqué — used to direct men in one door and women in another. “The Chive” website has collected 14 of these directional signs, including the one on this page.

I’ll leave you with two quotes related to this topic:

“Then came the time for the evening visit to the toilet, for which, in all likelihood, you had waited, all atremble, all day. How relieved, how eased, the whole world suddenly became! How the great questions all simplified themselves at the same instant—did you feel it?”
― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “The Gulag Archipelago”

“We found the bathrooms, which were labeled ‘Aliens’ and ‘Femaliens.’
‘Finally,’ I said to J.Lo. ‘Here’s a bathroom you’re allowed to use.”

― Adam Rex, “The True Meaning of Smekday”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Before you post, please complete the prompt below.

Is water a solid or a liquid at room temperature?