A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Why do we call it the "bathroom," even when it has no tub?

March 3, 1985

Dear Cecil:

Do you know the origin of the squeamish American attitude regarding, shall we say, "sanitary facilities"? I refer specifically to waste elimination, one of the most important of the human physiological functions. Yet it's swept under the rug, as it were, in a manner suggesting it doesn't even exist. Why is a toilet never called that? Rooms that contain no tub or shower are referred to as "bathrooms." Toilet paper is bath tissue. With no intention of making any alteration to her makeup, a lady visits the "powder room." Or maybe the "vanity." Apartments featuring 1-1/2 baths have one room with a tub but the other has only a toilet. When the astronauts go into space, a vivid description is given of their living quarters and their every move — except one. Maybe it's like Hawkeye once said on M*A*S*H, when asked if the officers had a latrine — oops, I mean bathroom: "No, we just hold it in till we explode."

Cecil replies:

I'm glad you bring this up, F., because there have been startling etymological developments in this area which you Teeming Millions should know about. But first a few facts. Americans certainly aren't the first to use euphemisms to refer to the toilet. According to bathroom historian Frank Muir, the toilet and/or the outhouse have at one time or another been called the House of Honor (by the ancient Israelites), the House of the Morning (by the ancient Egyptians), the garderobe (literally, "cloakroom"), the necessarium, the necessary house, the reredorter (literally, "the room at the back of the dormitory"), the privy (that is, the private place), the jakes, the john, the loo, the W.C. (for water closet), room 100 (in Europe), the lavatory, the closet of ease, and many other things. In addition to euphemisms, needless to say, there is also an abundance of vulgar expressions. Curiously, however, there is no "real" word for the place where one deposits one's bodily wastes. "Toilet," which is now thought of as the "official" term, is itself a euphemism — originally, toilet was the process of dressing, as in, "the lady has just completed her toilet." Before toilet assumed its present meaning in the early twentieth century, the accepted technical term for the john was the vaguely disgusting but still euphemistic "bog-house." We thus have a thing for which there are polite terms and impolite terms, but no simply correct term — a situation which may well be unique in the English language.

Now for the startling developments. You may be aware that certain persons of indifferent breeding refer to the john as the "crapper." You may also be aware that in 1969 British writer Wallace Reyburn published a book entitled Flushed With Pride: The Story of Thomas Crapper, which purported to tell the story of the inventor of the flush toilet. Reyburn followed this up in 1971 with another volume entitled "Bust-Up: The Uplifting Tale of Otto Titzling and the Development of the Bra." The latter effort was obviously a spoof, and it has been widely assumed that the story of Thomas Crapper was a joke as well.

In recent years, however, Ken Grabowski, ace researcher at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, has gone to great lengths to prove that Crapper actually existed. Grabowski has made several trips to England and collected hundreds of documents, including baptismal and death records, photos, magazine writeups about Crapper's plumbing company, advertisements, and so on. Having inspected the evidence, Cecil must say Grabowski makes a compelling case. Thomas Crapper (1837-1910), an English sanitary engineer, apparently founded a plumbing fixture company in London in 1861, and his products became well known throughout the British Isles. While Crapper did not actually invent the flush toilet, he did come up with certain improvements. Moreover, his equipment, with his name prominently displayed, was installed at military barracks used by U.S. troops during World War I. Does this mean that Mr. Crapper's name is the origin of the word "crap"? Not exactly. There was crap before there was Crapper (you should pardon the language), but big-C Crapper quite possibly gave rise to little-C crapper, meaning "toilet." That's the Straight Dope, friends. Accept no substitutes.

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