As an avid reader of your column, I thought I would write in hopes of obtaining an answer to a perplexing question posed to me at work today. My colleague, Dorothy, said she had to go to the "john," then paused a moment to ask, "Why do they call it a 'john'?" Well?
Michele M., Chicago
This is one of those questions for which there isn’t a good answer, but let’s face it, many is the time I’ve had to cobble together an answer for which there wasn’t a good question. “John,” along with an older term, “cousin John,” is probably related to “the jakes,” which goes back to 16th-century England and apparently is a shortened form of “Jake’s house.” “Jake” was a generic term for a yokel, but that’s about all I can offer in the way of etymological wisdom. Basically, “john” is just another euphemism for an appliance that, as I have pointed out before, is one of the few things for which there is no simple descriptive term in the English language, i.e., one that resorts neither to euphemism nor vulgarity.
The redoubtable Joyce K., a regular contributor to this column, reminds me of the etymology of the word “toilet” that I alluded to earlier. Initially toilet derived from the French toil, cloth, then came to mean a bureau or vanity (which the “toil” covered), then a grooming ritual (“toilette”) that took place at the bureau, then the room in which this took place, and finally the current usage — another piece of furniture in the same room. Mankind’s genius for avoiding queasy realities just slays me sometimes.
From the Teeming Millions
I was quite surprised by your reply to Michele M. Surely some source could have told you it derives from the name of Sir John Crapper, inventor of the modern (and highly unsanitary) flush toilet. Obviously, this is also the source of “crapper” and “crap.”
I mention the unsanitary nature of this beast simply because using it requires one to place one’s naked flesh thereon. Compare the oriental, or “bombsight” device, which is touched only by the soles of your shoes, and at worst can only be accused of transmitting athlete’s foot.
If you want a real toughie to find rhyme or reason for, why do the British refer to this device as the “loo”? I have spent at least 13 years trying to find the source of this word!
— Ray C., Pasadena, California
Why do I get the feeling you people aren’t paying attention? The legendary inventor of the flush toilet was Thomas Crapper, not John. See my earlier column on this subject.
As for “loo,” did it occur to you to look in, say, a book? Just about every etymological dictionary I’ve ever seen has a theory. Frank Muir, bathroom historian par excellence, offers five:
(1) it’s short for “Waterloo,” which in turn is slang for “water closet.”
(2) It’s short for “gardy-loo,” a warning shouted by natives of Edinburgh in the days when it was still customary to empty your slops out the window.
(3) It’s short for “Lady Louisa,” Louisa being the unpopular wife of a 19th-century earl of Lichfield. In 1867 while the couple was visiting friends, two young wiseacres took the namecard off her bedroom door and stuck it on the door of the bathroom. The other guests thereafter began jocularly speaking of “going to Lady Louisa.” In shortened form this eventually spread to the masses.
(4) It comes from the French lieu, “place,” meaning, of course, that place. Some 17th century English architectural plans call the bathroom “le lieu.” Similarly, Germans sometimes call it der Locus.
(5) It comes from the Continental practice of referring to the bathroom as “Room 100” — “100,” when written hastily, looks like “loo.” Take your pick.
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.