The purpose of World Toilet Day is, of course, to highlight how many people in the world lack access to private or safe basic toilet facilities. That aim is very laudable.
And talking of ‘aim’ brings to mind that sign you might encounter, for example, in a twee B&B — I shouldn’t, I know, because it’s puerile and tasteless, but why change the habit of a lifetime? — directed at male micturators: We aim to please. You aim, too, please.
But I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t, instead, want to plumb the depths of the word’s back passage, I mean backstory – which, as it turns out, is rather illuminating.
First, though, here’s a riddle to set your neurons a-twinkle: what’s the connection between toilets and posh wallpaper?
If English is going down the toilet, as some believe, it’s usually the Yanks who are to blame. And, unsurprisingly perhaps, they are responsible for the latest twist in the very long story of a word that’s been running and running since the sixteenth century.
Once upon a (long long) time (ago), rather than referring to the
bathroom, loo, smallest room, privy, jakes, thunder-box, garderobe, house of easement, crapper, bog, khazi, etc., (odd how many of those slang terms are British — does it reflect a national scatological obsession?)
toilet meant ‘A piece of cloth used as a wrapper or covering for clothes.’
‘You’re kidding me!’
Yeah, no, really.
How that shift happened is a long story, best told by reverse time travel. So, follow me boldly round the u-bend of etymology. On our cloacal journey we’ll see how a word can constantly morph as speakers give it new meanings, so that it wouldn’t recognize itself even if it found itself in its soup.
That journey gives us a hopefully easy-to-read timeline. And I trust you won’t think me too anal-retentive in going through all this. Or, indeed, that all that follows is pure bovine scatology.
The dates that follow are the first recorded uses of the word in the meaning defined, according to the OED. Quotations are added for literary or historical interest.
In incarnations 4, 5, and 6 the pronunciation would have been /twɑːˈlɛt/, imitating the French /twalɛt/. And many of the word’s earlier meanings seem to have been borrowed from the Protean meanings of the French word. Several of the examples in the OED are from translations, illustrating the word’s original frogginness.
Note, too, the folk etymology in the 1803 example of category 7, and the sort of naïve phonetic rendering in the 1682 example under section 8.
- 1894 – “receptacle for you know what.”
I saw him sitting on the toilet with all his clothes on. N.Y. Court of Appeals: Rec. & Briefs 19 Dec. (1897) 134
- 1886 – “room or building.”
1886 He says the English railways are improving all the time… No toilets are provided, which make [sic] long distance traveling very injurious to the health. Kane (Pa.) Leader 7 Oct. 2/2
1959 Such a gentleman..always pretended not to see you if he met you coming out of the toilet. S. Gibbons Pink Front Door xviii. 222
- 1790 – “A dressing room (in later use esp. one equipped with washing facilities).”
1819 There is the closet, there the toilet. Byron, Don Juan: Canto I cliii. 79
1978 Gradually the room where one attended to personal grooming or ‘made one’s toilette’ came to be called just the toilet. Verbatim, Sept. 5/2
- 1752 – “Chiefly in form toilette. Manner or style of dressing; dress, costume. Also (as a count noun): a dress or costume, a gown. Now arch. and rare.”
1821 His toilette had apparently cost him some labour, for his clothes..were of the newest fashion, and put on with great attention. Scott, Kenilworth I. iii. 50
1936 Nance..had suffered such a ruffling of her toilet that a couple of hairpins trailed across one of her ears. J. C. Powys, Maiden Castle ix. 450
- 1688 – “Chiefly in form toilette. The reception of visitors by a lady during the concluding stages of her toilet, esp. fashionable in the 18th cent.”
1688 For indeed people never go thither to make their Court, nor do they attend at the Sultana’s Toilets [Fr. Toillettes]. J. Phillips, translation of Du Vignau Turkish Secretary 51
1786 I am forced to deny all admission to my toilette, as it has never taken place without making me too late. Fanny Burney, Diary 19 Aug. (1842) III. 120
- 1684 – “Frequently in form toilette. The action or process of washing, dressing, or arranging the hair. Frequently in to make one’s toilet.”
1684 She was given to understand, being at her Toilette, of the death of her Husband. translation of ‘Le Sieur Combes’ Hist. Explic. Versailles 32
1726 Every Trifle that employs The out or inside of their Heads, Between their Toylets and their Beds. Swift, Cadenus & Vanessa 7
1939 They make their toilette and take their repose. T. S. Eliot, Old Possum’s Bk. Pract. Cats 20
- 1667 The dressing table covered by this cloth; a toilet table. Obs.
1667 (stage direct.) Re-enter Donna Blanca and Francisca as in Blanca’s chamber, and she newly seated at her Toilet, and beginning to unpin. G. Digby, Elvira iv. 58
1789 My book was on every table, and almost on every toilette. Gibbon, Autobiogr. (1854) 100
1803 M. Charlton Wife & Mistress (ed. 2) I. 118 I have made up a twilight in her room, and put my white taffety pin~cushion upon it.
1819 On the toilette beside, stood an old-fashioned mirror, in a fillagree frame. Scott, Bride of Lammermoor xii, in Tales of my Landlord 3rd Ser. II. 301
- 1665 – “A cloth cover for a dressing table, formerly often of rich material and workmanship; ..Obs.”
1665 Two Gentlewomen masked, and a little Dwarf with his vizard on likewise, came to undress him, afafter [sic] they had spread a most sumptuous Toillet on a side Table. J. B. tr. P. Scarron, Comical Romance ix. 48
1682 A gold-coloured Tabby Twilet and Pincushion with Silver Lace. London Gaz. No. 1739/4
1696 Toilet, a kind of Table-cloth, or Carpet of Silk, Sattins, Velvet or Tissue, spread upon a Table in a Bed-chamber. E. Phillips, New World of Words (new ed.)
- 1664 – “A shawl to cover the head or shoulders; spec. a cloth put over the shoulders during shaving or hairdressing. Obs.”
1664 How Propa this little Rogue is, in every thing! Night gowne, slippers, Cap, and Toylet? As brave as if she were to marry some Prince to night. T. Killigrew, Thomaso v. vi, in Comedies & Trag. 375
1687 When they go abroad, they wear a Chal which is a kind of toilet of very fine Wool made at Cachmir. A. Lovell, tr. J. de Thévenot Trav. into Levant iii. 37
- 1538 – “Chiefly Sc[ottish]. A piece of cloth used as a wrapper or covering for clothes. Obs.”
1538 vj quartaris of ȝallow bukram to be ane tulate to ane goune of gray dalmes of the kingis grace maid of before, and had to Striveling. [..quarters of yellow buckram to be a toilette to a gown of grey damask of the King’s grace made from before, and had to Stirling[i].]
In J. B. Paul Accts. Treasurer Scotl. (1907) VII. 86
1611 Toilette, a Toylet; the stuffe which Drapers lap about their clothes; also, a bag to put night-clothes, and buckeram, or other stuffe to wrap any other clothes, in. R. Cotgrave Dict. French & Eng. Tongues
So, there youse have it. From piece of cloth to shawl to dressing table cover to dressing table to action of doing one’s hair to receiving visitors to style of dress to dressing room to…loo.
Like everything useful in the modern world, ‘toilet’ — the word, at any rate — is thus a Scots invention.
[Alternative Facts advert kindly sponsored by the Scottish National Party.]
How direct the line from one meaning to the next is is not clear. What is clear is how one little word can substantially flush out older meanings as it moves through the cistern, I mean system.
I was almost forgetting my little riddle. Toilet comes from French toilette, which is a diminutive of the French for ‘cloth’, toile. If you want some elegant, chintzy, shabby chic wallpaper you might be interested in toile de jouy, which is ‘A type of printed calico with a characteristic floral, figure, or landscape design on a light background.’
[i] I take this to be the town of Stirling, site of one of the Stewarts’ most important castles/palaces. The date of 1538 would make sense as relating to Mary’s QoSc’s father, James V (1512-1542, ane other scottis monarke killed aff by thon inglis bastarts – [steady on! how did that mad Nationalist get in here? Ed.]), whose wife, Mary of Guise, was French. This meaning of the French toilette is one of the several meanings imported into English. The close links between France and Scotland at this time might explain the original importing of the term.