The Grammarphobia Blog

Bathroom language

Q: Just catching up on posts, including the one about “gazebo” and its possible relationship with the Latin lavabo. My British-born mother always called the bathroom sink a “lavabo”—but NOT the kitchen sink. Until I read your post, I hadn’t put it together with the future tense of “I wash” in Latin—and I’ve had TWO YEARS of Latin! Is this use of “lavabo” British? I used to picture it in my mind as “lavabeau” (a beautiful place to wash up). I knew the Latin “lav” root meant wash, and I seized on the Gallic “beau” to explain the other part.

A: It’s interesting that your mother should use “lavabo” as a noun for the bathroom sink. As it happens, this use of “lavabo” is standard English for a bathroom sink in both British and American dictionaries! (Who knew?)

As we said in our “gazebo” post, one theory about the origin of the word is that it’s a quasi-Latin coinage.

“Gazebo,” according to this theory, would be translated as “I shall gaze,” mimicking Latin verb forms ending in -bo, like lavabo (“I shall wash”).

Never underestimate the capacity of English to absorb new words. In the mid-19th century, it adopted the Latin lavabo—the first-person singular future tense of lavare (to wash)—as a noun.

The noun was first used, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, in connection with Christian rites, where it had several meanings.

For example, the “lavabo” meant the ritual washing of the celebrant’s hands at the offertory, performed before touching the offerings.

In the Roman Catholic rite, the hand washing was accompanied by a recitation from Psalm 26, beginning Lavabo inter innocentes manus meas (“I will wash my hands in innocence”).

As the OED explains, ”lavabo” was also used to mean “the small towel used to wipe the priest’s hands” as well as “the basin used for the washing.”

It was also used by at least one historian in the late 19th century to refer to “a washing trough used in some mediæval monasteries.”

More secular uses of the word began to show up in the early 20th century, according to citations in the OED. This is when “lavabo” came to mean a household wash-stand or a lavatory (in the sense of a small room for washing the hands and face).

In 1909, Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language defined a “lavabo” as something like a sink: “a wash basin with its necessary fittings, esp. one set in place and supplied with running water and a waste pipe.”

And Dorothy L. Sayers used the word in the sense of “lavatory,” according to the OED, in her novel Strong Poison (1930): “The little lavabo in the passage.”

This calls for a brief look into “lavatory,” a 14th-century word that’s also derived from the Latin verb lavare.

When first recorded in writing, sometime before 1375, it meant a bath or a vessel for washing. But in the 16th century it was also used to mean the Christian purification rite that was later called the “lavabo.”

The modern sense of “lavatory” can be traced to the 17th century, when it first came to mean a small room equipped with a wash basin.

Here’s how the OED defines this use of “lavatory”: “An apartment furnished with apparatus for washing the hands and face, subsequently also including water-closets, etc. In the 20th c. one of the more usual words for a W.C. (and in turn giving way to more recent euphemisms: lav., loo, toilet, etc.).”

In some of its citations, the OED delicately adds, “lavatory” is used elliptically “for the appliance itself”—that is, the toilet bowl. We’ll quote a couple of those examples:

“Albert closed the door and sat down on the lavatory,” from Jack Trevor Story’s novel Something for Nothing (1963).

“Flush Conscience down the lavatory,” from the now-defunct BBC publication The Listener (1965).

Check out our books about the English language