The Grammarphobia Blog

Toilet training

Q: I found your post about the use of “head” for toilet very illuminating, although I was surprised by the euphemistic use of “lavatory,” probably derived from a Latin word for “wash,” rather than the more precise “crapper,” which, as I recall, derives from the name of the person who invented the first flush toilet.

A: We wouldn’t describe “lavatory” as a euphemism, like “powder room” or “restroom” or “washroom.” It’s an old word that’s been around since the 14th century, and its modern sense of a room with a toilet can be traced to the 17th century.

You’re right, though, that it’s derived from a Latin word (lavare, to wash). We discussed “lavatory” a couple of years ago in an item about another word from the same Latin source, “lavabo,” a washbasin or lavatory.

The word “lavatory” is more common in the UK than the US, where a room with a toilet is usually referred to as a “bathroom,” a usage that might be described as a euphemism when the room doesn’t have a bath or shower.

As for “crapper,” we hate to be the bearers of bad news, but it’s a notorious myth that the Victorian plumbing magnate Thomas Crapper was responsible for the words “crap” and “crapper,” or for the invention of the flush toilet.

In Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths, we explain that the word “crap” has been used to mean debris since the 1400s, and “crapping” has meant defecating at least as far back as 1846, when Thomas Crapper was barely out of diapers.

In fact, there’s some evidence, though not conclusive, that “crapping” has meant defecating since the 1600s.

“Another widespread legend about Crapper is that he invented the flush toilet,” we write in Origins. “This myth was helped along by a comic biography, Flushed with Pride: The Story of Thomas Crapper (1969), by the British humorist Wallace Reyburn.”

In fact, the flush toilet was around well before Crapper was born. He did, however, help popularize it, and he patented some toilet-related inventions, not all of them improvements.

“One in particular,” we write, “a spring-loaded toilet seat, was nicknamed the ‘bottom-slapper’ for its inclination to paddle Victorian users as they rose.”

A final myth is that Thomas Crapper’s name was the source of the word “crapper,” slang for the device itself.

One story has it that American doughboys in England during World War I brought back the usage after seeing the trade name “Crapper” on British toilet bowls.

“But in fact the word was already in use in 1911, when it meant a lavatory or bathroom and not the fixture itself,” we say in Origins. “The apparatus wasn’t referred to as a ‘crapper’ until 1932, long after the war.”

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