The Grammarphobia Blog

Why is a loo a toilet in the UK?

Q: I was at the Museum of Edinburgh and learned about “gardyloo,” the Scottish warning cry before waste water was thrown out the window. Is that where “loo,” the British term for a bathroom, comes from?

A: The origin of “loo,” the informal British word for a toilet or lavatory, is a mystery, though you can find a number of questionable stories about its origins online, including the common belief that the usage comes from “gardyloo.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, sums up the situation this way: “Of unknown origin.” The OED dismisses several doubtful etymologies because of a lack of evidence or chronological gaps. Here is the dictionary’s opinion of “gardyloo” as the source for the toilet sense of “loo”:

“It is frequently suggested that the word is shortened from gardyloo n., but the assumed semantic development is considerable, and not supported by any evidence; additionally, the chronological gap is very considerable between the period when the cry would have had any contemporary currency and the earliest attestations of the present word.”

The term “gardyloo” first appeared in writing in the 17th century, according to the online Dictionary of the Scots Language, but it was obsolete by the time “loo” came to mean a toilet centuries later. (The OED says “gardyloo” is derived from “a pseudo-French phrase gare de l’eau ‘beware of the water’; in correct French it would be gare l’eau.”)

Oxford also dismisses suggestions that the “loo” usage comes from (1) “ablution,” a word we discussed in our recent “Abluting in the loo” post; (2) bourdaloue, an 18th-century French term for a chamber pot; and (3) “Waterloo,” the site of Napoleon’s defeat in 1815 (perhaps a pun on “water closet”).

The dictionary’s earliest “unambiguously attested” example for “loo” used to mean a lavatory is from Pigeon Pie (1940), a comic novel by Nancy Mitford. Here’s an expanded version with more of the original flavor:

“Like in the night when you want to go to the loo and it is miles away down a freezing cold passage and yet you know you have to go down that passage before you can be happy and sleep again.”

The OED has several earlier ambiguous citations suggesting that English speakers may have been using “loo” (or a word that sounded like it) in speech as far back as the late 19th century.

One example is this punning cartoon caption from Punch (June 22, 1895): “We will begin again at ‘Hallelujah,’ and please linger longer on the ‘Lu.’ ” Another is from James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922): “O yes, mon loup. How much cost? Waterloo. Watercloset.” And this citation, which we’ve expanded, is from a letter written by Lady Diana Cooper (Feb. 22, 1936): “We’ve come to this very good hotel—your style, with a pretty Moorish bath in an alcove in every room and a lu-lu à côté.”

Although the evidence is sketchy at best for all the “loo” theories we’ve seen, the OED doesn’t quite dismiss the idea that the usage may have come from lieux, plural of lieu, French for place.

In the 17th century, Oxford says, the French used lieux euphemistically to mean latrines (we’ve found a citation in Curiosités Françoises, 1640, by the French linguist Antoine Oudin). And in the 19th century, lieux was used as a short form of the euphemistic lieux d’aisances, places of ease or restrooms.

The dictionary raises the possibility that the French term may have slipped into English in the late 19th century, saying the use “of the French word in an English context in the meaning ‘privy’ may perhaps be shown” by this example:

“I am myself employed in constructing a lieu here in our great Residentiary house, & tho’ I have many & great difficulties to encounter I trust it will turn out a paragon, both for sweetness, utility, & cheapness.” (From a Nov. 14, 1782, letter by the English poet and cleric William Mason. A residentiary house is the home of a canon residentiary.)

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