“Could you direct me to the Euphemism?”: Cross-channel toiletries
Just as a smattering of French was once essential to providing a je ne sais quoi to the chattering of a certain class of English speaker, whether in discussing how they liked their pommes de terre, their wine, their clothes, or the relative merits of the mise en scène and the montage in the cinematic oeuvre of their favourite little known auteur of the nouvelle vague, so it has become de rigeur in the France de nos jours to pepper one’s everyday speech with English expressions. For some reason, this is particularly apparent in the worlds of business, where it’s all Wall Street English these days, and celebrity gossip, where you have to know les pipoles from les stars if you want to be hype.
Of course, these words all refer to things that people, for whatever reason, like talking about. We haven’t been slow, however, to swap words to refer to places where bodily functions might be performed, hoping that people might forgive our crassness in having to mention these shameful little rooms, dazzled by our cosmopolitan command of a foreign language. There is perhaps no better marker of an advanced civilisation than its attitude to using the facilities, and the sophistication of the same (other than, of course, a system of government and law, art, music, language both written and oral, domestication of animals, agriculture, low-cost air travel, and moisturisers for men).
It’s a bit of a shock to realise that, for all the insidious creepage of English loan-words into international parlance, our great contributions to universal language are “sport”, “bar”, and “WC”. The first two are, of course, the twin pillars of English-speaking society, so perhaps no surprise there. “WC” however, is rarely used in English these days, but is a favourite way to refer to the convenience in a slightly genteel manner in France, and elsewhere in continental Europe. The giggly schoolboy in us all will at this point be bursting to mention the fact that it was an Englishman who invented the Water Closet, the original flushing toilet: a certain Mr Thomas Crapper. I am sorry to disabuse our inner child this way, but Mr Crapper, though he did claim to have invented the flush-cistern in his advertising for his plumbing business, was beaten to the punch by several centuries. The flushing Water Closet was invented by Sir John Harrington, godson of Queen Elizabeth I, in 1594. Only two were ever made. A patent was taken out for the Water Closet in 1775 by Alexander Cummings, a London watchmaker (who, one assumes, had time on his hands). So the French, in referring to the WC, “vay-say”, or “les watterrs”, are paying tribute to their ingenious neighbours.
In England, of course, there has been a long association between the French and anything that’s considered a little bit filthy, the long and glorious history of euphemisms for the lavatory being no exception. In medieval English castles, the garderobe (which gives us our modern word wardrobe) was originally the alcove containing the handy hole for relieving oneself into the moat, which they realised was a good place to keep your clothes, as the stink kept the moths away. As always, impeccable medieval logic. The word “toilet” itself, for which we now seek euphemisms, was originally a nice way to say it, and also from the French, arriving from Paris with the Spring/Summer collections in 1681. It originally referred to the whole dolling-up process that a woman undertook at her dressing table, which was covered with cloth (toile), with a mirror above it. The whole set-up was called a toilette, as was what the lady did there. In the 18th century, a toilet was still a lady’s dressing table, and became a coy way of referring to the toilet as we know it, following the French cabinet de toilette, much as powder-room or wash-room might be used today. In American English, the word “toilet” now only refers to the actual porcelain fitting itself, and it would be considered a bit of a faux pas to ask for the bathroom, as they prefer to call it, in this way. Indeed, on asking to be directed to the toilets in a branch of Walmart, an Irish gentleman found himself in an aisle displaying a wide range of toilets for sale, without, of course, the plumbing that his immediate purpose required.
When toilet came to refer specifically to what went on there, a new euphemism was needed, and the English looked to the French to provide it once more. Around the origins of the word “loo”, however, the waters are appropriately muddied. There seems to be a general feeling that it comes from French, but no consensus on exactly how. It could be from medieval Edinburgh, where it was considered polite, before flinging the contents of one’s chamber pot out the window, to shout “Gardy loo!” for the benefit of passers-by below (from the French “gare/garde à l’eau”, rather than, as some sources have it, “gardez l’eau”, which I’m sure no one would particularly want to do). Another theory is that an English toilet manufacturer named one of his porcelain creations after the Battle of Waterloo, and that this was subsequently shortened to “loo”. A myth among English soldiers billeted in French hotels had it that the toilet in these establishments was always Room 100. Perhaps the most sensible explanation is that is simply an anglicised pronunciation of the French lieu, as in “lieu d’aisance”, the posh French way of referring to the petit coin.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Paris boasted 4,000 pissoirs, public toilets which left the head, shoulders, and legs of the man going for a slash bare to public scrutiny, really only keeping private the essentials. They were as pungent and distinctive a feature of Paris as the markets at les Halles, or cigarette smoke in the bars. But all things must pass, and make way for huge sports gear shops and Starbucks. When the bars have banned smoking, and the last reeking Turkish toilet has been replaced with a Japanese style automated thing that sprays and dries you afterwards, then takes your blood-pressure, perhaps the only reminder of the smellier, livelier, fleshier Paris that still lives in the imagination of English-speakers will be the most famous pissoir of them all, the urinal that Marcel Duchamp submitted to a New York exhibition in 1917, under the title of “Fountain”. These days, the original is long lost, and the eight copies “commissioned” by Duchamp in 1964 provoke varying reactions. 77-year-old anarchist artist Pierre Pinoncelli was recently brought to trial for attacking the “Fountain” on display in the Pompidou Centre with a tiny hammer. Predictable frothings about the nature of art, and the worth of the readymade, the throwaway, and conceptualism ensued. In Stockholm, student Bjorn Kjelltoft urinated into the Modern Museum’s Duchamp “Fountain”, as an artistic statement. “I wanted to have a dialogue with Duchamp,” he was quoted as saying. “He raised an everyday object to a work of art and I’m turning it back again into an everyday object.”
The toilet, loo, WC, pissoir, or “Fountain” is no mere everyday object though, as we well know. It is the very corner-stone of Anglo-French relations, a fact once more honoured recently when a poll in Britain’s art world rated Duchamp’s upside-down signed urinal the most influential work of art of the 20th century, ahead of works by Picasso, Matisse, and Warhol. So remember, when wandering the cafés and art-galleries of Paris: not all loos have toilets, and not all toilets have plumbing. If they’re signed and dated by someone called R. Mutt, it might be best to hold on until you get to Starbucks.