The Language of Toilets
Danny Singh, UK and Italy
Danny Singh, born and raised in London, but now based in Rome, gives creative English language lessons and teacher training courses all over Italy and abroad. He also offers stimulating monthly presentations on language related issues at Rome’s biggest international bookshop and is visible on web TV www.inmagicartwebtv.eu with a series of interactive English video lessons. He regularly attends Pilgrims TT summer courses as a Guest Speaker. Website: www.laughnlearn.net
What’s in a name?
What’s in a toilet?
A question of gender
The perfect toilet
The subject of toilets throws up a multitude of linguistic skills and observations on cultural habits and customs. “Throwing up” or vomiting, is indeed one of the activities regularly performed in this fascinating location.
Let’s start with the name itself. The official English name is toilet, though in the past, it was usually referred to as the lavatory. Nowadays, few people would use the latter word and some might even wonder what it meant. There are of course various informal terms used instead of the official word, toilet. These can vary from region to region and depend on the usual factors, age, social class and gender.
One common informal name is loo. Kids usually like this word, as it’s simple and easy to pronounce. There are a number of vulgar and crude words, one of which is bog. The stigma of the toilet means that people don’t always call it by its name either. In some social classes, the word bathroom is preferred. My favourite expression for those trying to avoid the use of the word toilet is, I’m just going to powder my nose.
In American English the official word is restroom. One of the more common informal words is John. In Italy, the official word is gabinetto, which translates as toilet. However, it is very rarely used, often people will say, pardon or sorry, if you ask them where it is. And the signs in Italy rarely say, gabinetto. In over 20 years, I have only ever seen one. Normally, the word bathroom is used, otherwise the English word toilet and in some cases, even the French word toilette.
Another important English word for toilets is found as we move outside. Several years ago, I was in London talking in Italian to an Italian friend who was visiting the city. At a certain point, I needed the toilet and entered a pub. Although I know very well the word that is used in an English pub, I was thinking in Italian and so asked the manager where the bathroom was. He replied by saying that there was no bathroom as far as he was aware, but that the gents was down the corridor on the left. The toilet for women is called the ladies. Apart from pubs, there used to be numerous public toilets with signs saying, gents and ladies. However, with the reduction of free public toilets (we are now expected to pay), these terms are restricted almost solely to pubs. In some modern public toilets, there are no longer even words, just pictures and you are left to judge for yourself, which is for men and which for women!
In a traditional old fashioned English house, you find a very small room with a toilet bowl and that’s it, not even a sink. The bathroom is traditionally kept separate and this probably explains why the use of the word bathroom is so rare in England, except among polite folk. Nowadays however, modern flats and properties tend to have all in one bathrooms. In the Dutch city of Rotterdam, the average toilet is also a minute room with a toilet bowl, but there is the addition of a very small sink.
This changes obviously, as you move to the outskirts and more spacious areas.
In Italy, the bathroom is the most important room in the house. Even the poorest Italian flat contains a toilet bowl, a sink, a bathtub and a bidet. This goes some way as to understanding why the Italian word for toilet is rarely used. In many Italian households, you can even find two or three bathrooms, which gives you an infinite number of options.
The amount of time spent in the toilet naturally varies from person to person. It also depends on the purpose of visiting the toilet in that moment. I use the toilet for certain basic functions, some of which take longer than others. In my case, it might be shaving, or applying all my creams, each one dedicated to a specific part of my body, in a woman’s case, it might be painting her nails or putting on makeup, however, I have discovered that there are some people who use the bathroom to read. If that’s because it’s the quietest room in the house, the one place you won’t be disturbed, then that’s fine, but no, there are those who read while performing their basic functions. How can you focus? Is this an example of multi-tasking?
You can easily tell if the people residing in the house are male or female, simply by taking a look at the bathroom. (Notice that I am now using the word bathroom and not toilet). Aside from the perfumes, colours and various products that may distinguish a man from a woman, there is the important question of the toilet bowl. The toilet bowl can be completely closed which is neutral and means that you can lose some valuable time, when in a desperate hurry. It can be opened with the seat down, which means that it is inhabited by females or at least, dominated by females, or the seat could be up, in which case, we are fairly certain that it is a male-run house.
This may seem like a trivial subject, but I can assure you that in many divorce cases, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Many a relationship has come to a definitive conclusion, after endless conflicts on the subject of the toilet seat, up, down, or closed.
The gender question comes up again when in social situations, at the disco, at a party or even in a restaurant. One girl will announce that she is going to the toilet. Another will then ask if she can go with her. What for? On their way to the toilet, they meet another friend and explain where they are going. She then asks if she can come too. When they do finally arrive at the toilet, they will often have to queue, hardly surprising, as there is a limit as to how many people can easily fit into one toilet. What do they do while they are in there, apart from the obvious? Discuss personal problems, give boyfriend advice, conduct meetings, conferences, what else? When I decide to go the toilet, I’ll usually announce it to the people that I am with, but not to the whole world! And what would happen if I invited someone to come with me? Or if someone then asked if he could come too? We would indeed be considered strange!
Although I’ve never been in a woman’s public toilet, I’d imagine that each toilet cubicle is separated by a door. This occurs in a man’s toilet too, however, there is the addition of urinals, which are very interesting indeed! Some of them, especially the more modern ones are separate, with their own little space. However, others are completely open, so you find a space where you can and insert yourself there. This makes socialising for men much easier, as there is no physical barrier and the distances are less than in a cubicle.
It is amazing to observe how different men behave in this situation. Some are fully concentrated on what they are doing. Others spend their time observing what others are doing, instead of focusing on their own activity. Some might look at you and smile. An ex-colleague who confessed to being gay, taught me the slang term, “cottaging”, where some gay men deliberately spent time in public toilets examining others who were otherwise engaged in their basic functions.
Conversation in an all male toilet is limited to friends, family and people who you know, unless any of the conversers are drunk or slightly inebriated. Some of the most interesting conversations I have ever had, have been while conversing with others under the influence of alcohol in a public toilet. If I am under the influence too, then the conversation has additional quality, otherwise it is more like speaking in a foreign language.
Those of you who have read my article, Cultural Differences - England v Italy, may remember the story of a visit to a toilet in a company where I was working at the time. I met one of my many students while there, nothing strange yet, however, as he hadn’t been to lessons for a while, I inquired about his health and work situation, while he tried to justify his absence. He was waving his arms around as Italians often do, the consequence of which, while performing his basic function, I’ll leave to your imagine!
By far the funniest experience I’ve had in a public toilet was at a beer festival in Kent. As you can probably imagine, there were no permanent toilets, but some temporary ones set up specifically for the purpose of the festival. When I entered just before leaving, I saw that there was one of those long open urinals, but every single space was covered and behind each man, there was another waiting patiently for him to leave. I took my position and waited. When I did eventually reach pole position, I noticed that the urinal was absolutely awash with urine. It was like Venice when the water levels get too high. Amazing, so much beer emptied here, I thought to myself. At a certain point, I was alone in the toilet, as all those before had left and another two or three men walked in. When they saw the quantity of urine flowing along the urinal, they looked at me in astonishment. We then began an extremely profound conversation, in which I tried to convince them that I had deposited all the urine myself.
What makes a toilet perfect, or let’s say, a pleasure to go to (apart from your home one), is a question of taste, but the most important aspect has to be cleanliness. Some toilets are cleaned regularly and have wonderful aromas. The better ones are not only cleaned regularly with attractive odours, but have music playing in the background. One of the best that I have ever experienced was in a Thai restaurant in the centre of London, where I went to celebrate my parents’ birthdays. This toilet had relaxing music, seats to sit on, towels made of cotton and a mirror that covered the whole wall. It was so impressive, that I spent almost half an hour sitting down, listening to the music, looking at the mirror and absorbing the atmosphere. My sister came looking for me, thinking something was wrong.
This was obviously an exception, a luxurious toilet in a luxurious location at a luxurious price. However, in the less luxurious ones, one of the problems that exists, is that men apparently are not always able to hit the target, meaning that the floor is wet when they have finished. There have been endless attempts to resolve this problem, putting signs up, shouting at users and even fining people who are seen making a mess. None of these have really been successful. I have since found one that is so simple and yet appears to be the perfect solution.
In a famous pub in the centre of Ljubljana in Slovenia, I went to the toilet after a beer and had the experience of my life. The urinals were separate, however, in each urinal there was a goal, yes a goal with a net. Just in front of the net was a ball. If you managed to hit the ball, but you had to hit it cleanly, the ball flew into the net! Goal!! Yes! I shouted several times, with no sense of embarrassment whatsoever. And guess what I noticed? The floor was totally devoid of even a drop of water.
The subject of toilets is often deliberately avoided, however, this short article shows how much material and language can be obtained, from this not to be underestimated subject. As a teacher, you could use the subject in class for discussion. Below are some examples of questions you could ask.
How many times a day do you visit the bathroom?
How much time do you spend there on average?
Does your bathroom have a window?
If so, what is the view from the window?
Are there any activities that you do there, which could easily be done elsewhere?
Do you have any mirrors in your bathroom?
Do you play music in your bathroom?
Make a list of at least 10 objects in your bathroom!
What is your favourite object in the bathroom?
Is there anything you would change about your bathroom, if you could?
Please check the British Life, Language and Culture course at Pilgrims website.