Brigid Daull Brockway is technically a writer

Brigid Daull Brockway is technically a writer

A blog about words, wordplay, and etymology, with slightly more than occasional political rants.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Potty Mouth

Before prohibition, women weren't allowed in saloons. Prohibition comes along, all bets are off, and now everybody's allowed in saloons, because saloons aren't allowed to exist. Ladies are in saloons for the first time, and since there are ladies, there need to be bathrooms (because where women go, bathrooms always follow, of course). They often slapped these bathrooms together in some tiny corner, and these little bathrooms were called powder rooms. Why powder rooms? Danial Okrent, author of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, doesn't say. What's more, my online resources, as usual, disagree. That's just about all they seem good for. On a related note, are you aware that an individual subscription to the Oxford English Dictionary is like $300 a year? Not cool. But I digress, as usual.
Anyway, I'd assumed that the term "powder room" was the twisted child of the Victorian era, a magical time in which "Chicken Breast" was a swear word and "blouse" was unspeakable. We'll have a long talk about the Victorians later, don't you worry.
At any rate, this got me thinking that the term "bathroom" itself is a quaintly euphemistic. I mean, we use the word for rooms in which it's really hard to take a bath. Unless you're tiny, I suppose. I like the Euro "water closet," because that's really what they are, sans bodily functions. 
Wikipedia tells me that the word "toilet" descends from the French word toile, for a towel used in hair care, and then toilette, for a dressing stand (on which sat a toile, I'm assuming). So that's even sillier than "bathroom" in terms of naming stuff after things only tangentially related to what they are, in the name of having to not talk about what it's really for. Oh yeah, I just dangled a preposition. Watch me go.
In grade school, we were supposed to call the bathroom the "lav," which comes from the Latin verb "to wash," so it and bathroom are basically synonyms, although one's in another language, so I guess that makes it less icky. 
I think we should just call a thing what it is and say "excretory room." 
Would you believe I don't have an appropriate photo for this one?


disheah said...

I'm pretty sure women *were* allowed in saloons. They just had to be a prostitute or a "woman of ill-repute".

saltyrose said...

When I was in England, most of the time they just flat-out called it "the toilet." If they said, "the bathroom," they meant the room where one takes a bath.

I apreciated things like that when I was there. One other example I can think of is that the sex shops didn't have signs that said "Fascinations," or "Good Vibes" or "Sweet n' nasty" they just said, "Sex Shop." Euphemisms are lame and annoying.