Nowhere to Go: A Guest Post by Clive

  

New Jersey, USA 

With all the travelling Carolyn and I do, we could probably be classified as ‘world travellers’ although there are vast areas of our globe that we have not yet visited. When we travel to other countries, we try as much as possible to communicate using local terms and language in an attempt to minimise the perception that we expect local residents to know what we call something or our way of doing something. 

Strange as it first may seem, the biggest challenge for me is adapting to the local use of English in countries where it is the primary language. When I first moved to Australia, words were usually spelt the same; however, there were a few differences in what things were called. Usually, the Aussies knew what I meant and after a couple of years living there, I soon found myself conversing like a local.  

In recent years, I have spent significant time in the U.S.A. and have discovered that knowing what something is called locally is very important because asking for it by any other name is likely to draw a blank or curious stare. For example, asking for a torch could suggest you want to set fire to something whereas asking for a flashlight will get what you want even if it does not have a flash option. The differences are many and I understand a guy called Webster had something to do with it. Apparently he felt it important to disassociate the former colony from its mother country and decided that the best way to differentiate was to change the spelling and usage of many words. His success in doing so was such that in later years a guy called Gates decided to call this new language ‘American English’ and to make it the default language on his software. Yes you can change it but non-Americans will understand the frustration of making that change permanent. 

There is however one word I have learned to avoid using in the U.S.A. even though it is commonly used in every other English-speaking country as well as others such as France. I don’t think Mr. Webster is to blame but if I forget myself and use this word, it draws one of the following reactions: 

  • The person hearing it recoils in horror and gives me a look that challenges my very upbringing
  • I am given a withering look and told something like, ‘We don’t use that impolite word here, you mean xxxxx’
  • In some instances, I have been greeted with a blank stare suggesting the person I am talking to has absolutely no idea what I am referring to.

At the risk of Carolyn losing half her loyal readers, I am about to mention it. 

The word is toilet and for the life of me I cannot understand why Americans go to extraordinary lengths to avoid saying it. Yes, every country has alternative names for it but only in America is it compulsory to use one of them. In both Australia and England, the most common alternative is ‘loo’ and visitors to your home will ask “Can I use the loo please.’ The origin is not really important but I think it is possibly something to do with Waterloo. An alternative unique to Australia but slowly disappearing from use is ‘dunny’ and goes back to when the toilet was located in a little shed in the back garden. 

 

There is a place in Australia called Dunedoo which is often described as being a long way from anywhere. I suspect that a middle of the night visit to the dunny halfway down the back garden probably seemed like a trip to Dunedoo. That’s Aussie humour for you. 

Whichever word I use for toilet in America, I find it humorous even though I try to stay serious when using it because I am sure it is not meant to be funny. 

  

Here’s what I’m thinking but not saying:
 

 

  • Restroom – do you really want to take a rest in a tiled room full of plumbing fixtures? There’s no room for a bed or even a comfy chair.
  • The John – Firstly there was the ‘Dear John’ letter and now you want to go to the John. Memo to all prospective parents in America: Do not call your son John unless his body is S-shaped and putting a toilet seat around his neck would improve his looks.
  • The Can – when I hear this, for some reason I think of baked beans.
  • The Little Girls’ Room – It borders on ridiculous to hear a mature-age woman asking where the little girls’ room is. And in today’s world, a mature-age man is likely to be arrested if he asked where the little boys’ room was.
  • The Bathroom – OK I know that you will often find a toilet in the bathroom but quite often it is in a separate room sans bath. Our home in Sydney has three rooms which include a toilet – one of which is designated for guests and only contains a toilet, wash basin and mirror. When American visitors ask if they may use our bathroom, I am tempted to respond, “Yes but we would rather you used the toilet.” Carolyn prefers me not to, so I don’t.

The irony is that Americans who travel by air are regularly confronted with the word toilet. The pre-flight announcements stipulate when you can use them and what you cannot do when in them.

I have noticed that U.S. carriers refer to them as ‘restrooms’ even though all the signage refers to toilet. In some older aircraft, they still use the word ‘lavatory’ which I don’t find objectionable but it sounds much harsher than toilet.  

Of course it would be much easier if there were more public facilities. When travelling within America, there is an absolute dearth of public toilets and many tourists comment on how much time they spent looking for one. The American Restroom Association states on their website that there is a ‘woeful shortage of public toilets in America’ and that ‘the lack of availability of toilets has a huge impact on the physical and mental health of Americans.’ Given most Americans do not even know of their existence, I suspect they have had little success in remedying the situation. 

Through necessity, I have started a list of toilets in America where it is possible to discretely use them without having to make a purchase. A couple of examples are Barnes & Noble, Panera Bread and K-Mart. As the list grows, it could become a book but what would I call it without using the T word? How about this? 

 

17 Responses

  1. LOVE it!!

    Here in France, I ask to use the “toilet” – I don’t say – salle de bain – because people would really give me a strange look – as in France the shower room and the toilets are NOT the same thing… as in America – the toilet AND the bath (shower) are in the same room….
    I started saying the “loo” b/c I lived in Australia and NZ for a short while…
    I don’t mind saying toilet here in France though… but when I go back to the States to visit – the world “bathroom” and “restroom” come back outl…
    Take care,
    Leesa

  2. Hi Clive …. a great post ….. I ask when out , “where are the toilets please” or i say if I know where they are ” just going to the loo”..!!

  3. The lack of public toilets can perhaps be attributed to the fact that it is far more acceptable here to go into an establishment, use the toilet and leave without making a purchase. I had a European acquaintance once who just could not bring herself to go into a store and use the toilet there without purchasing something! Admittedly there are some places where there are signs saying ‘Restrooms for patrons only’, but supermarkets and big box stores generally couldn’t care less.

  4. Hi Clive,

    OK, I’ll give you the historical set up: the word toilet comes into English through French and dates to the 17th century and generally has to do with people esp. women getting dressed and the articles that they use in their dressing. A person would place his/her articles needed for dressing on a toilet table.

    It appears that the big change came with the ability of people to bring in a water supply to the house at about the end of the 19th and beginning of 20th century and create a “bath room.” It is at that time we see the word “toilet” being used as a plumbing fixture. This is true in both British and American usage. Lavatory appeared to be more popular across the pond and in the U.S. bath room and rest room were initially separate rooms, esp in companies that had female employees. The two then became combined. For example in the famous department stores such as Macy’s or Lord and Taylor’s, their original New York buildings would have had at least 2 rooms: one where the toilets and lavatory bowls were located and the other with chairs for women (both customers and employees) to sit and rest. These were pretty large areas, and in most cases have been made considerably smaller in this day and age for more merchandise to be displayed. (The men got a much smaller area!)

    I can assure you that the term “American English” dates to long before Bill Gates. It was coined by our friend Noah Webster in 1806, and appeared other times in the 19th century esp. as linguistics became a separate discipline. Moreover no English teacher was ever involved in creating Microsoft Word because no self-respecting English teacher would have done what was done!

    As to why Americans don’t use the word “toilet” when they want to pee, it is hard to say. Language usage is always arbitrary and hard to figure out. Interestingly enough it is quite common for Americans to use phrases such as “toilet paper,” ” toilet training,” “toilet cover,” or even “toilet water.” (The dog drank the toilet water or even the nice smelling toilet water that grandmothers used to wear.) Overall Americans tend to like euphemisms I think.

    Personally I know all the good bathrooms on campus, and I know where they also have a rest room connected with the toilet room. On car trips we might talk about a nice rest area–for example we always picnic at one on the NC–VA border that has not only pleasant and shady picnic tables, but also nice and clean toilets. Of course there is always McDonalds.

    What distinguishes World Englishes from each other is primarily vocabulary and pronunciation. Syntax is surprisingly stable, albeit with mechanics that are particularly different in the United States such as punctuation and spelling. Of course it is useful to know the local lingo, so someone can find what he/she is looking for, but with English having over one million words and counting, there are always lots of way folks can use English that will drive you nuts.

    –Eleanor

  5. A humorous post pity about the above lecture.

  6. If you ever do publish that Where To Go book Clive, don’t ask Eleanor to write the introduction.

  7. Clive — I love it!! Have been wondering what the mystery word was since it first came up. And you’re right — it *is* odd, and I consider myself fairly cosmpolitan, but to say, in English, that I need to use the toilet or where is the toilet . . . just sounds tacky !!! It’s funny because in one sense this inability to call a spade a spade is in direct contrast to our supposedly frank, cowboy culture . . . on another hand, the need for euphemism speaks directly to our Victorian, prudish tendencies. But as aware as I might be of them, I’m so much more comfortable asking for the RESTROOM (even though of course there’s no rest in there!).

    Fun post examining “the language that separates us.”

  8. Hey I think Kim B just called me Tacky 🙂 … We would say where are the toilets, or where are the ladies…!

  9. Isnt the differences in countries amazing!!
    Here i am in Australia trying to do the most polite thing by teaching my boys to ask “Excuse me where is the toilet” or “May I use your toilet please”. Who knew I was teaching them something offensive, if they were in the US. Sorry US readers but I totally agree with Clives thoughts on the more acceptable terms for toilet. Great guest post – thanks Carolyn for letting a post feature on the “T” word.

  10. Great post Clive – had me in stitches at times … not the case with one of the above comments though! I totally agree – who goes to the loo for a rest … mind you, I know several friends and colleagues who would disappear with a book/newspaper and not return for ages but then that’s another story!

  11. A fantastic guest post on cross-cultural and language differences, even within the same language, lol! I smiled and laughed through the entire post, and it was very educational, too. I had no idea it was Webster’s agenda that helped to make the English language so distinctively separate. You learn something new every day!

    One thing is true: the “T word” feels a bit naughty to me. It’s fun to be in the presence of Brits and Aussies and be able to say “toilet.” I feel naughty and free when I say it! 😉 But beware any traveling American who has what used to be so famous amongst tourists maybe 15 or 20 years ago, but is still in wide use today: the pack that rests around the waist like a small pocketbook. Stick with the word “waist pack” when traveling. It’s better. Trust me. 😀

  12. Hi Clive
    Elizabeth pointed me to your guest post, since I’m another UK English married to American and equally amused by the ‘toilet euphemisms’.
    The description that really creases me is ‘half bath’. When I first heard it I visualised someone sitting with knees under chin, but apparently it doesn’t have a bath at all !
    We just call it a separate loo or possibly another euphemism, cloakroom.
    By the way, I suspect the word loo originates from the French l’eau – certainly on Ben Nevis there is an ice gully called ‘Gardyloo’ resulting from the experience of climbers being ‘dumped on’ by resident metorologists.
    ‘Garde a leau’ was apparently used in Scottish cities as a warning cry when slops were emptied into the street below !

  13. I have to tell on John … when we first began talking voice to voice after meeting online through Guardian Soulmates, there was one point after speaking for hours as we frequently did that he excused himself saying he needed to take a ” comfort break.”

    I was curious about this and after asking if that was what they called a trip to the bathroom in the UK, he said that he thought that was what Americans called it.

    This whole toilet versus everything else we call it in the US still creates a few funny moments for us.

    Funny post Clive, I really enjoyed it.

  14. I gotta see, I felt like the Hungarians (and some other countries) handle it best: the good old “W.C.”

    And yes Anne you are definitely tacky!! ahahahaa

  15. Ladies, please! Kim … I cannot believe you are calling Anne tacky . 🙂

  16. Firstly, thank you everyone who took the time to read and respond to my first ever blog post. I am glad that most of you correctly understood that I was using humour to describe a situation faced by all visitors to America. I am pleased to report that during our just concluded visit, I did not slip up once and say toilet. We are now in Paris where the word is in everyday use (albeit with an extra te added and pronounced slightly differently.)

    Leesa – it sounds as if you have mastered the need to use an appropriate word depending on which country you are visiting. I like the fact that both you and Anne often revert to ‘loo’ which is also my favourite term. Almost American – I also fall into the category of not being brazen enough to assume it is OK for non-customers to simply walk in and use the toilet hence my increasing knowledge of places where you can do so discreetly. I do wonder however how mum and dad plan for a day’s outing with two or three kids in tow. My guess is they have a toilet installed in their very large SUV with a sign that lights up ‘please return to seat’ whenever they hit more than two potholes in less than a minute.

    Sally – glad you appreciated the humour and Bruce from Oz – I doubt if I will ever publish the book but thanks for the tip. Kim B – thanks for your observations although I am not sure that ‘calling a spade a spade’ is the answer to the problem – even if that is what cowboys did. I do realise that many Americans consider the word toilet to be ‘tacky’ but as you point out, it is difficult to understand why.

    Mrs Chipndale – thank you for your support and keep teaching your sons to politely say toilet. When they grow up, you can explain to them that there is one country who sees it differently but their President, Macauley Culkin has plans to globalise America. Fiona – too much laughing can cause more than stitches but then your country is well equipped if that happens in public. ParisKarin – interesting to hear that you feel ‘naughty and free’ when saying toilet. In my younger days, I backpacked in Europe and met several Americans wearing a ‘waist pack.’ It was my turn to recoil in horror when I heard what they called it.

    John and Elizabeth – Thank you both for your insights and appreciation of being in an English-American relationship. Carolyn often says’loo’ (but never in America) and I am still working on ‘tomaydoh’ and ‘budder.’

    In writing this post, I wanted to keep it light and deliberately did not research the real history. Thank you Eleanor for doing that for me. Carolyn believes her family is a perfect example of the Victorian avoidance of the T word.

    Cheers everyone and I hope you never get caught short

  17. Wow Clive

    After typing all that you deserve a half bath in a restroom 🙂

    Enjoy Paris

    John

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