Dear Language Nerd,
Why are toilets called “lavatories” on airplanes, and never called that anywhere else?
This post is gonna be like failing at eating a Reeses peanut butter cup. We’ll pull off the little wrapper thingy, and nibble all the way around the edges, and scrape the chocolate off the top, and lick our fingers, and then totally collapse before taking the final glorious bite we’ve been waiting for, the denuded peanut butter center. I apologize in advance.
(This is how everyone else eats Reeses too, right?)
Toilets get a lot of names, because toilets are taboo, and taboos are the Gelatinous Cubes of language. We hardworking citizens go out of our way to put a nice clean name on top, but damned if over time it doesn’t get absorbed into the taboo itself, and eventually eaten away to nothing. When it’s gone we throw a new name on there and the devouring begins again. The euphemisms we use for the places we poop eventually get tainted by their association with the taboo object and become unacceptable themselves, so over time we’ve cycled through tons of ‘em.*
Euphemisms are polite words that polite people such as ourselves use when chatting with other polite people about a non-polite topic.** In the case of toilets, we’re trying to avoid actually mentioning our bodily functions, so we refer to toilets by talking about aspects of them that are peripheral to their main use. When toilets were mostly outside, they were “outhouses.” When indoor plumbing became a thing (and three cheers for that), we started in on words related to water and washing, like “water closet.” That’s where “lavatory” comes in – the Latin word for “to wash” was lavare, and “place for washing” was lavatorium. This became more specialized during the Medieval period, when the Christian church kept the term lavatory for the place where priests washed up before a service. When toilets came in, the lavatory was re-generalized into referring to anybody’s room for washing up in, quietly euphemizing what exactly we’re washing up after.***
Lavatory was one of the more common words for toilet in the early 1900s, but it too eventually lost its position. “Bathroom” is much in the same vein, if you figure “lavatory” as a Latinate “sink-room,” while “restroom” is like a callback to the 1500s, when the toilet was known as the “stool of easement.” And after gender-split restrooms became widely available around the turn of the century, we started going to the “ladies’ room.” To look at the history of words for toilets is also to look at the history of how toilets themselves have changed.
In fact, the word “toilet” has a similar history, if somewhat more complicated than the norm. It started as a word for a wrapper for clothes; became specifically a cloak or shawl, especially one put on while shaving or trimming hair; jumped from the body to the furniture, where it covered a dressing-table; became the table itself, then the combs and whatnot on the table, and then the process of using these to beautify oneself (a sense which you can still very rarely hear today); and then became the room where this process took place. Once peeing and beautifying started taking place in the same room, it was a natural step to use “toilet” as a euphemism, the same way a gal today might refer to the need to “powder her nose.”
In researching this post, I learned a lot about the history of words for toilets. I also learned a great deal about toilets in airplanes, mostly about the early “hold it” or “have fun with this sponge” concepts and certainly enough to make me grateful for the current vacuum-pump model. But what I didn’t learn about is the point where those two coincide. Nowhere on the internet – and trust me, after a year and a half of Leaguing, my Google Scholar Fu is getting pretty slick – could I discover why “lavatory” is still found on airplanes.
So here’s my guesswork: in the 1930s, when passenger jets were first coming in and were in use only by the wealthy and glamorous, “lavatory” was still one of the most genteel and globally accepted terms for toilets. At that time, it would’ve been completely normal to call the airplane toilets lavatories, because it would’ve been normal to call any toilet a lavatory. As “lavatory” went out of style in the 70s, nobody in the airline business changed the signage, and the use of “lavatory” remained there as a relic. In another fifty years, when the memory of “lavatory”s glory days has been fully lost, we might find a new sense in the OED: “a small room with facilities for urination and defecation, found strictly on an airplane.”
The Language Nerd
P.S. Obviously, anybody with further/actual information on this, comment below! I can promise nothing but eternal fame and glory for your airplane loo knowledge.
*Stephen Pinker calls this the “euphemism treadmill,” but I think my analogy is clearer, if dorkier.
**If you go in the opposite direction and make the connection explicit, you get a dysphemism, such as (gasp!) “the shitter.”
***”Latrine” comes from the same root.
Got a language question? Ask the Language Nerd! firstname.lastname@example.org
Twitter @AskTheLeague / facebook.com/asktheleagueofnerds
More references than you might expect for this one. Let’s get the OED out of the way first: lavatory, toilet, bathroom, and restroom. Then the history of the toilet generally from Victoria Plumb, and in planes from Aviation Global News and, more surprisingly, the Korea Times National. Finally, the real gem, Andreas Fischer’s great analysis of toilet words across time: ” ‘Non olet’: Euphemisms we live by,” from New Perspectives on Historical Linguistics II, a selection of papers edited by Christian Kay. Anybody with further interest in this topic, my recommendation is to head there next.