Sunday, 10 March 2013

A Call of Nature

Following on from the look back at my Staffordshire Privies last time, here is an examination of the development of some of the terminologies.

Spend a Penny – Obviously the reference is to the coin-operated locks on the toilet doors which were once operated by a penny, obviously the pre-decimal version. It certainly did not come from the earliest known public toilet to charge a fee – the building still stands and is officially known as the Flavian Amphitheatre, although more often described as the Colosseum in Rome. Completed in 80AD, the Romans not only charged customers to use the facilities but also collected the urine and sold in on for use as a degreasing agent in making cloth. Charging to empty one’s bladder and then selling it on – that really is taking the proverbial!

The bog – is an expression which has been reversed for the room was originally known as the boghouse. This means ‘bog’ began as a verb and alludes to the consistency. Indeed this was the original meaning of the Saxon scit or ‘muddy’.

Dunny – is Australian slang and an example of how phrases from English, now obsolete in Britain, have endured in the former colonies. As with many Australian expressions this is an abbreviation, itself from a term seen as dunnick, dunnekin, dunnyken or dunnakin, depending upon the region. These can be traced back to danna, recorded since at least the eighteenth century and used to describe, quite specifically, human solid waste.

Kharzi – also seen as carsey (and anything between the two), first makes an appearances at the time of British rule in India and said to have been brought back to our shores around this time. This undoubtedly is down to the term being associated with the similar-sounding ‘khaki’, which does have its origins on the sub-continent unlike the toilet reference. Possibly this comes from casa or ‘house’ and simply a reference to the smallest room.

Loo – may have more explanations than almost any toilet terminology, none of which are at all certain. Most simple is from the French l’eau meaning simply ‘water’, but this hardly fits with the facts as the water closet did not come into general use until the twentieth century and the term was in use a hundred years earlier. Perhaps this is an abbreviation of another slang term of ‘waterloo’? Again this does not make any sense as the water factor did not exist until much later, hence this term is more likely to be from ‘loo’ rather than vice versa. Next we have ‘gardyloo’, a term once popular in Scotland meaning ‘watch out!’. Said to hail from the French gardez l’eau and a reference to the slops thrown (usually from an upstairs window) into the street below in the days before sewage systems. All these are undoubtedly examples of creative etymology as, indeed, is the final word on ‘loo’. To say ‘toodle-oo’ is to say goodbye, most usually to someone you know well and would be sure to meet again, so it is a brief separation. It has been suggested this was also used to signal a brief comfort break and ‘toodle-oo’ seen as a slurred pronunciation of ‘to-the-loo’.

Jakes – certainly in use by 1530 as Shakespeare writes in King Lear “I will tread this unbolted villain into mortar, and daub the walls of the jakes with him.” Likely this dates from a time when the name Jack was a generic term for any person, irrespective of gender, and hence Jacks place became Jakes. Most often a North American term, ‘John’ would be same as ‘Jack’.

I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.

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