When we moderns here the word toilet, me may be inclined to wrinkle our noses. But our ancestors of centuries past would have had a far different response.

Toilet has been in the English language since the 1530s, when it came to us from French as “a garment bag.” Yep, that’s right, it was first cloth or net used to protect one’s clothing, from toile, which means “cloth, net.” We still have the word toile for a particular kind of cloth, but thanks to the deviation in pronunciation in English, we may not have made that association.

By the 1700s, toilet referred to the rather complicated process of upper-class dressing. That “cloth to protect clothing” began to be used for a protective cloth laid out upon a dressing table, upon which all the tools of the art were placed. It didn’t take long for it to refer, instead, to the stuff put on that table–the mirrors, pots, combs and brushes, bottles, pins, cosmetics, and so on. As time marched on, both English and French began to use the word to describe the process or ritual of dressing, especially of doing one’s hair.

In the early 1800s, the sense began to shift from the process, to the room in which it happened. A dressing room was referred to as a toilet by around 1819…and of course, the best dressing room would have a lavatory attached. American English can be credited with transferring the word to the porcelain lavatory fixtures, in 1895–probably as an attempt to make it sound prettier than the business warranted. 😉 This euphemism was used for toilet paper by 1884, so it wasn’t unique.

I personally find it interesting that, while we Americans are the ones who first applied the word to the lavatory and its fixtures, we have since begun to euphemize that with “bathroom” for our rooms and even commode (which has a similar etymology) for the fixture, while our friends in England use toilet for the room. As an American, I found it a bit disconcerting to see signs for the toilets everywhere. How uncouth! 😉 Or…very couth, as the case may actually be.

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