My word tasting class was reconvening after a brief intermission. “Well,” I said, “now that we’re all back from our toilet…”
Eleanor, near the front, immediately shot her hand up, and proceeded without waiting for acknowledgement: “Please don’t be vulgar.”
Here we go again. “Vulgar?” I arched my left eyebrow.
“Graphic. You seem to revel in the foul. There is no need to assail us with such indelicate images.”
The right eyebrow joined the left. “You find my reference to a lace doily foul?”
“You said doily?” Eleanor knitted her brows. “It sounded like something else.”
“Toilet,” I said. “A word that originally referred to a little piece of fabric that was used to cover a woman’s dressing-table. From French toilette, related to toile, ‘fabric’. The same toile also came to English as toil, a now-uncommon word for a net for catching game. Of course, I’m being disingenuous; no one uses toilet to mean ‘fabric’ now. But, really, it is interesting that you find it so unacceptably graphic when it was originally intended as a euphemism. Washroom and its Latin-based equivalent lavatory are more literal, even if more polite-sounding to us now.”
Anna piped up from the back of the room. “Maybe crapper would be better.”
Kayley, next to Anna, raised her hand. “You know that’s from the inventor of the flush toilet, John Crapper.”
I was about to speak when Brian saved me the effort; he turned back to Kayley and said, “Too perfect to be true. Actually, though Thomas Crapper, the 19th-century British plumbing company owner, did make flush toilets, he didn’t invent them, and the word crap is much older.”
“Thank you, Brian,” I said, “you’re quite correct. The word crap has been in English to refer to waste since the middle ages. Michael Quinion has a very good run-down of the term and its relation to Thomas Crapper on his site, worldwidewords.org. And commodes have a long developmental history that was certainly added to, but certainly not started, by Thomas Crapper.”
“But it’s in Trivial Pursuit!” Kayley protested.
I shrugged. “I know. Their research was not quite good enough on this one. It happens.”
Eleanor was sitting with her face puckered as though she was sucking on a bitter lemon, shaking her head. “It’s indecent,” she said to the fellow sitting next to her, a skinny, beleaguered sort named Rupert. “And I fail to see the connection between lace and lavatories.”
“Lace and lavatories!” I said. “Well, thereby hangs a tale.”
Anna, at the back, sang, “Give to me your lavatory, take from me my lace.” Ah, Stevie Nicks. At least she didn’t make a comment on hanging tails.
“A woman’s dressing-table came to be referred to as her toilette,” I said. “We still see that in some usages. Eau de toilette, which is a version of perfume. Toilet soap, an old term for face soap and hand soap.”
Brian raised his hand. “There are many paintings with title such as ‘Lady So-and-So at Her Toilet,’ and they’re getting dressed or doing their hair.”
“You can get pictures with titles like that now on the web,” Anna said, “but they’re not getting dressed…” Kayley stifled a giggle. Eleanor turned and glared at Anna.
“The point,” I said, “is that the dressing-table was the toilet, and then toilet came to refer to the action of dressing, or washing and grooming, and to the room in which that was done. And then, out of delicacy, the fixture came to be referred to using the same word. And now the table has turned. We take the word toilet to be a literal word for the fixture. But, now, what do you think is the relation of the sound of the word to its developed sense?”
Rupert raised his hand. “Yes, Rupert?” I said, almost surprised.
“Well, sometimes you have to toil at what you’re doing there…”
Eleanor pulled a face as though someone had just held a fresh dog turd under her nose.
I laughed just a little. “True, sometimes. But is the ‘oy’ sound a contributor to the sense of indelicacy of this word? I mean, oily is not so nice, but doily is fine. Boil is somewhat neutral with a little negative shading. Boy is fine; goy – well, all that Yiddish oy has its own flavour which will probably vary somewhat by hearer. It also relates to the Brooklyn-style ‘oi’ kind of sound for syllabic /r/, as in ‘boid’ for bird, ‘goil’ for girl, and so on, all of which has a lower-class connotation.”
Brian raised his hand. “Hypercorrection from that has given us pronunciations such as ‘ersters’ and ‘terlet’.”
“Indeed,” I said. “Does it have the same feel to say ‘terlet’? Or to say it in the French style, ‘twa-let’?”
“French is much more elegant,” Kayley offered from the back.
“It tends to have that connotation, because of cultural images we have acquired, and the high-toned context of usage of French terms in English,” I said. “French itself has its highs and lows, and I don’t know whether I would call a language with so many inefficiencies elegant structurally – but that’s a more mathematical use of elegant. Anyway, French may get moved in a different direction thanks to less rarefied words such as poutine.”
“That would be a good word for toilet!” Anna declared. “Poo-tine! Like a canteen for poo!”
“Can you please stop!” Eleanor’s shout of disgust was taking on the pleading air of the delicate stomach.
“To return to the ‘oi’ sound,” I said, hoping to calm things down a little, “does it suggest a shape to you?”
Rupert raised his hand again. I looked at him. He waited for me to say something. “Yes, Rupert?”
“I think it’s like a spring, ‘boing boing boyoyoyoyyy,’ so I think it’s like a spiral.”
Brian smiled a little. “Like water swirling in the bowl.”
Kayley raised her hand. “Did you know that it swirls the other way in Australia?”
Brian was about to respond, but I beat him to it this time. “Actually, the direction of the swirl is really determined in the main by the positioning of the water jets.”
“But it’s like the bathtub drain,” Kayley said. “It’s the coriolanus effect.”
“Coriolis,” I said simultaneously with Brian, but we were both drowned out by Anna, who declared triumphantly, “Corral your anus!”
Eleanor was alternating between white and red. She stood and said, “Excuse me. I need to be excused. I require… to be excused. To go down the hall.” She rushed out, words failing her.
Rupert looked at her retreating form and smiled slightly. Without raising his hand, he said, “She has been caught in our toil.”