Word for Wednesday: Loo

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The word of choice this week is inspired by a story I was told in France earlier this summer – it is strange how often the stories behind words can come up in conversation and this one was a bit potty.

After a little research it seemed that there were many popular theories surrounding this word with no clear winner. However, none of the stories are without erm… charm and are perhaps worth a thought!

British informal
• a toilet:

The first recorded appearance of this word, rather unsurprisingly, appears in James Joyce’s Ulysses. First published in its entirety in 1922, in Paris where Joyce was living at the time – even the very first recording of the word links to France.

Even The Oxford Dictionary stresses the unclear origins of this enigmatic word deeming the evidence of any etymology inconclusive. Isn’t it strange how (in the UK at least) such a widely used word can be without traceable origin?

The first and extremely popular story refers to the practice of emptying the chamber pot out of an upper-floor window during the Middle Ages. The contents would be thrown down onto the street and potentially, the unfortunate pedestrians below.

Upon disposing of said contents, one would warn: “Gardy-Loo!” a distortion of the French “Gardez l’eau” – watch out for the water! Doesn’t seem too farfetched a tale, but again none of the rumoured origins are very well substantiated.

The next myth also draws upon the French language and is similar to the version I was told in France earlier this summer... Around the time the common toilet, an English invention, began to appear in France, they would be referred to as ‘lieu à L’anglaise or ‘English place’. The ‘lieu’ stuck and the lavatory would be often be euphemised ‘lieu d’aisance’ – literally, ‘place of ease’. In true English fashion, ‘lieu’ became ‘loo’ or so the story goes.

The solitary suggestion that The Oxford Dictionary gives regarding the word’s origin corrupts a brand name rather than a phrase. This origin ignores the Joycean use of the word, instead citing the word to the 1940s! The company Waterloo ‘traded in iron cisterns in the early part of the century…’.

Considering Joyce’s use of the word, the latter seems unlikely but as usual with the blog, we’re open to your opinions and in case you haven’t had enough toilet-humour for one week, feel free to send in your versions of the story!

Hugh MacDermott

21 Aug 2013
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