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On Saturday night, we popped along to a nearby pub with friends to check out what the food was like; it had recently swapped hands and was under new management. At one point, Andy asked, ‘where’s the toilet?’ From my position, I could clearly see where it was located as the glass panel on the door leading to it had ‘Loos’ written across it.

Loos. It’s a funny old word. Where did it originate? I’d always believed it came from the days when folk used to turf their bodily waste out of the window, shouting ‘Gardez l’eau’ to warn passers-by to shift out of the way to avoid an unpleasant dousing. Why Brits would holler in French never really occurred to me till now, but it does seem unlikely. Another theory is British soldiers picked up the word in France during the First World War, after hearing ‘lieux’ (short for ‘lieux d’asisance’ – sitting places) being used as a euphemism for the toilet. But it wasn’t ponders relating to the hazy origin of the word loos that popped into my head when I saw it across the pub door, it was this. How would someone who didn’t speak English fluently know where the toilet was?

The confusing world of British toilets. Toilet sign

Words for the toilet in Britain

Some years ago, in a rare foray into a British pub in one of Tenerife’s southern resorts, I was momentarily baffled why the names of pop stars were written on two doors. One was Elton, the other was Olivia Newton. When the penny dropped, I wondered how Spanish customers would ever figure that one out. Not that many Spanish were likely to frequent the place, even though it was on a Spanish island. Using ‘John’ for the toilet is said to be as a result of Sir John Harrington devising Britan’s first flushing toilet in 1592. It took a while for flushing loos to became commonplace. In fact, not until the 1860s when Thomas Crapper designed a more efficient flushing system, and another word for the toilet, and the activities that take place within, came into usage.

Then there’s the privy – private place, possibly from the French word privé. What is it with French words and toilets? Even toilet derives from the French toilette. And what about khazi? Various sources claim it’s derived from a Cockney word for privy or is a corruption of the Spanish casa (house). Some websites say it is taken from the Bantu word for latrine, mkazi. However, a Google search shows mkazi to mean a hardworking woman. So that sounds a load of crap (see above).

Toilet sign, Cesar Manrique style, Lanzarote

No labels needed to identify which toilet is for who with these Cesar Manrique-style toilet doors on Lanzarote.

‘Where’s the bog?’ must baffle folk who aren’t British or Irish. Although, its origins are more obvious than some of the others; literally using boggy ground, or open pits, as toilets. Another baffler must be the little boy’s/girl’s room. A convincing-sounding explanation is that it came into popular usage because of parents constantly having to seek out toilets for their children when they were out and about.

The Ladies and the Gents are rather elegant, old-school names for toilets. But would I cause confusion if I walked into a bar in Spain and asked, ‘¿Donde estan los hombres?’ It’s not something I ever tried, always sticking with the safer aseos or servicios.

Public conveniences, Bute

Old-school Victorian toilets on my home island of Bute.

Finally, the Scottish term for the toilet is one of my favourites. It is a quite lovely sounding word; a word you can really wrap your tongue around – cludgie (rhymes with budgie). There’s no satisfactory explanation about where that one came from.

So, while everyone else around the table was tucking into their food and discussing what they liked, or didn’t like, about a Booker Prize-winner, I was fretting over the problems non-English speaking visitors to Britain might encounter if they needed to find to the nearest loo/privy/bog/khazi/cludgie in a hurry.

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Jack Montgomery

Jack is an author, travel writer, photographer, and a Slow Travel consultant who has been writing professionally for twenty years. Follow Jack on Facebook for information about his writing, travel tips, photographs, and tales of life in a tiny rural village in Somerset.

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Some of the items on this site won’t be to everyone’s liking, I get that. Basically this is my place, my wee studio to mess around in – experimenting with words and thoughts. I’ll be chuffed if you enjoy it, but if you don’t, c’est la vie. As a friend used to tell me “it would be a boring life if we all thought the same.”

Jack Montgomery
A wine press,
On a farm at the end of the dirt track,
The Setúbal Peninsula,