Going to the loo used to be easy, you just looked for the signs that said, Ladies or Gentlemen. Somehow these two straightforward words have become politically incorrect, they hinted at elitism. Now we use Men and Women.
There was one problem when I was learning to read. A finger pointed and a sign said Public Conveniences. It means lavatories, I was told. But you don’t want a public lavatory you want one in private, I was confused.
The correct name
It is lavatory by the way, not a toilet or washroom. We are all grateful to Nancy Mitford for pointing out to us the correct or upper-class words to use. Words are either U or non-U, U for upper. I am told that loo can be used these days but never ever toilet. It is OK to be sick but never ill, continues Nancy. You can check your hair in a looking glass but never in a mirror. A man can be rich, but it is vulgar to be wealthy.
Back to the pressing problem of when you want to go. Adults give children conflicting advice – never bring up the word lavatory at mealtimes. Circumlocution is the name of the game. Girls can go to powder their noses but when they return their noses are still as shiny as when they left. Boys and we men are grateful to the Americans for telling us about John or The John. I am not sure what you think about this if your name is John. How about ‘Elton’ and ‘Olivia Newton’ instead?
At prep school, our little dormitory of ten boys was provided with a chamber pot so that we did not go wandering around the school during the night. If there was an ‘incident’, somebody missed it or kicked it over in the dark, we had to explain ourselves to the headmaster’s mother. She was a very elderly and strictly Victorian lady who had no truck with mention of bodily functions or excretions.
How should we refer to the object that had been kicked over? Our name, piss pot, straightforward and Anglo-Saxon, was out. Calling it a pot of any sort was risqué. We settled on calling it ‘the article under the bed’. Except that it wasn’t under the bed, someone had left it out and that’s why poor Bannerman had kicked it over in the dark.
Whatever we called it, Bannerman’s name must not be mentioned. It was our piss pot and we had collective responsibility for it, spilled or not.
Years later I found the article listed in the quartermaster sergeant’s stores as ‘Pot, Chamber, Officers, for the use of.’ That, as far as the British Army was concerned, was what they were called. For those who did not hold the Queen’s Commission, I still wonder what they have. Maybe, Spade, Trench, for the digging of, non-commissioned, for the use of.
Nowadays, Men and Women is not inclusive enough. What about the trans-genders, cross-dressers and the fully sex changed? Does it help to call them Male and Female Toilets; sorry, Nancy, you seem to be losing on the toilet issue, they never seem to be referred to as Male and Female lavatories. If you are not sure what sex you are, the lavatory will tell you.
I have never thought of those cold white porcelain contrivances as sexual, male or female. I have thought about disabled loos. I would want a loo in full working order, not a disabled one.
In Paris, just off the Champs Elysée, I came across a place I needed desperately, so did most of the other tourists in Paris on that hot August afternoon. This lavatory was controlled by a large female gauleiter. She directed the queue and asked each and every one of us, ‘PP or nombre two?’ Not deux, two. Everyone, French, English, German, Portuguese, Dutch, Italian and Japanese knew what she meant. If you signed up for nombre two, you were given a few sheets of paper and sent one way, for PP it cost only one franc and you went another way.
In these days of intercontinental travel, foreigners do not know what Men and Women are, so we resort to semiotics, the science of signs and symbols. The semiotic game has rules. Make the difference between the signs as subtle and minimal as possible. Actual body parts that define our sex must not be shown but clothing is OK. A block figure with what might be a skirt or trousers is common. How does that work for an Arab wearing a dishdasha and his wife in a burqa? Try faces, all men have beards, well they do in the middle east. But then the women wear a niqab or face veil and look similar.
Semioticians can go functional and show a standing figure with a dotted line issuing in a parabola from near the top of the legs compared with a squatting figure. Semioticians, it seems to follow a mantra of making the differences between two signs minimal. They are happy if you are uncertain which loo is which unless you see the two signs side by side and can study them for a moment. I have had to do this. I waited until a woman came out of one door, then I went into the other door hoping that the woman had got it right in the first place.
Then, if you must be literary, there are alternatives for male and female; Bucks and Does, Ducks and Drakes, Dogs and…no, that one won’t work, neither will Bulls and Cows. Cocks and Hens, Rams and Ewes, Chicks and Chaps, Gulls and Buoys, Samurai and Geisha or Olofs and Helgas. How do you manage if you are Dave and Tracy? Even a simple Boys and Girls will flatter some. There are others, Hymns and Hers but mistakes are made by men and women with Hymen on their minds.
Be careful in Ireland; ‘Mna’ is not a dyslexic sign-writer but ‘Women’, the word for men is ‘Fear’. Then you could have ‘Desperate Dans’and ‘Desperate Glams’ or, in the cinema Pearl and Dean
Once you have found the right one and are comfortable seated you may come across pithy, even witty aphorisms such as these:-
· You never know what you’ve got till it’s gone. Written over an empty toilet paper holder.
· Please remain seated for the entire performance.
· How long a minute is depends on which side of the bathroom door you are.
· No job is finished until the paperwork is done.
· I hope everything comes out OK.
· If at first you don’t succeed, keep flushing.
· Life is like toilet paper; you’re on a roll or you’re taking shit from someone.
· Great things take time.
Life can be difficult but there is a great sense of relief and achievement when a big job is complete.
Use as Verb, Noun or Adjective
Incidentally, I came across the derivation of the word ‘shit’ recently. Here it is though I do not claim any veracity for the explanation.
In India, Africa and the East generally, a man with many cattle is rich and one of his products is cow pats. Dried cow pat is useful for a number of things from fuel for cooking to a floor covering and a farmer can sell the excess. As part of the trade, they were often shipped down the river or across a lake in the hold of a ship. If the ship leaked, the cow pats got wet and began to ferment, releasing methane. When the skipper went into the hold to inspect the cargo by the light of a candle…BANG.
To avoid the explosions a wise skipper made sure the cow pats were placed high in the hold where they would not get wet. He went so far as to label the cargo ‘Ship High In Transit,’ or just S.H.I.T. for short.