Release notes: how the French ‘toile’ cloth came to be toilet

It’s a fascinating fact of linguistic history that some words hardly change their main meaning or develop new meanings, while other words swing Tarzan-like from one semantic treetop to another leaving their past completely behind. One such word is toilet.

As you might expect of a word derived ultimately from the French word toile ‘cloth’, for the first century and a half of existence in English toilet had to do with various kinds of coverings made of textile: a wrapper for clothes (in Scotland), a shawl or covering used while being shaved, for example. As late as 1714, the English translator of a travel book about Italy could write:

The ordinary citizens Wives and Daughters wear a kind of Toilet on their Heads, with a long Fringe which covers their Faces, and drives away the Flies like Horse-trappings.

The crucial breakthrough for this word came during the 1660s when it was applied to the cloth cover of a lady’s dressing table and then to the dressing table itself. So a couplet by Matthew Prior (1709) goes:

An untouch’d Bible grac’d her toilet: No fear that thumb of hers should spoil it.

Also during the same period came a further rapid shift of meaning to denote the articles which would typically sit on the dressing table and be used in washing, brushing the hair, applying make-up, and so on, and finally, the meanings which remained settled and apparently stable  for two centuries: ‘the action or process of washing, dressing, or arranging one’s hair’, which frequently occurred in the phrase ‘to make one’s toilet’, and ‘manner or style of dressing’. These latter uses have often taken the form toilette, which, however, has never split right off as a separate word.

The fatal moment for our word came when it began to applied to a place where the wash and brush up was done. During the nineteenth century, toilet rooms (for both sexes) were often installed in modern public buildings in the United States. These were overtly places where you washed, but of course, though no one (except people like architects, builders, and janitors) went into the details, they included facilities for emptying the bladder and bowels. There’s no doubt of this when we read (Laws of Wisconsin, 1895):

To have at least four seat closets placed in the toilet room adjoining the assembly and at least two in the toilet room adjoining the senate.

The simple word had already crossed the line, as an American newspaper report from 1886 shows:

He says the English railways are improving all the time… No toilets are provided, which make long distance traveling very injurious to the health.

People continued to write about making their toilet, or having their toilet ruffled, up until the Second World War, and indeed the word can still be used in surgery for the cleaning of an area where an operation has been performed. But since the early twentieth century the word has been so firmly associated not only with the room or cubicle, but with the receptacle itself, that the older meaning has come to seem decidedly odd, except in a few expressions like toilet soap. (An unexpected effect of this is that English hasn’t really got a comprehensive term for the processes that ‘toilet’ used to comprise, which makes the lexicographer’s task of defining many of the phrases and compounds that incorporate the word extra difficult!)

In Britain and Commonwealth countries, toilet in the WC sense made rapid advances; rearguard actions have been fought on behalf of lavatory, notably by the proponents of ‘U’ (upper-class) speech in the 1950s, but corpus evidence shows that toilet is now way ahead of its rivals. Curiously, US usage, which pioneered this application of the term, has increasingly shifted to the highly ambiguous word bathroom (and other terms such as restroom).

It is obviously important from the OED’s point of view to have established what the current, neutral term for the room and the appliance is. This is necessary in order to ensure consistency of definition, not only for all the phrases, compounds, and derivatives of the word toilet itself, but also for the large number of synonyms scattered throughout the dictionary. And in fact the process of researching the subject has revealed a remarkable degree of reticence on the part of previous OED editors to go into detail about what exactly the room and the appliance within it are used for. The nearest the first edition got to explicitness was at water-closet:

A closet or small room fitted up to serve as a privy, and furnished with water-supply to flush the pan and discharge its contents into a waste-pipe below… Sometimes applied to the pan and the connected apparatus for flushing and discharge; also, loosely, to any kind of privy.

But a person who didn’t know the word ‘privy’ and looked it up (‘a private place of ease, a latrine, a necessary’) could be none the wiser!

This is particularly interesting when compared with lexicographers’ zeal over the past half-century or so to be more straightforward about sexual terminology. Well, like Robert Burchfield dealing with the latter in the 1960s, nous avons changé tous cela, and the entry now tells you what the appliance looks like and what goes on in it. (And as part of ongoing revision we will administer a wash and brush up to the definitions of words such as cloak-room, lavatory, loo, privy, etc.)

Edmund Weiner
Deputy Chief Editor