Classes, Couches, and Rest Rooms: Word Choice in Britain and the U.S.

N. read last week’s post on toilets and emailed to say that “toilet has a very lower class cachet in current English. Loo or lavatory are the posh versions, just like sofa vs. settee, sitting room vs. lounge, tea vs. dinner, dinner vs. lunch.

I’ve heard some of those pairings before but have trouble keeping track of which word is high on the class scale and which is low—an incompetence that I kind of enjoy. Let’s face it, it’s all arbitrary and snobbish.

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Cornish Engines. The abandoned mine shafts they mark went out under the sea.

The distinctions are equally arbitrary in the U.S., but the silliness we grow up with has a way of looking like perfect sense. When I was a kid, lunch was the down-to-earth meal. Dinner stuck its nose in the air and demanded white tablecloths (not to mention cloth napkins), and it was the evening meal anyway, which we called supper. I not only thought all that made sense, I thought it was fixed for all time and all places and all people. Where Wild Thing grew up, though, dinner was a big midday meal, something you’d have on Sunday, after church, and I’m sure that seemed just as inevitable and fixed.

Then we moved to the U.K., where the things people take for granted are completely different. Settee? To me that sounds fancy, as if I dropped into a Victorian novel. Sofa sounds more ordinary, although I call the thing a couch and it sits in my living room, since I don’t have either a sitting room or a lounge in my vocabulary.

And tea as a meal? When someone talks about eating tea, I get a mental picture of someone struggling with a knife, a fork, and a cup of liquid. I know that’s not what they mean, but no matter how often I hear it, that’s still what I see.

I like it when my vocabulary sets me outside some of the entrenched divisions. True, it sets me deep in the trench of another division, American vs. British, but I’d be there anyway.

I can’t prove this, but I have a hunch that, compared to their U.S. counterparts, the British upper (and, I guess, middle) classes spend an awful lot of time, and find more ways, to establish their separateness (and I’m sure they’d say superiority) through their use of language. It’s an interesting bit of sociology.

Both cultures, though, do their best to avoid saying what they mean when it comes to human waste. Toilet comes from the French word meaning a cover for clothes (toilette). From there, toilet became first the act of dressing, then a dressing room, and eventually that room with plumbing that polite people don’t mention. So basically, it started as a polite word meaning that room where we do those unmentionable things. Eventually, the unmentionable things contaminated the polite word and we had to find an even more polite word so we could back away from our meaning again. I mean rest room? What on earth does that communicate?

For what it’s worth, not every culture does this. The Middle English word for the equivalent of toilet paper was arse-wisp, according to the Online Etymology Dictonary. The Middle English did, apparently, say exactly what they meant, at least about this.

And unless someone brings up a fascinating new aspect of this discussion, I’ll stop writing about toilets for a while. Really. It’s not the thing I most love to think about in the world.

29 thoughts on “Classes, Couches, and Rest Rooms: Word Choice in Britain and the U.S.

  1. I’ll give you one more bathroom story and then give the subject a rest myself. I moved to Mass. from Minnesota in 1972 in my junior year of high school. I noticed the kids raising their hands to go to the “basement.” Hmmm, I thought, what is that about? It turns out in that part of central Mass., the Catholic schools for years had their rest rooms in the basement resulting in this euphemism for “loo.” And it clung for years and years, long after rest rooms were above ground. But to muddy the linguistic waters a bit, if you REALLY needed to go into the basement, you would ask to go “down cellar.”

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  2. I completely disagree with regard to the word restroom. Few terms are more accurately descriptive! Picture it – you’re out. You are seized by an Unmentionable Urge. You find a parking spot, scurry through the nearest open doorway, charge up to someone wearing a uniform (or at least a name tag), ask for directions, race down the aisles to the corner furthest from where you happen to be (it’s always the furthest corner), hurry – knees clenching – to the furthest stall, whirl around 3 1/2 times looking for a place to hang your handbag, fumble around with recalcitrant bits of paper that want to go anywhere but that wonderful smooth seat (actually, I never do this, but I am American in name only), whip down your underwear, sink to the seat … and go aaaaahhhhhhh…

    What could possibly be more restful?

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  3. I recall exasperating my mom when I asked her to explain the difference between lunch and supper and dinner. At least we had breakfast straight. Never did find the courage to ask her about the chesterfield. Do you know?

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  4. You completely left out a discussion of The Ladies’ Room and the Men’s Room. Plus where the apostrophes should go. Unisex toilets (whatever) haven’t made it big in this country. My belief is that it’s because men leave the seats up and miss the mark whether in Men Or Unisex so women will wait a LONG time (like 20 minutes at a concert and miss the beginning of the second act) to go to the Ladies/Women’s/Woman’s/Damas etc etc. However, I have used the Men’s Room in desperate times and always wish I hadn’t needed to. Then there are those awful outdoor biffys (see, another word) at parks and festivals. Really Ellen, you have just begun to plumb the depths. Plumbers however get paid more than writers.

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    • That’s a terrible pun. I wish I’d made it.

      And you’re right: I forgot the biff and the men’s and ladies’ rooms. And no one’s mentioned the can, or (in the U.K.) the bog. My mother–at 80 or so–got tired of waiting in a long, long line outside the, ahem, ladies’ room and, with a friend, decided to integrate the men’s room. I’m not sure what kind of reaction they got, but if the guys were smart they didn’t say a word.

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  5. I think I’m glad I don’t live in the UK anymore as my use of English is very mixed-class to say the least! I wonder, however, if some variances are geographical rather than just class-based – we had lunch at home and tea was our evening meal (Scottish parents) but sometimes ate school dinners (cooked) and we sat on couches in the lounge. Perhaps because we didn’t have separate living room and ‘front room’ (saved for visitors) like in some older properties. As to the first-mentioned place well, I guess I’m down in the gutters if the T-word is considered so lower-class!

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  6. The first time I heard an old lady over here say she was going to “spend a penny,” I was terribly confused. We were in her house. Why did she need to spend money? And on what? I mean, what can you actually get for a penny in Britain? Of course, this was a euphemism for using the loo, which in public restrooms of the past would have cost you a penny to enter. There are still turnstiles (now open) in many public toilets in this country, though very few require coinage. In some parts of Europe, this ridiculous and hideously cruel practice continues. I will never forget being desperate to go once in Cork, Ireland. Could I find a public toilet? No. I went into a Marks & Spencer to use theirs, and I needed some coin to get in , maybe 20 cents or 50 cents… Of course, we had no Euros… Gaaaaaa. What a sick and sadistic practice. We should have called Greenpeace or something. In this world, everyone should have the right to wee for free, I say.

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  7. Because I want this blog to continue to focus on toilets, I feel the need to mention something called Family Restrooms (at least here in the US). They’re unisex bathrooms with diaper changing tables.

    And there’s even something called the American Restroom Association, which is accepting donations, if you’re so inclined. http://americanrestroom.org

    ;)

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    • I love the idea of unisex toilets with diaper changing tables. I remember the dark ages, when only women were allowed to change diapers, at least if you believed the public arrangements that were available.

      Maybe the American Restroom Association can introduce a National Restroom Week, when we all celebrate the room we can’t bring ourselves to name.

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  8. When I bought my current flat (or apartment as, I think it is usually referred to in The States) the toilet door had a little man weeing affixed to it. I did think of removing this little chap but some 20 years later he still stands there doing what comes naturally! On a serious point I hate the fact that it is often necessary to pay to use a public toilet. The use of such an essential facility should, in my view be paid for out of general taxation but, currently you have people hopping on one leg while desperately scrabbling in their pocket for change to pay to use the dratted loo! Fortunately being disabled I have a key which, usually allows me to use disabled toilets without paying. Kevin

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