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.