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THE WORD

Mots de toilette

THE NEWTON PUBLIC SCHOOLS, last Sunday's Globe West reported, plan to install easy-clean epoxy floors, in hopes of solving persistent odor problems in what the reporter called the boys' room, the lavatory, and the washroom.

Those words pass muster with reader Chester Smith of Bedford; he's OK with restroom too, or even toilet. But he objects, he says, when reporters call these facilities ``bathrooms," despite their lack of tubs or showers. Generally, he says, ``there is no such thing as a `bathroom' in the public schools."

But of course there is; just check your dictionary. The language of relief, like that of sex and death, is subject to continual revision, and literal sense--the presence or absence of bathtubs, for instance--has nothing to do with the matter.

Lavatory, for instance, is just a Latinate version of washroom. Sure, we hope some washing goes on in that boys' room, but we don't imagine that's its main purpose. As for restroom--well, the typical public school boys' room is hardly the place for quiet meditation. Those words are no more ``accurate," in a literal way, than bathroom.

Even toilet, which is now usually a plain word for a porcelain fixture, is rooted in delicate doublespeak. The ``toile" from which it's derived--French for ``cloth"--was originally the covering for a woman's dressing table, where she prepared herself for public view, or ``made her toilette."

That sense arrived in England in the 17th century, and toilet soon encompassed the ``toiletries" on the dressing table, the ``toilet water" (eau de toilette), and then the entire process of washing and primping. Eventually toilet came to mean a dressing room, and when the modern commode arrived there too, the word served as its decorative cover.

Toilet was clearly still euphemistic for The New York Times writer who, in a 1911 article, listed some questions mothers should put to their children's school principals, including ``Where does [your child] get his drinking water, in the basement toilet or in a more convenient and sanitary place?" The ``toilet" here is the room not the pot.

And H.L. Mencken, in the 1921 edition of ``The American Language," complained of the word's prudishness: ``We yet use toilet, retiring-room, and public comfort station in place of better terms," he wrote, though he did not specify those better terms.

But as the century wore on, toilet was more closely associated with the commode; it began to lose its euphemistic glow. This is the usual story for words on the ``euphemism treadmill," as cognitive scientist Steven Pinker has called the process; the taboo concept eventually taints the screening euphemism, so a new cover word is needed. Mortician becomes undertaker, undertaker becomes funeral director, and so on.

For toilet, the change seems to come in the mid-20th century. In 1964, one of the plays on Broadway was LeRoi Jones's ``Toilet." But just four years later, a Times story described that play's plot as a confrontation in ``a high school bathroom." The tide had turned against toilet.

Once a euphemism wears thin, it can be hard to grasp how indirect it once was. Toilet may have seemed prissy to Mencken, but Paul Fussell, in his 1983 book ``Class," treats it as a badge of upper-class plain speaking, a word too honest for the anxious middle-class strivers who say ``home" for ``house" and ``dentures" for ``false teeth."

More likely, though, toilet had simply outlived its euphemistic usefulness. And bathroom, in America, was a natural successor: Think of all those postwar babies growing up in houses with no European-style separation of the ``water closet," no adorable ``powder room" for guests, just one compact space with three fixtures. For millions of boomer kids, the bathroom was indeed where everyone went.

And if our bathroom sometimes confuses non-Americans, it's not because they do without euphemisms. Steve at LanguageHat (languagehat.com) shared a few in an e-mail last week: ``In Israel, they say bet shimush, ``house of use,"' he said. ``In Argentina, where I learned my Spanish, they say baño, literally `bath.' The colloquial Japanese word is benjo, `convenience' (but now only used in the `toilet' sense); a more polite colloquial word is toire (borrowed from toilet)."

True, there are exceptions to the rule of excretory euphemism; the French frankly call their sidewalk stations for men pissoirs, a name that seems pretty appropriate for your typical elementary-school boys' bathroom. But I'm not sure suburbia is ready for quite that much accuracy.

E-mail freeman@globe.com. For four week's worth of The Word, visit boston.com/news/globe/ideas/freeman.

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