Of things scatological

Intrepid Reader Brenda of Ponte Vedra Beach, FL, writes WordsWordsWords, asking: “Why do we use the word John for the toilet?  I recently learned that Thomas Crapper was actually the person who popularized the modern toilet, hence the word crap.  If that is the case why do we say going to the John rather than going to the Tom?”

Dear Brenda,

First, we need to clear up this Crapper thing. It is a persistent folk etymology that is almost certainly not based in fact. Some things just take on a life of their own and are repeated so often that everyone thinks they’re true. This is one of those things. The Online Etymology Dictionary says of the word crap, “Despite folk etymology insistence, not from Thomas Crapper (1837-1910) who was, however, a busy plumber and may have had some minor role in the development of modern toilets.”

Crapping, in the sense of evacuation of solid waste, dates back to 1846, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. While I’m sure Thomas was a good man, the idea that he had reached such excremental renown by age 9 that this basic human function should have taken on his name is quite implausible.

Rather, to find the origin of “crap,” we have to reach all the way back into middle Latin, where crappa meant “chaff.” Up it came through Old French and Middle French into Middle English. By the mid-15th century, it had come to refer to the grain trodden underfoot in a barn, as well as chaff or siftings. We all know what else is underfoot in a barn, so it seems unsurprising that the word should come to be associated with dung. I’m sure the farmer’s wife was hollering the Middle English equivalent of “Wipe your feet before you come in here!” and I’m just as sure it was not because Mr. Farmer had chaff on his boots.

Now on to the john portion of your question…the Online Etymological Dictionary dates the first use of john as a term for the crapper to 1932. They say that it probably comes from “jack” or “jakes,” which had been used as slang for the toilet since the 16th century. Since Jack can be a nickname for John (e.g., Jack Kennedy), the process apparently worked in reverse in this case, and “jack” became “john.” I guess “john” won out, because I have never heard the loo called the jack.

When I was growing up, I didn’t hear “go to the john” much. My dad’s preferred terms for the WC were “the batcave” and “the library.” There’ve been no sailors in our family, so no one calls the lav “the head.” As a reminder, remember when in Canada to say “washroom” rather than “bathroom.” It sounds much more civilized, and it will delay for a few minutes their realization that you are a foreigner.

Wow. This is fun, Brenda, but if you’ll excuse me, I have to go to the little girls’ room.

About Verla

Wordfreak. Linguist. WA State licensed P.I. #3377. Principal, Viera Investigations. Spanish-English interpreter. Sole proprietor, Encanto Language Services. Erstwhile librarian. Texan by birth, cheesehead by upbringing, latina by soul, PacNWer by choice. Jewelry artist, Different Drummer Designs. Owner, world’s most gigantic dachshund. Driver, world’s almost smallest car. Chocoholic. Lover of things purple.
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4 Responses to Of things scatological

  1. Michael says:

    I didn’t know you took requests. So excited. Will have to think of some good words that need etymylolygizing. Like maybe – why does American English use “trunk” while Commonwealth English uses “boot”?

    • Verla says:

      Hi Michael–Americans and Brits use different words for the same thing because…all dialects use different words for the same thing. According to the OED, it looks like at one time “boot” was used for an external step on a coach, a place where attendants would sit while the important passengers were inside. Later, that step moved to the front and/or rear of the vehicle, from which “boot” began to refer to a luggage compartment under the seats of the coachman. That sense was active by 1781, so it readily moved to describing the storage compartment of motorized vehicles when they came around. “Trunk” is present in American English from 1931, and it seems to have come from the trunk being like a trunk, i.e. chest–open it up and put stuff in. I wonder if there was an earlier time when “boot” was used in the U.S., since obviously there were cars before the ’30s.

      We say “boot” at our house, partly because it’s a Mini Cooper and that’s what they call it, and partly because it’s certainly not big enough to qualify as a trunk. I put a sack of groceries in there the other day and when I closed the hatch it smashed my Doritos.

  2. Brenda says:

    oh my, I didn’t know words could be so complicated. Thanks for the explination…my Tom Crapper bubble has been burst. Hey, here’s a book you might like – http://www.amazon.com/Brilliant-Mind-Proven-Increase-Brainpower/dp/0800731875 The author was my psychiatrist in Dallas. Quite a brilliant man himself.

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