Laundry & Latrine
All the following words used in English stem from the same Latin verb: latrine, laundry, lavatory and lavabo. All descend from the Latin verb lavare ‘to wash.’ Lavare’s traditional citation forms are: lavo, lavare, lavi, lautum (two alternative forms of the past participle lotum and lavatum also contributed greatly to the Latin verb’s many descendant words in later languages).
The merest of these derivatives are dowdy toilet terms. But even the most fastidious word-lover, the snottiest, prancingest prick-me-dainty, the sissy lisper sniffing his perfumed nosegay at the very mention of toilet, even he ought to pay heed to the words’ seed.
Cognates of Latin lavare in other Indo-European languages include ancient Greek loutron ‘bathing room’ and ancient Greek lousthai ‘to wash the body.’ Several “Know Greece ” internet sites proclaim that Latin lavare and louere DERIVE from Greek louein and lousthai. No, the Latin does not stem from Greek. The words are cognate, literal meaning ‘born together,’ developed meaning in linguistics “belong to the same Indo-European language family.’ Also related as cognates to lavare are some modern Greek words like λουτρό loutro ‘lavatory’ and λούσιμο lousimo ‘shampoo, bath.’
Lavatorium began in Medieval Latin as ‘a place to wash,’ just as laboratorium was originally ‘a place to work’ and then as laboratory became a place to do scientific work. The lavatorium first referred strictly to the basin, bowl or vessel that held the water used for ritual cleansing in the Roman Catholic Church during which the celebrant of the Eucharist washes his hands.
But euphemism raised a seemly, nicely-barbered head, as it always has throughout the history of English toilet terms. Whenever there existed a clear, simple mode of referring to a locus of excretion, one may safely bet that the English found a namby-pampy, pussyfooting courtly word of evasion to replace it. Because early toilets eventually had a shelf or stand with a washbasin, decorous and demure defecators had to hand an easy circumlocution. Instead of “going for a dump,” they, as we still do, could whisper, “I have to wash my hands” or “Where is the washroom?” Or, one hundred and twenty years ago in a Mayfair mansion: “I say, Colonel Pizzlethwaite, where lies the lavatory?"
By the way, I’m not an uncouth beast in matters of language. But euphemism is politically dangerous, leading the overuser into a verbal fen of niceness, into habitual dandification of language. Those 43 babies were not machine-gunned into a protoplasmic pulp. Oh no, they “suffered the consequences of revolution.” Euphemism is addictive. By using it, unpleasantness that we human beings ought to face becomes quickly avoidable, first at the linguistic level, then at the level of needed action comfortably left undone. Witness the political ostriches of world-wide climate-change denial.
Another bit of Catholic Latin that named the bowl itself was lavabo (Latin, ‘I shall wash’). Any ritual washing of a celebrant’s hands can be termed the Lavabo in Catholic liturgical language. The word enjoyed a brief popularity in Edwardian English to name a washstand or washbowl, borrowed from modern French where lavabo still means a washbasin and, in the plural, is a polite euphemism. “Où sont les lavabos?” may be used to ask “Where are the restrooms?”
The word is borrowed from Holy Writ. It originates in the Latin of the Vulgate, Saint Jerome ’s translation of the Bible into Latin, where Psalm 26, verse 6, begins “Lavabo inter innocentes manus meas . . .”
The King James translation is “I will wash mine hands in innocency: so will I compass thine altar, O Lord.”
The Shitter & The Pisser
When did lavatory become a euphemism for a place to urinate and defecate? Guess who gifted English with that evasive circumlocution? The shit-frightened Victorians, who else? The same imperialist world-conquerors who thought the word leg was obscene and so — truly — referred, in Victorian English, to the “limbs” of a piano! Of course, in the stately home where Lord Fuddley was shocked to hear a toilet called by underlings “the shitter” or “the pisser,” that same Lord Fuddley had to be daily pried off raped milkmaids and sometimes forcibly dis-inserted from ewes out in the sheepfold of his stately estate.
One still current, wonderfully silly British toilet euphemism is W.C. for “water closet.” Think of the grown Englishmen, dainty prisslets all, who might have fainted dead-away, waylaid by an attack of the vapours, if they had had to ask to take a “dump in the turd-hole.”
“Prithee, Gentle Knight, Where be the Stool of Easement?”
Now, I don’t want to give the dauntless reader an impression that I am obsessed with fecal periphrasis, with an unseemly quest for synonyms of excreta. Still, I must share my favourite roundabout phrase for toilet. It is now obsolete and belonged to English during the 15th and 16th centuries. It was “stool of easement” or “house of easement.” To do one’s easement was to unburden oneself fecally, to evacuate one’s bowels of excrement. The stool of easement, by the way, gave rise to the euphemism “stool” for fecal matter or turd.
This too began as a place to wash, because medieval Latin latrina ‘toilet’ is a contraction of lavatrina ‘washbasin, washing room.’ Starting as a French euphemism for military trench toilet, the English borrowed it during the 17th century to name a barracks privy, a camp toilet, a shit pit.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, The Washerwomen, 1889, oil on canvas, Baltimore Museum of Art, Maryland, USA
Laundry has kept its three chief historical meanings: (1) washing, (2) the place where washing occurs and (3) the objects to be washed. Its newest meaning, money-laundering “making dirty money seem clean,” does not arise in common English until the early 1960s, but gained widespread popularity as part of newspaper reporting on the United States Watergate scandal of 1973.
Laundry is a contraction of an earlier form perhaps introduced into England from Norman French as lavandiere ‘washerwoman’ itself contracted in England to lavender ‘washer.’ There are many reflexes in all the modern Romance languages: lavendera in Spanish, lavanda in Italian, all harking back to Latin neuter plural gerundial forms of the verb lavare like lavanda and lavandaria ‘things that ought to be washed.’ Gerunds are verb forms that can be construed as nouns.
copyright © 2012 William Gordon Casselman
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