Friday, February 17, 2006

What do you call it?

click photo to enlarge
How many euphemisms are there for the place where we spend a fair proportion of our lives getting rid of bodily waste? I don't know, but here are a few that come to mind - W.C., toilet, lavatory, men's, ladies', bathroom, rest room, bog, john, cloakroom, loo, khazi, thunder-box, facilities, heads, gents, necessary, powder room. I imagine you can think of others!

This variety of words is confusing and arises due to our bashfulness about giving an essential place a proper name. Isn't it odd how we are fixated and embarassed by necessary bodily functions? Furthermore, isn't this multiplicity of names a prime example of how the British and the Americans are divided by a common language?

However, I have always thought that non-English speaking visitors to Britain must be greatly puzzled by the signs outside certain doors in the street and in buildings that simply say "Gentlemen" or "Ladies". What can they imagine is behind such a door? A gathering of the genteel perhaps, or one of the exclusive clubs frequented by the likes of James Bond? And what would they make of this sign above the door of a small building near the pier at Kingston upon Hull? The word says "Gentlemen"but, to our twenty-first century sensibilities, the cartouche, scrolls and swags are decidedly feminine.

I took this photograph because of the way it illustrates how the municipalities of the early part of the twentieth century built to last. And how they routinely, and oddly, used motifs more commonly found on grand buildings, on more humble structures like this public toilet/lavatory/w.c. etc. The shot also shows the use of a word in a way that is rarely found today: "Mens" (without the required apostrophe!) is much more common now.
photograph & text (c) T. Boughen