Sunday, November 1, 2009

Of Elephants and Castles - 2

Back on July 28 I posted a story about the Elephant and Castle pub and the publican there - Mr. Les Wallace. If you have not read that post, please do! I mentioned how we would occasionally get into discussions on language and the many differences between British and American English.

One wonderful night a question came up.

Why do they call it the loo?

(It's going to be hard to write this one without resorting to all sorts of unclever puns that were flushed out of the language that night, but I'm going to do my best.)

Mr. Wallace mentioned that he had heard the reason that the English "loo" is so named is because the toilet was commonly located in room 100 of buildings and the two ("loo" and "100") look very much the same. But he did not buy into this explanation.

He seemed to think that it could be a British mispronunciation of the French le lieu, "the place", a euphemism. He felt, however, that "the place" was a LOOse translation.

Mrs. Wallace came in and joined the conversation. She said that she had been told as a child that it derives from the term "gardyloo" (a corruption of the French phrase gardez l'eau (or maybe: Garde de l'eau!) loosely translated as "watch out for the water!") which was used in medieval times when chamber pots were emptied from a window onto the street.

A few of the other patrons chimed in with their thoughts.

Maybe loo is short for bordalou, "a portable commode carried by eighteenth century ladies". Or perhaps it comes from the French lieux d'aisances, literally "places of ease", once also an English euphemism, which could have been picked up by British servicemen in World War One.

Two of the stranger explanations were -

The word comes from nautical terminology, loo being an old-fashioned word for lee. The standard nautical pronunciation (in British English) of leeward is looward. Early ships were not fitted with toilets but the crew would relieve themselves over the side of the vessel. However it was important to use the leeward side. Using the windward side would result in the stuff being blown back on board.


It's short for "Lady Louisa," Louisa being the unpopular wife of a 19th-century earl of Lichfield. In 1867 while the couple was visiting friends, two young wiseacres took the namecard off her bedroom door and stuck it on the door of the bathroom. The other guests thereafter began jocularly speaking of "going to Lady Louisa." In shortened form this eventually spread to the masses.

One gent related his deep appreciation for the artist Two Loos Lautrec. This after four pints of Worthington "E".

The best point of the night came from Mr. Wallace. He pointed out the I, as a member of the military, should understand rank. He asked me to pronounce "l-i-e-u-t-e-n-a-n-t". I replied that it was not as the British pronounced it - LEFtenant - but as we Americans pronounced it - LOO tenant- and Mr. Wallace just smiled.

"To me, a LOO tenant is simply the tenant of a loo. One who resides in a loo".

That called for one final pint of Guinness.

As I left that night Mr Wallace smiled again and said, "Don't lose your way back to base. Toodle-loo Hoppy. Remember, even the Queen has to sit on the throne sometimes".

Would the last to leave please ring the bell?

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Stan for this post. Dad so loved the banter you two engaged in! It was good to read this and stir up good memories. Ahh those were the days!

    PY Wallace