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The Spice Merchant

Crookham Village, Fleet

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Toilet History

History of the toilet

Toilet History

The word "toilet" came to be used in English along with other French fashions. It originally referred to the whole complex of operations of hairdressing and body care that centered at a dressing table covered to the floor with cloth (toile) and lace, on which stood a mirror, which might also be draped in lace: the ensemble was a toilette. The English poet Alexander Pope in The Rape of the Lock (1717) described the intricacies of a lady's preparation:

Through the 18th century, everywhere in the English-speaking world, a toilet remained a lady's draped dressing-table. The word was adapted as a genteel euphemism for the room and the object as we know them now, perhaps following the French usage cabinet de toilette, much as powder-room may be coyly used today, and this has been linked to the introduction of public toilets, for example on railway trains, which required a plaque on the door. The original usage has become indelicate and obsolete, and has been replaced by dressing-table.

Vestiges of the original meaning continue to be reflected in terms such as toiletries, eau de toilette and toilet bag (to carry flannels, soaps, etc). This seemingly contradictory terminology has served as the basis for various parodies e.g. Cosmopolitan magazine ("If it doesn't say 'eau de toilette' on the label, it most likely doesn't come from the famed region of Eau de Toilette in France and might not even come from toilets at all.")

The word toilet itself may be considered an impolite word in the United States see toilet names, whilst elsewhere the word is used without any embarrassment. The choice of the word used instead of toilet is highly variable, not just by regional dialect but also, at least in Britain, by class connotations. Nancy Mitford wrote an essay out of the choice of wording; see U and non-U English. Some manufacturers show this uneasiness with the word and its class attributes: American Standard, the largest manufacturer, sells them as "toilets", yet the higher priced products of the Kohler Company, often installed in more expensive housing, are sold as commodes or closets, words which also carry other meanings. Confusingly, products imported from Japan such as TOTO are referred to as "toilets", even though they carry the cachet of higher cost and quality. When referring to the room or the actual piece of equipment, the word toilet is often substituted with other euphemisms and dysphemisms.

As old euphemisms have become accepted, they have been progressively replaced by newer ones, an example of the euphemism treadmill at work. The choice of word used to describe the room or the piece of plumbing relies as much on regional variation (dialect) as on social situation and level of formality.