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Q From Barbara Blakeport: What is the origin of the British word loo for a bathroom or restroom?

A There are many theories about this word but few firm facts and its origin is one of the more celebrated puzzles in word history. Most experts argue it’s French in origin, or at least has French connections, though the opinions differ on what these might be. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests English aristocratic antecedents.

A lot of the theories can be disposed of by checking the known first dates of use. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first firm entry is dated as recently as 1940:

I suppose it is unreal because we have been expecting it for so long now, and have known that it must be got over before we can go on with our lives. Like in the night when you want to go to the loo and it is miles away down a freezing cold passage and yet you know you have to go down that passage before you can be happy and sleep again.

Pigeon Pie, by Nancy Mitford, 1940. The thing that must be got over is World War Two, which, alas, caused the book to fall dead from the press.

The OED cites earlier examples, one from a letter of 1936 sent from Tangiers by Lady Diana Cooper, the society actress and beauty, that refers to a “a lu-lu”, which must surely from context be a toilet, and another from a previous work by Nancy Mitford:

His correct and slightly pompous manner combined with the absence in his speech of such expressions as “O.K. loo”, “I couldn’t be more amused”, “We’ll call it a day”, “lousy”, “It was a riot”, “My sweetie-boo”, and “What a poodle-pie” to indicate the barrier of half a generation between himself, Paul and Bobby; a barrier which more than any other often precludes understanding, if not friendship, between young and youngish people.

Christmas Pudding, by Nancy Mitford, 1932, a high-spirited story of love and larks among the young and fashionable. Like the book’s modern readers, the Oxford English Dictionary’s editors can only guess at the meaning of loo here.

The OED’s etymologists suggested, when the Lady Diana Cooper example came to light in 2007, that these examples from such blue-blooded writers adds weight to the theory that loo was born in an aristocratic setting. But the early examples are sparse and ambiguous.

The comparatively recent eruption of the expression requires us to dismiss entirely the old story that it comes from the habit of the more caring and thoughtful Scottish housewives, in the days before plumbing, of warning passers-by on the street below with the cry gardy loo! before chucking the contents of their chamber pots out of upstairs windows. (It’s said to be a corrupted form of the French gardez l’eau! or “watch out for the water!”)

And equally the late date refutes the suggestion that it’s from the French bordalou, a portable commode resembling a sauce boat carried by eighteenth century ladies in their muffs. Some writers have suggested a connection with Waterloo, neither the London railway station nor the battle site but supposedly a trade name in the early twentieth century for cast-iron lavatory cisterns, a joke or play on the older water closet; this idea is principally based on its enigmatic appearance in James Joyce’s Ulysses of 1922: “O yes, mon loup. How much cost? Waterloo. Watercloset.”

One proposed non-French origin is that loo was a modified form of lee, for the side of a ship away from the wind (largely on the grounds that leeward was often said as looward), supposedly the side used to relieve oneself in the happy expectation that the results wouldn’t make a return visit. The fact that ships had places reserved for the purpose right at the bows, hence called heads, is enough to put the suggestion out of consideration.

Yet another theory, more plausibly, has it that it comes from the French euphemism lieux d’aisances, literally “places of ease” (it’s always plural), which is known from the beginning of the nineteenth century. This might have been picked up by British servicemen fighting in France in World War One, who would have shortened it and pronounced lieux as “loo”.

As matters stand, unless some earlier example turns up, we’re all left guessing.

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Page created 13 Feb 1999; Last updated 23 Apr 2011