Why the Toilet is Sometimes Called a “John”

Daven Hiskey 8
Sir John Harington

Sir John Harington

Today I found out why the toilet is sometimes called a “John”.

The term is thought to derive from Sir John Harrington or, at the least, to have been popularized due to Harrington. (There are a few references of the toilet being called “Cousin John”, as well as many references to it being called “Jake” and other such generic names, before Harrington was born; but it is generally agreed that why we now call it “John” is because of Harrington and not from the old “Cousin John”).

Sir John Harrington lived in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.  Harrington was one of the 102 god-children of Queen Elizabeth I, known as the “Saucy Godson”, for his proclivity to write somewhat risqué poetry and other writings, which often got him banished only to be allowed to return again sometime later.

Along with writing several notable works, Harrington also devised Britain’s first flushing toilet, which he called the “Ajax”.  This derived from the term “Jakes”, which was a slang term for what we now call a toilet.

Shortly thereafter, Harrington wrote one of his more famous and popular works titled “A New Discourse upon a Stale Subject: The Metamorphosis of Ajax”.  This, on the surface, was about his new invention, but more to the point was a political allegory on the “stercus” (excrement) that was poisoning the state.  The book itself got him banished from the court for a time due to its allusions to the Earl of Leicester.  However, the actual flushing toilet device itself was real and was installed in his home and later one was made for the queen around 1596.  The device worked by pulling a cord that would allow water to rush in from the “water closet”, which would flush away the waste.

Although Harrington wasn’t by any means the first to invent a flushing toilet (there are references to flushing toilets going all the way back to around 2600 BC), his invention was an innovation in Britain at the time and it was commonly thought that he was the inventor of the flushing toilet, which is why it is thought the flushing toilet today is often also called a “John”.

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Bonus Facts:

  • The British word for the toilet, “loo”, derives from the French “guardez l’eau”, meaning “watch out for the water”.  This comes from the fact that, in medieval Europe, people simply threw the contents of their chamber pots out the window onto the streets.  Before throwing the waste out the window, they’d yell “Guardez l’eau!”  The term “guardez l’eau” first came to English as “gardy-loo” and then shortened to “loo”, which eventually came to mean the toilet itself.
  • The toilet is also sometimes known as the “head”.  This was originally a maritime euphemism.  This came from the fact that, classically, the toilet on a marine vessel was located at the front of the ship (the head).  This was so that water from the sea that splashed up on the front of the boat would wash the waste away.  This term is thought to have been used as early as the 17th century.  The first known documented occurrence of the term, however, was from 1708 by Woodes Rogers, Governor of the Bahamas; he used the word to refer to a ship’s toilet in the book “Cruising Voyage Around the World.”
  • The term “toilet” itself comes from the French “toilette”, which meant “dressing room”.  This “toilette” in turn derived from the French “toile”, meaning “cloth”; specifically, referring to the cloth draped over someone’s shoulders while their hair was being groomed.  During the 17th century, the toilet was simply the process of getting dressed, fixing your hair, and applying make-up and the like, more or less grooming one’s self.  This gradually began to refer to the items around where someone was groomed, such as the table, powder bottles, and other items.  Around the 1800s in America, this term began being used to refer to both the room itself where people got dressed and ready for the day, as well as the device itself now most commonly known as the toilet.
  • The term “latrine” comes from the Latin “lavare”, which means “to wash”.  The earliest references to this term being used in English go all the way back to the mid-17th century.
  • The term “restroom” has American roots, first appearing in the early 20th century.  It comes from the notion of “rest” referring to “refreshing” one’s self.  Around the same time “restroom” began popping up, the British term “retiring room”, deriving from more or less the same notion, began being used among the upper class in Great Britain.
  • The term “lavatory” also derives from the Latin “lavare”, although this time through the Middle Latin variation “lavatorium”, meaning “washbasin”.  This popped up in English around the late 19th century.
  • The term “crapper” derives from the company name “Thomas Crapper & Co Ltd”, which made toilets in Britain.  American soldiers in WWI stationed in England found this humorous because of the play on words with the previously existing term “crap” and so began calling the toilet “the crapper”.
  • Unlike the English, Americans, and many other peoples around the world, who prefer a variety of euphemisms to refer to the toilet, the French often simply call it the “pissoir”, which just means “place to piss”.  The English and Americans have a similar term, “shit house”, but it is obviously not a term typically found in polite conversation. :-)
  • The 1960 movie “Pyscho” is thought to be the first movie where a toilet is shown being flushed.  The momentous flushing took place just before Janet Leigh’s character takes a shower and subsequently gets stabbed to death.
  • The first toilet shown on a TV show appeared on the pilot episode of Leave it to Beaver in 1957, titled “Captain Jack”.  In this episode, Wally and Beave hide a mail order baby alligator in the toilet tank.  Special care was taken in the filming to only show the tank and never the seat, so as not to offend people.
  • What hemisphere you are in does not affect the way the water spins down your toilet.  Which way it spins is entirely determined by which way the jets are pointed.
  • Sir John Harrington is also remembered for his political epigram: “Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason?  Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason.”

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8 Comments »

  1. Jared Bond August 11, 2010 at 2:19 pm - Reply

    “If you’ll excuse me gentlemen, I shall retreat to the retiring room for a few moments. Carry on.”

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