A stream of questions about the origin of loo never dries up, though most people know that they will not get a satisfactory answer. Cornering a specialist is a rare treat, and guests at talk shows are genuinely pleased when the host says that he has no clue to the past of a certain word. Doctors are expected to recognize diseases; plumbers are called to fix leaking taps and blocked sinks, and etymologists’ duty is to shed light on word origins. They are paid for it. Right? Or, quoting a favorite phrase from the “letters to the editor” section of newspapers: “Am I missing something”? Yes, you are. Etymologists are like detectives and are able to solve a mystery (in this case, the coining of a word) only if they have enough evidence at their disposal. Usually, the evidence is insufficient. We cannot state with certainty even where boy and girl, lad and lass, man and wife came from; so it is no wonder that the history of such a “vulgar” word as loo, which surfaced in English some time around the First World War (the OED has no citations prior to James Joyce’s Ulysses) and gained popularity in the thirties, remains obscure.
The most bothersome thing is that we are ignorant of the milieu in which loo sprang up. It would help immensely if we knew that in the beginning this word had the greatest currency among sailors, soldiers who served in a Dutch-speaking country, people equally versed in English and French, or university students enjoying Latin-English puns. But so far no one has discovered in whose back yard loo arose and how long it had existed before it turned up in Ulysses (probably not too long). Words for “privy” are occasionally stubs of longer forms. Such are German Klo (from Kloset), French lieu “place” (from lieu or lieux [plural] d’aisance), and Dutch Plee (of uncertain origin). German Lokus (“toilet,” literally “place”) begins with the syllable lo-, while Engl. lavatory begins with la-. All this shows that the monosyllabic Engl. loo is in good company, but, unfortunately, nothing else.
French l’eau “the water” has been offered as the etymon (source) of loo. In the 19th century, it was common to invent French etymons of English words and explain the discrepancy in the pronunciation as the result of English speakers’ inability to produce foreign sounds. But surely, law or low are more accurate renderings of l’eau than loo. And why should loo have been borrowed from French, a language that lacks its equivalent? Engl. ablution contains the syllable loo, and so does Latin ablui “I have washed off.” If loo originated at Oxford and Cambridge, bookish word play could be considered. However, as noted, we do not know the social stratum in which loo was coined.
Since the abbreviation for water closet is WC, loo resembles the second half of double u, but loo, definitely not an “Americanism,” has never been pronounced like British lew (that is, with the sounds of few, pew, cue) even in the United States, let alone England or Scotland. The same objection holds for the attempts to derive loo from lee “shelter,” reportedly pronounced somewhere as lew, and from the phrase in lieu of. Lavatories are often named for people. Engl. john is a classic example; its predecessor was jakes. In Germany, Tante Lotte “Aunt Lotte” and many other similar names have been attested. It would be nice if Uncle Lou, the eponymous ancestor of British toilets, were discovered, but so far he has not turned up. According to one version, during a house party in Ireland, about 120 years ago, Lady Louisa Anson’s two younger sons put her name card on the guest lavatory. Henceforward, highbrows (or so we are informed) talked of going to Lady Loo. Perhaps they did, but, to the best of our knowledge, this piece of aristocratic slang has left no trace in any story or newspaper article, and no member of the British nobility seems to remember it. We may forget it too. Then there was Louis Bourdaloue (1632-1704), a celebrated preacher whose first name conveniently begins with lou– and last name ends with the same syllable. Portable night pots, carried in ladies’ muffs, were really called bourdalous and their use spread from France to the Netherlands (Dutch bordelou). The explanations of how the name of the court preacher was transferred to the mean utensil do not inspire confidence, for they smack too strongly of folk etymology: either the sermons were so long that people (especially women?) had to relieve themselves in the middle, or as noble ladies’ father confessor he heard so many dirty secrets that he became a kind of moral sewer. A dissenting hypothesis, according to which bourdalou goes back to a word meaning “filth, refuse,” carries more conviction; if it is right, the connection with the proper name is late, a tribute to of a crude sense of humor. Be that as it may, no path leads from an 18th-century French word for a night pot to a 20th English word for a toilet.
Time and again we are reminded in the popular literature of the cry gardyloo (from French gardez-vous de l’eau “look out for the water” or some other similar phrase), used 450 years ago in Edinburgh after ten o’clock, when servants used to throw dirty water from the upper stories to the street below. Hence, presumably, the name of the vessel from which its contents were poured out, and Engl. loo. The sheltered side of a small boat without a latrine is called loo(w)ard or leeward, and sailors allegedly use it for urinating and defecating. Shall we skip to this loo? Or shall we note that in some countries 00 is written on primitive “biffies” (add l’ or a vertical stroke to it) and that the French for a seat in a water closet bowl (pan) is called lunette? Or that lu-lu means “piss” in German? And Waterloo! At least one serious language historian favored the derivation of loo from that place name. Water-loo became a tolerably good pun after loo emerged in English, but before that who would have extracted loo from Waterloo and endowed it with the meaning “lavatory” in analogy of “water closet”? (Waterloo, the name of the famous village in Brabant, means “water wood”; Dutch lo or loo is related to Engl. lea “tract of open ground; grass land.”)
What a wealth of conjectures and what meager results! Some of the suggestions are downright silly, but others are not unreasonable, and perhaps one of them should not have been discarded. But guesswork will remain guesswork. To choose one of the many derivations of loo, we need a missing link, some fact that would tip the scale, evidence rather than intelligent guessing. As a rule, such “missing links” come our way by chance, for serendipity plays an outstanding role in etymology. A scholar may be reading a millionth book and suddenly run into a word or a statement that dispels what seemed to be absolute obscurity. I am speaking from experience, for I, too, have experienced the joy of seeing the light from an irrelevant source. Above, I called the word loo hopeless. For the time being this epithet will stay, but where is life, there is hope.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”