Why Is a Toilet Called a John?

Why do we call a toilet a john? The crapper is because American soldiers in WWII saw Thomas Crapper‘s British brand all over the place there. And it helped that crap already meant ‘chaff, cut portion, discarded extra’. But john? Why is the place of waste named after a person! Another brand name? Nope, there’s no trace of brand name and John Harrington in 1596 was already calling it “Ajax” which was a nice classical take on the common term a jakes for a privy. Well now another common name used to mean the place of excrement disposal–this doesn’t help us. Let’s take a look at progression from the beginning.

Common Name

Jakke, Jacke, Jake—all something close to [jakə]

All forms of Jacques from Old French; from Latin Iacobus; from the Biblical figure, Hebrew: Ya’akob [jaɁakob]

Or perhaps in fact an English nickname for John (Hebrew Yokhanan [joħanan], that pharyngeal may have gone velar), but we’re not gonna go there.

Regardless, a really common name.

Common Person

Both Jack and John

The name was so common that it became metonymical for any common person, the plentiful Johns and Jacks of the farming countryside, i.e. the 90-so% of the population for centuries in Europe.

cf. parallel development in France with Jacques (Old French name) > Jacquerie ‘the peasantry’ (Middle French) and the much later every Tom, Dick, and Harry


Then we arrive. How do you politely say that you’re going to do something that smells bad and needs to be kept generally separate for some semblance of sanitation?

I’m going to Jake’s house. > I’m going to Jake’s. / I’m going to the Jakes.

the jakes

Thus: ‘I’m going to a common destination intentionally vaguely’

Cf. the intentional vagueness employed in calling a prostitute’s customer a john. It’s unmentionable, so we keep our reference so general that the details cannot be identified–or at least feel verbally untouched.


The switch to another common name.

I’m going to John’s house. / I’m going to see Cousin John. (because you had a lot of them in the village) > I’m going to the John.

the john

When Did the Switch Happen?

Anywhere between 1596 when John Harrington wrote a book about flush toilets and 1932 when the term john meaning ‘toilet’ was apparently first attested. Flush toilets started being mass produced in the 1840s, but it’s not hard to think of jakes/jake and john being interchangeable long before that.


  1. “Flush toilet” Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flush_toilet#History
  2. Etymonline, the Online Etymology Dictionary http://etymonline.com/index.php
  3. https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/41021/why-is-a-bathroom-sometimes-called-a-john

Punch’s Razor

Wow that’s a cool name.

John Punch, in 1639, wrote a commentary on John Duns’s work (also Duns Scotus / Don Scotus) and in the course of that, incorporated his paraphrase of some of William of Ockham’s ideas.

Well, that was a mouthful. Lots of old Johns and Williams without real last names. 400-700 years later this makes them very hard to necessarily and sufficiently refer to.

So Occam’s1 Razor stated as

Non sunt multiplicanda entia sine necessitate

could rightly be called Punch’s Razor. Which still sounds damn awesome.

Those words are commonly attributed to Ockham himself, but they are in fact Punch’s wording. You can blame the symbolic power of a convenient label.


1Yes, the philosophical concept is spelled different from his hometown. Again, the difficulty with transfer of a dynamic, uncodified knowledge system (i.e. medieval spelling) across half a millennium.

Turkic Languages

85%  of Turkic by speakers is Turkish (Turkey), Azeri (Azerbaijan), Uzbek (Uzbekistan), Kazakh (Kazakhstan), and Uyghur [ʔʊjˈʁʊː]* (Xinjiang, China).

Main Turkic Mod.png

Political divisions where 85% of Turkic languages are spoken. Modified from map courtesy of amCharts.

Assuming an urheimat stretching approx. from the Uyghur to the Sakha regions, the above distribution includes the southern portion of that, with the addition of spreading quite successfully west to and across the Caspian Sea.

You can see the other 15%, extending over a much large geographic distribution, with the maps on the Turkic languages wiki page (which is where these statistics came from).

There’s not a huge difference from Proto-Turkic to modern Turkish. Just some vowel changes and a voicing change on some consonants. And loss of /g/ as indicated by the silence of ‹ğ›. That’s most of it (of course there are a few more). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turkic_languages

Relatively high mutual intelligibility (for Oghuz branch). It’s not automatic, but it’s rather easy for speakers to adapt and acquire. For a full report, check out Beyond Highbrow’s article on the topic.

For more reference, internet answers, and anecdotes on mutual intelligibility here are some further links:
Word Reference forums
Victor Mair’s Mutual Intelligibility Quiz elicits some useful reports from readers
Odd source, but the limited examples are interesting



* How to Pronounce Uyghur

The native pronunciation of Uyghur is [ʔʊjˈʁʊː]/[ʔʊjˈʁʊɾ]. I’m not sure if the /r/ would be pronounced word-finally. For a little bit easier version of the correct pronunciation, you might say [ʊiˈʁu]/[ʊiˈʁuɾ]. For a negotiated, Anglicized pronunciation you’d be looking at options or tokens like these: [u.iˈɹu]/[u.iˈɹɚ]; [ˈu.iˌɹu]/[ˈu.iˌɹɚ], [ˈu.iˌɹʌ], [ˈu.iˌɹə] (the [i] could also be stressed, but this would be the least correct of the negotiated pronunciations); [wiˈɹu], [ˈwi.ɹu]/[ˈwi.ɹɚ], [ˈwi.uɚ].


Bidirectional G.jpg

You Consume These Horrible Sounding Chemicals Every Day

It’s time to block off a lot of time from work and call all your chemistry teacher friends, cause you’re about to do a lot of drugs. In fact, you are gonna have to do every substance on this list today or you will die.

retinoic acid
retinyl palmitate
pantothenic acid
folate / folic acid
folinic acid
ascorbic acid (yes, [ə.skɔ˞.bɪk])
dl-tocopheryl acetate
phylloquinone / phytomenadione / phytonadione
menaquinone-4 / menatetrenone
alpha-linolenic acid
linoleic acid
docosahexaenoic acid
gamma-linolenic acid

OK, if that’s not enough for you and you still wanna ride the A-train, B-train, or whatever train that took you on, then here are some substances that will make things interesting. Some of them are in fact life-or-death essential, while some of may perhaps be harmful. You’ll have to do more than see long scary chemistry words to find out.

hydrogen dioxide
sodium chloride
dicalcium phosphate
magnesium citrate
silicon dioxide
sodium hydroxide
hydrogen peroxide
sodium bicarbonate
potassium sodium tratrate

The substance on the first list are not actually drugs, but scary sounding chemical names for vitamins. The second list is things like water, salt, sand, alcohol, and caffeine. When you write out the chemical formulas for even the most common and essential compounds, the pile of Neo-Grecolatin rises and felicity flies out the door, leading to ocular dilation, heart palpitations, anxiety, racing thoughts—and delusions of chemical grandeur.

Common names for everything helps, as in the case with caffeine (the only chemical name for it is hugely inaccessible and grossly obtuse), but our relationship with chemistry terms—and jargon in general—needs to change: more education and less usage except in a learning or otherwise clarified environment.

The Etymology of the Word Alfalfa Will Surprise You

Take a look at the etymology for alfalfa. (This page has some extra info too.)

It actually has the same root as the Latin term equus, both coming from the PIE *ʔékʲwos. For alfalfa, it went by way of Persian aspast, apparently the palatovelar [kʲ] becoming [s] and the labiovelar [w] in that environment interestingly becoming [p]. (I’m assuming the -[t] is a grammatical thing from Persian.) Remember that an approximant sound can potentially become a fricative or a stop. It’s important to point out that in this PIE root this is not a labiovelar [kw], but the sequence of a palatalized (or possibly plain velar) followed by a [w]. In all of the reflexes for *ʔékʲwos then, if [w] changed, it either became a [v] or [p] or it went away, so we don’t see [w] becoming a velar.

The later Persian form aspest was borrowed into Arabic where it picked up the definite article prefix al– and underwent a transformation that looks like some reduplication was involved: al-fisˤfisˤ The first syllable as– may have been discarded (subconsciously) as sounding too much like the article. That would give us *past and since there’s no [p] in Arabic that falls to the next voiceless labialoid sound [f] and something about Arabic at this time or the sound of the secondary, tertiary articulation / phonetic minutiae of the Persian –st# to the Arabic ear led [st] to become a pharyngealized s. So it was

(our article)(unnecessary repetition of article)(labialoid)(vowel)(s)(something else we’ll call it emphatic)

yielding *al-asfisˤ which then was reduplicated to *al-fisˤfisˤ, possibly to fill in the timing of the word and/or to feasibly mimic the lost [as] by means of differentiation. There also could have been an intermediate form *al-isfisˤ and the similarity of the final syllable to the previous one led them to assimilate. (And reduplication seems fitting for casually or even dismissively waving at that horse food stuff. Horses were heavily used in Arabic-speaking regions so they would have been commonplace and familiarity tends to breed a sort of phonological contempt/ennui and understatedly endearing creativity, i.e. you get bored saying the same thing over and over again, so you change it by processes it beyond systematic, regular sound change.)

Then Spanish, the great vehicle of Arabic for Europe, further changed our now recognizable form to [alfalfes]. Again we see some assimilation with the -[al] sequence being repeated in the second syllable. This suggests there may have been an intermediate form more like the Arabic of [alfesfes] and the -[sf]- sequence was too much for the Spanish tongue. Later the final [s] was lost and we have the form that looks familiar to us today.

So, again, this stuff:
Alfalfa (Medicago sativa) : sprouts

and horse ultimately came from the same word.

That’s quite a statement for word relationships and the process of neologism (or neology, as the practice of using a neologism).

But now that we’ve seen the phonological pathway for that, ‘horse’ and ‘horse food’ having the same root doesn’t sound so crazy.

This Seems to Have Affected You – Diminishing the Effect of Prescriptivism

A quick Google search to remind yourself of when to use effect or affect yields websites much like this one from University of Kansas.

The minutiae this gets into is ridiculous when you think that they sound exactly the same: [əˈfɛkt], except for the psychological noun: [ˈæ.fɛkt]. Unless it could be established that we say something like [əˈfɛkt] for ‹effect› and [ʌˈfɛkt] for ‹affect› or some close distinction like that, realistically, all instances of [əˈfɛkt] should be spelled ‹effect› and [ˈæ.fɛkt], ‹affect›. All other distinctions really are superfluous. It doesn’t communicate any transparent or salient etymological information, which is the only defense of keeping confounding English spelling conventions. The site indicating that effect as a verb is “acceptable in rare cases” reflects that people are picking up on this and jettisoning the orthographic buffoonery.

(For the sake of Google searches and attracting the prescriptivists themselves, I’ve maintained the prescription in the title of this post. Please excuse its nonsense.)

So here is a view of the KU webpage with all of the spellings replaced by the phonetic transcription. The silliness of these rules becomes apparent when IPA evens the playing field.

The distinction is imaginary.

In the light of IPA there is no condemnation

In the light of IPA there is no condemnation