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

Euphemism

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.

Later

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.


Sources:

  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
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