The daily need for a toilet can be a frustrating challenge for travellers. While you likely know where public toilets are located (or where they’re missing) in your home town, this is not the case when traveling to places you’re unfamiliar with. When visiting different cultural spheres, you may actually not be able to identify toilets or know how they work.

. . . Toilets . . .

Outhouse in a scenic setting, Senj

Everyone Poops

—title of a children’s book

While one of human’s most basic needs has to be taken care of no matter where you are, the way it is actually done can differ wildly from place to place, sometimes even within one country. From fancy self cleaning toilets in Japan to nothing more than what you bring with you to dispose of human waste or – well – a hole in the ground when leave-no-trace camping, there is a wide variety, that you should be at least aware of before heading out.

Once you finish your business, you have to clean yourself, and there are various methods that are popular in different parts of the world.

The latrinae in Ephesus, a nice place to socialize back then.

Since it’s such an essential need, along with “please” and “thank you”, one of the first phrases any traveler should learn in the local language is “Where is the toilet?”.

Since many cultures don’t like talking plainly about their dirty business, it’s incredibly common for there to be a lot of euphemistic names for the room where you go to do your business. Even the plain English word “toilet” came from French toilette “small cloth”, used to protect your clothes while shaving or doing your hair (from which we get “toiletries”).

In English, the word “toilet” often refers only to the receptacle, but when you’re asking where to go, a different word is often used for the room it’s in. Depending on the language and region, not all names are universal, and you may confuse people if you ask for the wrong one. To wit:

  • toilet Okay in the UK (where “toilet” may be the room or the fixture), but considered blunt in the U.S. (where “toilet” is the fixture).
  • bathroom In the U.S. this has a toilet and might have a bath/shower; standard word in homes. In the UK it definitely has a bath/shower, but maybe not a toilet.
  • restroom In the U.S. this usually has only a toilet; standard word in public buildings. Not used in the UK.
  • water closet or W.C. In the UK has a toilet, but this phrase is not very common today. May be understood but not generally used in the U.S. Used as a loan word in many countries, where it’s sometimes written as WC without punctuation.
  • loo Common informal word in the UK. May be understood but not generally used in the U.S.

Potty humor

As you might expect, there are also a lot of humorous names and phrases for the toilet.

  • answering nature’s call
  • going where even the emperor must go on foot / where even the king sits alone
  • sitting on the porcelain throne
  • making a pit stop
  • urination station
  • the crapper Thomas Crapper and his company produced many toilets in Britain, to the amusement of American troops stationed there in WW I. At the time the word “crap” had long since been forgotten in Britain but was still used in America.
  • taking a leak used for humor in the film Star Trek: First Contact, when time travelers from the future don’t recognize this present-day euphemism
  • spend a penny a British euphemism (now in decline) that came from Britain’s 19th and 20th century pay toilets which cost one penny to use
  • die gekachelten Räumlichkeiten aufsuchen in German, “visit the tiled quarters”. Toilet is also known as null-null (“zero zero”) in informal German, which is due to many hotels assigning that as a room number for toilets way back when.
  • gå på muggen – in Swedish, “go to the mug”
  • going for a short call in Uganda, the polite way to express what you are up to. Of course there is a “long call” as well. In the countryside distinguishing between both is essential as there are two different places to go depending on the “length of the call”.

There are many other English words for the room

  • washroom Canadian equivalent of U.S. “restroom”
  • lavatory Common in UK English; in the U.S. this usually refers only to facilities on passenger vehicles (airplanes, trains, buses)
  • comfort room, or C.R. Common in Philippines
  • men’s / women’s room

some exceedingly polite and indirect names

  • gentlemen’s (gents’) / ladies’ room
  • little boys’ / little girls’ room
  • powder room, or “powdering one’s nose”
  • “washing one’s hands”
  • the facilities
  • public conveniences

a lot of informal names

  • lav British slang, short for “lavatory”
  • bog British slang, may be mildly vulgar
  • khazi regional British slang
  • netty regional British slang
  • jacks Irish slang
  • john American slang
  • can American slang
  • dunny Australian slang, particularly for an outhouse or outdoor toilet
  • head nautical term for any toilet on a ship; also general slang
  • latrine standard military nomenclature
  • privy generally refers to an outhouse or outdoor toilet
  • potty word often used with children, as in “going potty” and “potty training” (more specifically, a potty is a small pot used by children who aren’t big enough to use an adult-sized toilet)

and probably a lot of crude ones, which we needn’t mention here.

For cleaning, “toilet paper” is universally understood, but Brits may refer to loo roll or bog roll.

. . . Toilets . . .

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. . . Toilets . . .