Saturday, October 17, 2009

In loo of a proper restroom

Many, many years ago, way back in 19cough-cough (all right — it was 1969 and some of you weren’t even born yet), I was in London for the first time. I found myself in a car rental office, eager to start driving on the wrong side of the road. As I waited, I needed to use a men’s room.

Of course, I knew that British English and American English had differences, and that them Brits (as we Texans are likely to say) said “loo” or “water closet” to indicate the facilities. But when it came time for me to ask the nice lady for permission, I simply lacked the courage to try either of those words. So I reached for the most courteous-sounding term I had, and I said, “Is there a restroom I can use?” She thought for a moment, then said, “No, just that settee in the corner.” I realized that she truly thought I want to “rest,” and the sofa was all she had to offer.

Last month I had occasion to return to England, and I found some other language differences that you might find interesting. Let me start by telling you that the restrooms — the men’s rooms and ladies’ rooms — are still called loos and water closets … sometimes cloakrooms. But mostly they’re simply called toilets. And where we have handicapped restrooms, they have adapted toilets.

Not surprisingly, a lot of their terms are a bit more genteel than ours. For instance, instead of commanding that tourists stay on board while the bus is moving, they ask that you not alight whilst vehicle is in motion. Alight and whilst — genteel. And they don’t cook tea, or even brew it; they allow it to infuse. Yes.

On the other hand, their signs can be quite graphic (forgive the pun). We saw one street sign that warned of elderly people crossing the road, and the artwork featured drawings of people who were bent over, shuffling behind canes and walkers. And then we saw an even more graphic one showing exactly what kind of dog mess one is expected to handle (another pun to pardon).

The text on a nearby sign sounded genteel, though: “It is an offence to allow a dog to foul the footway.” Alliterative, even.

You don’t rent a tux there; you hire a dinner suit. We went to a wedding in a chapel at Oxford University, and the invitations had this: “No photography is allowed in the Chapel … and no confetti is allowed full stop.” Darn, I was hoping to stuff my hired dinner suit with confetti. But full stop, well, that put a definite halt to it. (“Full stop” means “and nothing less.”)

I signed up for a newsletter online with these instructions: “Fill in your details here and we’ll tip you the nod every few weeks.” Isn’t that interesting? Tip me the ole nod.

The vent in an English bathroom (well, toilet) is called an isolator, I suppose because it isolates the odors one wants isolated. Glass blocks are called air bricks, which makes sense. Scotch tape is called celly, Saran Wrap stuff is called cling film, and of course they watch adverts on the telly. (I assume they have adverts for celly on the telly.)

Finally, you and I have talked before about the British saying “he’s in hospital,” where they drop the “the” that we would use before “hospital.” I pointed out that we do it occasionally ourselves, such as in “he’s in school right now.” But they win, hands down — I heard all of these: “She’s downstairs in kitchen,” “Have we got problem?” and even “I’ll be down in minute.” Makes me want to write “the” a few thousand times and mail it over there as a helpful gift.

Can’t do it now — I need to go see if my dog has fouled a footpath.


Mike Clark writes a monthly language column for the News & Record. Reach him at or follow him on Twitter (