I’m watching Great Stink, a BBC documentary on sanitation at the moment. Just 4 minutes in and already the word myths are coming thick and fast. One is that the word loo originated with the expression gardyloo, ie pseudo-French gare de l’eau ‘beware of the water’, yelled by people emptying the night’s waste products from windows. OED, in the midst of a detailed and interesting review of suggested etymologies, says there is no evidence for such an origin at all.
Perhaps < French lieux (plural) latrines (1640), toilets (in later use short for lieux d’aisances : 1802), specific (euphemistic) use of lieu lieu n.; the English form loo may result from association with the pronunciation of the earlier borrowing lieu n. Use of the French word in an English context in the meaning ‘privy’ may perhaps be shown by the following:
1782 W. Mason Let. 14 Nov. in E. W. Harcourt Papers (1883) VII. 79, I am myself employed in constructing a lieu here in our great Residentiary house, & tho’ I have many & great difficulties to encounter I trust it will turn out a paragon, both for sweetness, utility, & cheapness.
Alternatively, perhaps shortened < the name of Waterloo (see Waterloo n.), perhaps punningly after water closet n.; perhaps compare also French water toilet (1913, chiefly in plural; < water closet n.); however, similar use of Waterloo has not been traced.
It has also been suggested that the word is shortened from bourdaloue chamber pot of oblong shape ( < French bourdaloue (1762 or earlier in this sense) < the name of the Jesuit and preacher Louis Bourdaloue (1632–1704), with obscure allusion, perhaps to secrets of the confession); however, that word appears never to have had great currency in English, and is not attested in more general application to a toilet in either English or French.
It is frequently suggested that the word is shortened from gardyloo n., but the assumed semantic development is considerable, and not supported by any evidence; additionally, the chronological gap is very considerable between the period when the cry would have had any contemporary currency and the earliest attestations of the present word.
The suggestion that the word is shortened from ablution n. 6 is improbable on chronological grounds as well as in view of the irregularity of the suggested shortening.
A number of other origins have also been suggested.
The other howler is that the phrase the wrong end of the stick comes from the Roman practice of using sticks with sponges on the end to clean themselves after defecation. We had a few threads on this phrase and its variants on the old board and I think I recollect someone there saying there was no such Roman custom and even if there were it’s absurd to suppose that a phrase in Latin or whatever other language would lie hidden for almost 1750-odd years only to surface in print in English in 1846. It is amusing to see however just what that 1846 cite is.
III, 15, e
1846 ‘Lord Chief Baron’ Swell’s Night Guide (new ed.) 49 Which of us had hold of the crappy..end of the stick?
Imagine the glee of a word mythographer on seeing that!