Loo, the British word for a lavatory or toilet is one of those words that has generated endless speculation and myth about its origin. While we don’t know for sure where the word comes from, we do have a pretty good guess. It’s most likely from the French lieu, meaning place. The English loo doesn’t make an unambiguous appearance until 1940, but there is good evidence the term was in use since at least the late nineteenth century, and the use of the euphemism in French is much older.
In French, the plural lieux is attested as a euphemism for latrines as early as the 1640s, and by 1802 the term lieux d’aisance (places of comfort) was in use. The crossover from French to English is seen in a 1782 letter by English poet and clergyman William Mason:
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.
While this is just a single example, there were undoubtedly other such uses over the centuries that went unrecorded because it was not a subject people often wrote about, and when they did, the writing was not preserved.
A 22 June 1895 cartoon in Punch seemingly puns on the word when it depicts a curate giving the instruction to his choir:
Now, we’ll begin again at “Hallelujah,” and please linger longer on the “Lu”!
While the context of the image has nothing to do with the lavatory, the cartoon would simply not have been funny unless loo was an already established euphemism, and the cartoon’s title of “Undesigned Coincidence” indicates that this indeed is the case.
And in 1922, James Joyce includes this line in Ulysses:
O yes, mon loup. How much cost? Waterloo. Watercloset.
But the first utterly unambiguous, known use of loo in English is in Nancy Mitford’s 1940 novel Pigeon Pie:
In the night when you want to go to the loo.
There are any number of myths about loo’s origin, but perhaps the most common is that it is a clipping of the cry gardyloo, an alteration of the French gare l’eau (beware of the water) allegedly used before emptying a chamber pot out a window and onto the street. But there is no evidence connecting the warning cry with the modern slang term. It’s also been suggested that it comes from the French bourdaloue, a type of chamber pot, from ablution, and from Waterloo, a pun on water closet as in the Joyce quotation above. But again, there’s no real evidence for any of these conjectures.
Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, September 2016, s. v. loo, n.4; gardyloo, n.
Copyright 1997-2017, by David Wilton