For years I’ve swum in San Francisco Bay as a member of the Dolphin Swimming and Boating Club, and for years I’ve strolled past a sign in one of the club’s locker rooms without thinking about it. But one day not long ago I stopped in front of the sign and stared at it as though seeing it for the first time.
The sign has just four words: three nouns and a conjunction. And those three nouns, it now dawned on me, don’t merely provide helpful directions. They also tell rich stories about the history of the English language.
One of the words traces its roots to Old English. One has been borrowed—along with the thing it names—from a country whose language is unrelated to English. And one is among the many words English borrowed from French—and then altered its spelling and meaning over the centuries.
If you’ve done any sewing, you may be familiar with toile, a French loanword for a cotton or linen fabric used in dressmaking. That toile—pronounced twal in French—is hiding in plain sight in modern English toilet. But how did it get there?
Answer: Slowly and in stages.
In the 14th century, French toilette—a diminutive form of toile, pronounced twal-ette—meant, logically enough, a small piece of cloth for wrapping or covering clothes. By the end of the 16th century the same word designated a cloth cover for a dressing table. A hundred years later, it denoted the articles on that table—hairbrushes, powders, lotions, and so on. Spelled either as toilette or toilet, it might also signify the action of preparing oneself to appear in public: washing, dressing, applying makeup. (More grimly, history gives us “the toilet of the condemned”: preparation for execution, especially by guillotine.) In the mid–19th century, this “preparation” sense of toilet expanded to include “cleaning”—of an animal, an object, a place, or, in surgery, of a wound or body cavity.
And with that sense of “cleaning,” we begin to get closer to modern toilet.
Around the end of the 19th century, references to toilets—rooms, especially in public places, set aside for bodily functions—began appearing in American publications and then in British ones. The first instance of toilet referring to a specific piece of plumbing appeared in a New York legal document in 1894. Today, Americans are more likely to use bathroom or restroom for the “room” sense, even if no bathtub or shower is present, and to reserve toilet for the porcelain fixture. (Canadians tend to use washroom for the public facility.)
When you’re finished using the toilet, you’ll want to wash your hands and dry them with a towel—another word in which toile has left its linguistic mark.
The native word in the trio, shower, comes to us from Old English scur, a couple of whose original meanings we retain today: “a short fall of rain; a fall of missiles or blows.” The word has survived many spelling changes: scyr, chowris, schour, shure, and shorow in Middle English; schouer, showere, sure, shewer, showr, and shore in the 1500s and 1600s. Despite their (currently) similar spellings, shower is unrelated to the noun and verb show, but it may be related to the noun and verb scour, one of whose senses is “to move about hastily in search of something.” It’s that concept of “fast motion” that connects scour and shower: a rain shower passes quickly, unlike a “downpour” or a “drizzle.”
Very early on—before the 15th century—shower proved its usefulness in metaphorical expressions: a shower of ashes, a shower of riches, a shower of bad fortune. Meteor shower, however, didn’t make an appearance until 1850, and the parties known as bridal showers and baby showers—North American inventions for “showering” honored guests with gifts, according to the OED—were first documented in the 1890s.
The shower we find in a modern bathroom is a relatively late arrival to the lexicon. It was first documented as shower-bath; the OED’s earliest citation is from an 1820 issue of the London Medical & Physical Journal, which suggests that this “ingenious and very convenient apparatus” originally was designed for therapeutic rather than quotidian use. It wasn’t until the first decade of the 20th century that shower (or showers) could denote a cubicle or room designed for stand-up bathing. By then, group showering of the sort we have at the Dolphin Club had become highly evolved: a 1910 article in the Winchester (Indiana) Journal noted that “about 125 persons can be accommodated at one time in the showers and tank”—presumably of a gymnasium or very large swimming pool.
After a bracing immersion in San Francisco Bay, where the year-round water temperature averages 54°F/12°C, there’s nothing like a hot sauna to revive a swimmer’s core temperature. Sauna is often defined as “Finnish steam bath,” but many saunas employ dry heat. (The Dolphin Club’s dry saunas—one for men, one for women—are electrically heated to about 180°F/82°C.) The Finnish word sauna is ancient; the bathhouses themselves were introduced to North America by Finnish and Swedish immigrants in the 17th century. (The equivalent Swedish word is badstuga—literally “bath cottage.”) In Sweat, his book about saunas and their steamy relatives, American author Mikkel Aaland writes that in 1880 an American homesteader went to court in Minnesota “in an attempt to rid the countryside of ‘that pagan temple.’ On the day of the trial, the courtroom was packed with curious citizens, most of whom never heard of a sauna. But it was proved to the judge’s satisfaction that the Finns were law-abiding, American citizens of a staid Lutheran caliber when it was explained the sauna was a place for cleaning and not for worshiping pagan gods.” It would take another century, however, before saunas caught on among the general American public.
The Dolphin Club sign is helpful, but it doesn’t cover all of the possibilities for a modern body-cleansing facility. It doesn’t, for example, mention sinks (which are in another part of the room). Sink is another very old word; the verb meaning “to go under, to become immersed,” existed in Old English; the noun, which originally meant “cesspool,” appeared in the 15th century. If we wanted to be a little fancy, we could call a sink a basin, giving a French gloss to the object. (Old French bacin immigrated into English around 1200.) Or we could sound erudite and call it a lavatory, a word we borrowed from Latin lavatorium—a place for washing—in the late 14th century.
Unlike most home bathrooms, the Dolphin Club’s modest locker rooms lack tubs. The word tub is Germanic; when it appeared in English in the 14th century it meant “an open wooden vessel made of staves.” Add a constant source of heat to a tub and you have a hot tub, a term the OED says is “originally US” and which first appeared in print in the title of a 1973 how-to book.
But several years before that book’s publication Americans had begun enjoying a specific type of hot tub with underwater jets—a whirlpool. (Another Old English word!) One brand of whirlpool tubs, originally manufactured for hydrotherapy treatments, became so successful in the mid-1960s that its name now describes a whole category. The brand is Jacuzzi, a company founded in 1915 by seven Jacuzzi brothers who’d emigrated from Northern Italy to Northern California. That makes Jacuzzi both a genericized brand and an eponym—and an especially apt one, as the sound of the word perfectly evokes the fizzing, spritzing, suffusing hot-tub experience.