A Comedy of Manners

Tatler has announced to the world that it is now permissible for the upper-middle and upper classes to use the word “toilet” to mean water closet and to say “Pardon?” rather than “What?” when asking for something to be repeated. But I wonder whether Tatler is, these days, really considered, by what one might call the genuine upper classes, to be the arbiter of these desperately serious matters.

My mind went back, as I read of this latest pronouncement, to the agonies I suffered as a five-year-old boy, sixty years ago. In those days, when class was still thought by many to be very important, a small upper-middle class boy faced a daily minefield when it came to asking someone to repeat something or explaining that he needed to relieve himself. At home it was quite straight forward. One said “What?” and one mentioned one was going to the loo. But then came school. Oh, what a nightmare!

My pre-prep school was called Wetherby. It later, a lot later, became famous as a school favoured by the royal family. But even in my day it was very much an institution for the upper-middle classes. And yet its masters and mistresses were insistent that saying one wanted to go to the loo or saying “What?” were beyond the pale. Both expressions were deemed to be incredibly rude and boorish. The only polite word for a water closet was toilet (although I think lavatory was thought to be just about permissible). And “Pardon?” was the only decent way to ask someone to repeat something.

But Mummy and Daddy never, other than as a joke, said “toilet” and both would have been appalled at the suggestion that one could say “Pardon?” when one meant “What?”.

Those weren’t the only problems. Wetherby insisted that its pupils should, when eating, hold their knives as though they were pens. When I demonstrated my new found ability to do that at home my mother was horrified. What on earth would people think if they saw her son behaving in such a frankly eccentric manner?

What was a poor boy to do? How could he reconcile his two existences, home and school, without causing major crises in one or the other?

The agonies, you will be relieved to know, didn’t last for long. My parents explained to me that the most important thing was not to cause offence. If I found myself in the company of people who went to the toilet and said “Pardon?”, I should do the same. But when I was at home or with family friends I should continue to go to the loo and say “What?”. My mother wasn’t quite so understanding about holding knives like pens. She urged me to continue to grasp my knife properly, but to be prepared to give in if the school got over-excited. I think I could see her point: the genteel, lower-middle class, way of holding a knife was hopelessly unpractical.

How extraordinary it all was. And yet how important it seemed at the time.

Let us take water closets. All the other words, apart from some of the earthy terms often favoured by the aristocracy and the working classes, were euphemisms. They were all employed in order to conceal what was really meant. Toilet meant things like arranging hair, touching up lipstick and so on. Lavatory was a place to wash. Loo? Well no one really knows where that word came from. “Gardyloo” (an anglicised version of the term used by French servants when emptying chamber pots into the street) has been mentioned as a possibility, but most scholars think that unlikely, because “loo” entered the vocabulary a long time after chamber pots were emptied into streets. Another suggestion is that it was taken from “le lieu”, French for the place, but that is generally thought to be fanciful. The other theory is that it is simply an abbreviation of Waterloo. Whatever its derivation, it is almost certainly just as much of a euphemism as toilet and lavatory.

The Americans, of course, have taken all this to even greater extremes. So horrified are they at the possibility that others might imagine what they are intending to do when they ask for directions to the place where they are going to do it that they pretend they are going to have a bath, or just going to have a well-earned rest. But, to be fair to them, I don’t think class enters into it at all. All Americans, whatever their background, consider it polite to ask for the bathroom or for the restroom, rather than to use an accurate word to describe what they want.

On the whole, I think neither the lower-middle class nor the upper-middle class wins on points when it comes to what to call the water closet. Both are very silly, though the general theory, of course, is that it is the upper-middle class which is hoity toity in its dislike of “toilet” while the lower-middle class is saintly in insisting that “toilet” is the only acceptable word. Maybe, this seems quite likely, we will all eventually adopt American usage and ask for directions to the bathroom.

Incidentally, I really don’t understand why we don’t all use “water closet”. It is polite. It isn’t a euphemism and, for goodness sake, it is even used widely on the continent of Europe.

Let’s move on to “Pardon?” and “What?”. Here, I am sorry to say, I think the Us beat the non-Us. “What” is a plain English word which we all understand. It covers every reason for requesting repetition. “Pardon”, yet again, is a euphemism. It doesn’t express what is meant (“I didn’t hear first time round please repeat”). It is just pointlessly genteel. Some people, desperately keen to avoid offending either lower or upper-middle class, use the military expression: “say again”. Maybe we will all have to adopt that way out.

But I return to my first paragraph. Is Tatler the arbiter of these things? I doubt it. In so far as it is saying what my parents said to me sixty years ago (just fit in with what others expect of you), it is saying nothing new at all. Good manners have always decreed that we should put people at their ease, that we should use language which will not offend our listeners. But, even though no one seriously thinks these things all that important any more, I doubt whether baronial halls and ducal palaces will now, just because Tatler approves, be resounding to the sound of people asking for directions to the toilet.

I do love England. There can be no other country where this sort of thing would even be discussed. Long may we go on agonising about what to call the water closet.



4 thoughts on “A Comedy of Manners

  1. I was brought up to say ‘lavatory’ or ‘loo’; my daughter says ‘toilet’, leading me to think it may be a generational thing. When I was a child we said ‘What?’ at home, and I can remember a babysitter telling me that was rude, I should say ‘pardon’. My mother suggested ‘What did you say?’ as an acceptable compromise, but the babysitter still objected.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The English obsession with class, how does one distinguish between lower middle, middle and upper middle? Money? That cannot be as some Jamaicans (lower class) accrue cash readily by drug deals or perjury. A complex minefield Mr U!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It always seems rather strange when I hear Americans (or at least those in films), say “Excuse me”. My immediate reaction would be to reply “Why, what have you done?
      “Crapper” is definitely a term that no gentleman would ever use, any more than he would describe the occasional necessity of relieving oneself as “Pointing Percy at the porcelain”.
      On the question of ‘Pardon’, it is best to use the full version ‘I beg your pardon’ so as to avoid any misunderstandings. It also allows the user to gain a little superiority (when thought appropriate), by an inflection of the voice i.e. ‘I BEG your pardon’ which translates into ‘You have offended me’. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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