The daily need for a toilet can be a frustrating challenge for travellers. While you likely know where public toilets are located (or where they’re missing) in your home town, this is not the case when traveling to places you’re unfamiliar with. When visiting different cultural spheres, you may actually not be able to identify toilets or know how they work.
While one of human’s most basic needs has to be taken care of no matter where you are, the way it is actually done can differ wildly from place to place, sometimes even within one country. From fancy self cleaning toilets in Japan to nothing more than what you bring with you to dispose of human waste or – well – a hole in the ground when leave-no-trace camping, there is a wide variety, that you should be at least aware of before heading out.
Once you finish your business, you have to clean yourself, and there are various methods that are popular in different parts of the world.
Since it’s such an essential need, along with “please” and “thank you”, one of the first phrases any traveler should learn in the local language is “Where is the toilet?”.
Since many cultures don’t like talking plainly about their dirty business, it’s incredibly common for there to be a lot of euphemistic names for the room where you go to do your business. Even the plain English word “toilet” came from French toilette “small cloth”, used to protect your clothes while shaving or doing your hair (from which we get “toiletries”).
In English, the word “toilet” often refers only to the receptacle, but when you’re asking where to go, a different word is often used for the room it’s in. Depending on the language and region, not all names are universal, and you may confuse people if you ask for the wrong one. To wit:
- toilet– Okay in the UK (where “toilet” may be the room or the fixture), but considered blunt in the U.S. (where “toilet” is the fixture).
- bathroom– In the U.S. this has a toilet and might have a bath/shower; standard word in homes. In the UK it definitely has a bath/shower, but maybe not a toilet.
- restroom– In the U.S. this usually has only a toilet; standard word in public buildings. Not used in the UK.
- water closet or W.C.– In the UK has a toilet, but this phrase is not very common today. May be understood but not generally used in the U.S. Used as a loan word in many countries, where it’s sometimes written as WC without punctuation.
- loo– Common informal word in the UK. May be understood but not generally used in the U.S.
There are many other English words for the room…
- washroom – Canadian equivalent of U.S. “restroom”
- lavatory – Common in UK English; in the U.S. this usually refers only to facilities on passenger vehicles (airplanes, trains, buses)
- comfort room, or C.R. – Common in Philippines
- men’s / women’s room
… some exceedingly polite and indirect names…
- gentlemen’s (gents’) / ladies’ room
- little boys’ / little girls’ room
- powder room, or “powdering one’s nose”
- “washing one’s hands”
- the facilities
- public conveniences
… a lot of informal names…
- lav – British slang, short for “lavatory”
- bog – British slang, may be mildly vulgar
- khazi – regional British slang
- netty – regional British slang
- jacks – Irish slang
- john – American slang
- can – American slang
- dunny – Australian slang, particularly for an outhouse or outdoor toilet
- head – nautical term for any toilet on a ship; also general slang
- latrine – standard military nomenclature
- privy – generally refers to an outhouse or outdoor toilet
- potty – word often used with children, as in “going potty” and “potty training” (more specifically, a potty is a small pot used by children who aren’t big enough to use an adult-sized toilet)
… and probably a lot of crude ones, which we needn’t mention here.
For cleaning, “toilet paper” is universally understood, but Brits may refer to loo roll or bog roll.