Wordplay: Brits vs. Yanks

By Jonathan Goldberg

We have of course all been exposed to various—if not many!—examples of the differences between British and American vocabulary, but can we ever get enough? The answer, thankfully, is “no.” So let’s explore some bathroom … well, terminology, if not exactly humor (with help from the French and Spanish).

This word, most commonly used in the United States, is a euphemism for lavatory, because it eschews any mention of toilet activities performed there. Lavatory, meaning a place where one washes (as well as the apparatus itself), is itself a euphemism, as is W.C., which is short for water closet. Both of these terms are more prevalent in Britain than is restroom.

Bathroom is another word used in the U.S. to mean a restroom, toilet, lavatory, or W.C. Other synonyms in American English, although far less frequently used, include lav, john, loo, and can. Spanish displays the same modesty in the expression cuarto de baño, literally bathroom (or simply baño). In some Spanish-speaking countries, the term W.C. is adopted as is from the English, although pronounced differently. But Spanish has three other words used to indicate public toilets. One is servicios, meaning services, obviously a euphemism. Another is aseos, which without the s has a variety of meanings in Spanish, including cleanliness. The third is lavabo, from the word lavar, meaning to wash.

The common denominator of all these low-key words is that they suggest only the bodily cleaning-up activities performed after the toilet has been used for its primary purpose. The English word toilet is derived from the French toilette. Originally, the French word meant “a cloth on which items used for grooming are placed,” vaguely similar to the present-day (British) English toilet or toilet-bag—“a waterproof travel bag for holding toiletries (soap, toothpaste, etc.).” Later, the French cabinet de toilette came to mean the room in which one washed, from whence its present-day meaning of a W.C., or restroom. British English has adopted the word toilet to mean also the act of dressing and preparing oneself, as in “he made his morning toilet and went to breakfast.”

In the U.S., one stands in line; for example, waiting to use the restroom at a sporting event. (Although in New York, one stands on line.) In Britain—and indeed in English-speaking countries where British English is in use—one waits in a queue. Queue is, in fact, used in the U.S. in this sense, but only in the field of information processing, to mean “an ordered list of tasks to be performed or messages to be transmitted.”

French has the same word, queue (pronounced differently). This has at least two meanings. The first is that of a line or queue, identical to the British use. (In French you don’t stand in line, you make the line—faire la queue). The second meaning is “tail”—as of an animal. The visual similarity between a line of people and the tail of an animal is clear.

A further use of queue, “a braid of hair at the back of the head” (albeit a somewhat arcane definition) also bears that visual association. The Spanish word for queue (line of people) is cola. As in French, this has the additional meaning of “tail.” However, the word tail in English is used not only to denote the wiggly protrusion of animals but also (among other interpretations) the tail end of an animal or object—such as the tail of an airplane.In the latter respect, the meaning is similar to that in French and in the Spanish of some Spanish-speaking countries, because queue and cola are both used in those two senses of tail. (The Spanish word cola has the additional sense of glue. Cola also exists in English, as in the brand names Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola, having acquired the meaning of a carbonated soft drink, but it has its origin in the fact that Coca-Cola was originally composed of an extract from the kola nut, as well as from the leaf of Peruvian coca. Kola is also a language spoken south of Lake Chad, in Africa.

Many Americans might be unfamiliar with the term knickers, commonly used in England to mean women’s panties. Paradoxically, the word from which it is derived, knickerbockers, has its origin in New York. (The New York Knicks basketball team takes its name from this word.)

In England, women’s underwear is probably more typically designated today by the more chic French word lingerie, originally used to mean anything made of linen but now well ensconced in English as women’s underwear. The word bra is a short form of brassière, imported into English and still used in French. But the common French word is soutien-gorge, meaning literally a throat-holder, devised presumably by someone with a poor knowledge of female anatomy. (Brassière should not be confused with brazier, meaning “a container for holding hot coals,” or brasserie, a restaurant serving alcohol—although certain men might be excited by all of these concepts.)

There are many words in Spanish meaning bra, depending on the country of use. Sujetador—literally a subjugator—sounds daunting enough to make any woman want to burn her bra. Sostén, literally a support, also stays well clear of mentioning that part of a woman’s body which the bra serves to keep in place. Vive la modestie! As for men’s wear, knickers was originally used to denote men’s as well as women’s underwear, but the expressions in vogue today are shorts (boxers and briefs) in America and underpants in England.

This article appeared in an abridged form in the Dec. 2004/Jan. 2005 issue of Toga, the newsletter of the Plato Society of UCLA ( NCTA is grateful to the Plato Society for granting us its permission to reprint.