What are they on about?

20th April 2001 at 01:00
David Newnham discovers that WC symbols are becoming pc

I was chided the other day - chided, I tell you - for writing the word "toilet". It was too... well, it was just ever so slightly... Well, you know. Prissy.

Really? I thought "loo" was prissy. I thought "powder room" and "little boy's room" were prissy. But in my book "toilet" has always seemed a neutral word, sitting comfortably between "lavatory" and "bathroom" and tending to mind its own business. Maybe my book is out of print.

I used to have an Auntie Beat (short for Beatrice), and she clung grimly to the term "WC". But you don't expect elderly aunts to announce that they're "just off to the john", do you? Not even aunts with hip names like Beat.

No, I'm sorry, but I stand by my "toilet" (you know what I mean). It is, after all, the preferred terminology of the signwriter.

You don't see notices pointing to "latrines", do you? Even "public conveniences" is a rarity these days, probably on account of the Trade Descriptions Act.

One advantage of "toilet" is that it works in a variety of European languages. Even the Czechs use the "toaleta", and so do sevral Slavs, albeit in an alphabet attributed to St Cyril (nice one, Cyril).

Only those pictograms depicting cut-out men and women have greater universality. And even they are not foolproof. For one thing, people are never content with the standard product. There's a particular kind of pub, for instance, that always has some confusing line drawing of a man in a frock coat on the door of the gents. That sort of thing leads to accidents.

And then there was the ecology centre that I visited the other day. They were trying hard to be right-on, bless them, but they had to make do with such door labels as were available. There was no mistaking the man, standing there with his trousered legs apart. But immediately below him was a woman cradling a baby. What was this? Some kind of family room? As soon as I saw an identical matchstick Madonna and child on the door of the ladies, I understood what had happened. Clearly the management had wanted to include nappy-changing tables in both sets of facilities, but they were unable to obtain a symbol of a man holding a baby.

Which opens what you might call a whole new can of worms.

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