February 2, 2010

Whiffling and fossicking

I WAS WHIFFLING though a dictionary the other day when I happened upon . . .

“Hold it!” I hear someone cry. “What’s whiffling?”

Deep sigh. Don’t they teach English in school any more? Whiffling is like fossicking, only gentler and less agitated. Fossicking is what fairies do when they’re busily searching for fairy dust under toadstools and fallen leaves. But whiffling is calmly flicking through the pages of a book with one thumb. Gottit? OK, good.

Now, as I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted, as I whiffled through the dictionary I happened upon the word reredorter. Almost pure Latin, of course. It means “behind the dormitory” in a convent or monastery.

In other words, it’s yet another word for a toilet. I was intrigued because I also have a toilet that’s behind the dormitory, but I don’t call it a reredorter. It’s on my boat, and I call it a head. And that got me to thinking about the dozens of words the English language has spawned in place of the simple word toilet — including, I regret, the word john.

In my corner of the Pacific Northwest, when we see someone with his legs crossed and a desperate look on his face, we send him to nearest restroom. Across the border in Canada, they call it the washroom. In England, a gent would approach you with appropriate diffidence and whisper: “I say, old chap, could you possibly direct me to the — er — facilities?”

In Australia and New Zealand they call an outhouse a dunny, which explains their description of a willing girl-friend: “She bangs like a dunny door, mate.”

In South Africa, a man asks where he can point Percy at the porcelain; or sometimes he’ll enquire where he can shake hands with his best friend. Sailors, naturally, want to know where they can pump their bilges.

Behind all these sayings is a virtual lexicon of substitutes for the word toilet, including loo, lavatory (in Britain, the lavatory is the toilet, not the wash basin), Gents’, Ladies’, convenience, comfort station, powder room, pottie, privy, and w.c. (water closet).

The Welsh lower classes seem to regard any reference to the toilet as indelicate. I once was staying in a grand manor in northern Wales when I came across a maid in a passage that led only to the loo.

“Oh, hello Blodwen,” I said, “and where might you be going?”
She replied: “Oh, sir, ’tis been that I have where I was goin’ — ’tis coming back that I am now.”

You’ll notice that we haven’t mentioned the French yet. And we’re not going to. Depraved is the word that comes to mind — right after the word pissoir. How a Frenchman can stand on a busy city sidewalk and tilt his hat to passing ladies while he pees into a urinal I don’t know. And don’t want to. If he had any decency at all he'd use the reredorter.

Today’s Thought
It is unthinkable for a Frenchman to arrive at middle age without having syphilis and the Cross of the Legion of Honor.
— André Gide

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #9
Your kedge anchor should be about two-thirds of the weight of the bower. (Kedge — Used for hauling a vessel off when she has gone aground; and to prevent her from fouling her bower. Bower — by ancient tradition, a ship’s principal anchor.)

“You there, Bill?”
“Don’t feel no pain or nothin’?”
“Great. Then I guess I just shot a bear.”

1 comment:

John Vigor said...

P(ee)S: I forgot another expression used by South African men: "I'm just going to shake the dew from my lily."

John V.