If you decide to skip today’s post, I won’t blame you. It’s about…toilets.
I just read an extraordinary article (Prescriptive and Descriptive Labels, by Jorge Arango) about – yes – toilets. Arango doesn’t mention Derrida or postmodern language theory. But if you’re interested in language (his real topic), the article is worth reading.
Most of us naively think that naming is all about slapping labels onto things. Not true. Naming almost always involves something else as well: classifying things. It’s a subtle process, easily overlooked, that has colossal implications for how we think, how we relate to others, and how we live our lives.
Jorge Arango’s article is about choices for a public restroom door. Suppose you were opening a new business, and you were getting ready to put a sign on the restrooms. Instead of the traditional picture of a woman on one door, and a man on the other, you could do something different. One restroom door could have this picture:
And the other restroom door could have this picture:
Suddenly everything changes. Customers of both sexes have a choice – handy if it’s a busy time (the ladies’ room often has a line, while the men’s room often doesn’t).
This set-up (actually used in the coffeeshop of the building where Arango works) has some unexpected advantages. It eliminates arguments about which bathrooms transvestites and transgender persons should use. And it makes life easier for parents with young children of the opposite sex. Mom doesn’t feel quite right taking little Junior into the ladies’ room with her – but he’s not yet ready to cope with the men’s room by himself. And what father really wants to take a little girl into the men’s room with him?
It would also challenge us to re-examine some of our assumptions about everyday life. In the US, it’s almost unthinkable that a man would enter a woman’s rest room, and vice versa. But when I traveled in Mexico, I often visited restrooms with male attendants, and I quickly got used to it.
Of course there’s a reason this restroom arrangement doesn’t cause problems in the coffeeshop in Arango’s building: the restrooms are single-use only. But it is really inconceivable that a bigger public restroom couldn’t be designed with the urinals placed at – say – an angle so that women don’t have to look at them?
If you’ve hung in this far, I hope you’re starting to realize that my point isn’t about public restrooms at all. I’m trying to show that what you name something makes a difference. Replacing traditional Men/Women restroom signs with Toilet and Toilet + Urinal would generate some rethinking and might even lead to some changes in behavior.
That is what great writers do with words. The book I’m working on right now is going to have some examples of how Shaw played with words to shake up our thinking. Here’s one example, from Shaw’s play Major Barbara: How do you classify poverty? There are four possibilities:
- a virtue (religious men and women take a vow of poverty)
- an immutable fact of life (the Bible says “the poor we will always have with us”)
- a product of laziness and other character defects
- a crime against society
After you’ve read Shaw’s Preface to Major Barbara, you’ll never be able to say “the deserving poor” or “poor but honest” again. Those phrases – which fall trippingly from the tongues of so many people – will no longer make sense to you.
Great writers often make commonplace words and ideas suddenly seem shockingly different. Can you do that? You might have the makings of another Bernard Shaw in your soul.