The Rest Room

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:

toilet sign

And the other restroom door could have this picture:

toilet and urinal

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.


6 thoughts on “The Rest Room

  1. Victor Vreeland

    I always tease when referring to the “restroom.” Geeeeeez, I’m tired, I am going to take a nap in the RESTROOM. Who ever thought to call the “water closet, latrine, bano a restroom?

  2. ballroomdancer Post author

    Great comment. Even “bathroom” doesn’t really work. You don’t take a bath in most bathrooms. “Water closet” is just as strange. Even “toilet” originally meant “grooming.”

  3. Kelly Pomeroy

    Why not just put both types of fixtures in both rooms, and on both doors have the same stylized male and female figures we already see on some unisex lavatory doors?

    See, I avoided the terms “restroom” and “bathroom”…and instead used a term that means “washroom”. (Note my Truss positioning of the period.) I hate to think of some of the terms we might end up with if we avoided all these euphemisms!

  4. ballroomdancer Post author

    Hi, Kelly!

    Absolutely makes sense – but businesses with small washrooms (I’ve spent a good bit of time in Canada!) probably won’t want to buy two urinals.

    I would say a “UK” period, not a Truss one. Truth to tell, I didn’t care much for her book. I found her whiney and cranky.

    When you’re writing for yourself, it doesn’t matter whether you do the period the US or the UK way (though I think everything should be consistent, so British spellings should go with British punctuation).

    But if you’re writing for publication, I think it’s good manners to follow the rules for the country of publication.

    I co-edited a collection of essays for a commercial publisher a while back. One of my roles was formatting. It was time consuming to have to go through some of the chapters and change the quotation marks and spellings back to US usage.

    I contributed a chapter of my own to a friend’s book that was published in the UK. I was careful to use British punctuation and spelling in my submission.

  5. Kelly Pomeroy

    What I like about the UK method is that it places the period where it logically belongs. I’m big on logic.

    As for the marking of loos (sticking with the British way here), your way makes sense if they need to save money; mine if they don’t, since some people my assume that men are supposed to use the one that shows a urinal.

    p.s. I wish your setup would automatically alert readers when you make a response – for those of us who are too demented to remember to go look for one. Not your responsibility, but too often I miss stuff…

  6. ballroomdancer Post author

    Hi, Kelly – I really like your comment about the assumptions about the restrooms. It shows that there are lots of ways to think about toilets and urinals. Often the people who make decisions look at only one or two possibilities – and then there are problems.
    And I like your comment about logic. Most of the Americans I’ve known who put commas and periods outside don’t have any reason for why they do it. I know it’s not because nobody ever bothered to explain the US system to them – I told them about it! (They were my students.)
    And I’m glad you enjoy my responses!

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