I was so far in understanding that lavatory and toilet are synonyms. But they are different in the following passage of Jeffery Archer’s “Be careful what you wish for.”

A mastermind of IRA related gangster, MacIntyre give the direction to his underling, Brendan in a newly commissioned luxury liner, which they plan to destroy on its maiden voyage:

“Can you remember where the public toilet on deck six is? - - It’s on the far side of the first–class lounge. And by the way old chap, it’s a lavatory, not a toilet, That’s the sort of simple mistake that could get me caught out. Don’t forget this ship is typical of English society. The upper classes don’t mix with cabin, and the cabin classes wouldn’t consider speaking to those in tourist.” - Page 439.

However, COD (10th ed.) defines toilet as “(1) a large bowl for urinating or defecating into typically plumbed into a sewage system,” and lavatory simply as “= a toilet.”

OALED defines toilet as “(1) a large bowl attached to a pipe that you sit on or stand over when you get rid of waste matter from your body, and (2) a room containing a toilet,” and lavatory as “(1) a toilet, or a room with a toilet in it.

Both COD and OALED seem to suggest 'toilet' and 'lavatory' are same.

Is lavatory so different from toilet in actual usage as the character of Jeffery Archer’s fiction, (or Archer himself) recognizes?

  • 3
    A "lavatory" is a place where you wash your hands, and a "toilet" is a lady's boudoir. Of course, both these terms are used as euphemisms for "craphouse", and in that sense they are synonyms. But when dealing with hoity-toity upper class one must only use words they approve of. (And if you wonder why I use "craphouse", try finding a different word that isn't a euphemism.)
    – Hot Licks
    Jul 4, 2015 at 1:24
  • A toilet has a bowl, a lavatory has a sink.
    – Jim
    Jul 4, 2015 at 1:59
  • What we have here, as you see in the answers, is a medley of euphemism, metonymy and synecdoche. Jul 4, 2015 at 6:08
  • Difference Between Toilet and Lavatory: differencebetween.com/difference-between-toilet-and-vs-lavatory
    – user66974
    Jul 4, 2015 at 6:12
  • 2
    @DogLover No one in Britain any longer uses WC, if they ever did. However it is very popular (curiously) in France where it is pronounced dooble vee see.
    – WS2
    Oct 6, 2015 at 16:38

4 Answers 4


In that passage, the speaker was referring to a class distinction in the usage of the words. He was saying, in essence, that an upper-class (hence upper-deck) Englishman would never use the crass word "toilet", he would always say lavatory (that's pronounced LAV-a-tree in British, LAV-a-Tor-ee in American). To use "toilet", in his view, marks one as being lower-class (lower decks).

This is clealy shown in that the more experienced one warns the novice that they might be "caught out"—that is, discovered to be lower class ("gangsters", as you call them) pretending to be upper class.

By the way, "lavatory" and "toilet" are NOT synonymous in AmE. The former means the room, and the latter means the fixture. In public venues such as schools or stadia, the room is sometimes called a lavatory, but in restaurants and other establishments it is usually called the restroom (a euphemism, clearly). At someone's home, it is the bathroom (also a euphemism).

But inAmE, only the fixture is called toilet. You would be considered a __yokel_ in most parts of the country if you asked to use the toilet. (Another euphemism, even more vague/abstract/demure, and not so common is use the facilities.)

  • 2
    Actually, "lavatory" in the US is generally taken to mean the sink or basin used for washing hands, while "toilet" refers to the other round fixture. The room is either "toilet", "bathroom", or "restroom".
    – Hot Licks
    Jul 4, 2015 at 2:13
  • 2
    In plumbing/DiY, a "lavatory" usually includes a sink mounted in a cabinet. Gramted, the use of lavatory for the room is declining, but that 's what lavatory means, etymologically. A place in which to wash; a washroom. Compare dormitory or reformatory. A sink without a cabinet is called a sink or a basin. Consider, for instance "pedestal sink". And I have yet to see a sign pointing which way to the Toilet. ( I was going to say "sign on the restroom door", but those usually say MEN or WOMEN, or some cutesy variation on that.) Jul 4, 2015 at 5:58
  • 2
    And some pubs in Wales, mischievously I think, just label the two doors Merchedd and Dynion, leaving the English visitor to guess which word means Men and which Women. Jul 4, 2015 at 15:16

It’s on the far side of the first–class lounge.

It is indeed a matter of social class. For the historical background to the passage in your question, you might like to read about "U" and "Non U" language in this Wikipedia article which also includes the particular example from your passage.

"U and non-U" was an entirely artificial construction of linguistic discrimination, based on the vocabulary choice of different classes in Britain,

with "U" standing for "upper class", and "non-U" representing the aspiring middle classes, [It] was part of the terminology of popular discourse of social dialects (sociolects) in Britain in the 1950s.

Wikipedia (above)

As you can see from the article, it was taken up and popularised by Nancy Mitford and provided much anxiety among the British middle class in the fifties. Although possibly disseminated at first as wry comment with rather satirical intent, the whole idea became one of great importance to some people.

As the article concludes:

Some of the terms and the ideas behind them were largely obsolete by the late 20th century, when, in the United Kingdom, reverse snobbery led younger members of the British upper and middle classes to adopt elements of working class speech (see: Estuary English and Mockney). Yet many, if not most, of the differences remain very much current, and therefore perfectly usable as class indicators.

as before

  • Your information is really helpful. Particularly suggested links to 'U and non-U' and Nancy Mitford, the coiner of the word were iindeed enlightening. I took notes of the examples of 'U and non-U' shibbolethes in wikipedia for learning. Many thanks. Jul 4, 2015 at 22:58
  • That is a very good article. I'm not sure I agree with all her classifications. Loo, for example. I think is fairly genuinely classless and is used as much by non-Us as Us.
    – WS2
    Oct 6, 2015 at 16:33

Toilet (Online Etymology Dictionary):

1530s, earliest in English in an obsolete sense "cover or bag for clothes," from Middle French toilette "a cloth; a bag for clothes," diminutive of toile "cloth, net" (see toil (n.2)). Toilet acquired an association with upper class dressing by 18c., through the specific sense "a fine cloth cover on the dressing table for the articles spread upon it;" thence "the articles, collectively, used in dressing" (mirror, bottles, brushes, combs, etc.). Subsequent sense evolution in English (mostly following French uses) is to "act or process of dressing," especially the dressing and powdering of the hair (1680s); then "a dressing room" (1819), especially one with a lavatory attached; then "lavatory or porcelain plumbing fixture" (1895), an American euphemistic use.

Lavatory (Online Etymology Dictionary):

late 14c., "washbasin," from Latin lavatorium "place for washing," noun use of neuter of adjective lavatorius "pertaining to washing," from lavatus, past participle of lavare "to wash" (see lave). Sense of "washroom" is first attested 1650s; as a euphemism for "toilet, W.C.," it is attested by 1864.

Latrine (Online Etymology Dictionary):

c. 1300, probably from Latin latrina, contraction of lavatrina "washbasin, washroom," from lavatus, past participle of lavare "to wash" (see lave) + -trina, suffix denoting "workplace." Its reappearance in 1640s is probably a re-borrowing from French; especially of a privy of a camp, barracks, college, hospital, etc. Latrine rumor "baseless gossip" (of the kind that spreads in conversations in latrines) is military slang, first recorded 1918.

Privy (n.) (Online Etymology Dictionary):

"toilet," c. 1200, from Old French privé, privee "latrine," literally "private place," from noun use of adjective privé (see privy (adj.)).

As can be seen, they're all essentially euphemisms. There are so many different ones because as soon as one term becomes common, it also becomes too "crude" for higher-class (ie, snootier) people to use, so another term must be invented.


My Dad was Scottish. He would use the word lavatory to refer to the toilet usually when in mixed company, around ladies or in a public setting, when asking for the men's room location. For example, while at a wedding reception, while in church, or I remember one time he told a bus boy that the toilet in the restroom needed attention, but when the female MANAGER came over, he told her the lavatory needed to be cleaned.

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