I am trying to find out what would be natural terms to refer to the lavatory in the US in the 1950s. I am specifically interested in how a woman who was a teenager at that time in a poor working class area of a city might refer to this in a novel written today.
The reason behind this request is that I am reading Elena Ferrante’s “My Brilliant Friend” in the original Italian (L’Amica Geniale) in a language class in Britain. The native Italian teacher does not like the English translation, and in particular objects to the use of ‘bathroom’ to translate the Italian ‘cesso’ (on p.89 of the Italian edition). This is in a poor area of Naples, where the apartment blocks, I imagine, had no bathrooms (in the literal British sense of a room with a bath) but just lavatories, perhaps shared and on the landing.
I did live in the Chicago in the early ’70s, and am familiar with ‘john’ and ‘can’ and several other terms one can find on the web (e.g. here) but wonder what an educated American woman in her 70s might use as a better translation. Obviously New York brownstones are not Naples slums, so I appreciate that there is no exact equivalent. But still, anything other than bathroom!
There has been comments asking for clarification of the meaning of the Italian, cesso. Collins English–Italian indicates that it is currently a familiar equivalent to the more usual word for lavatory, gabinetto, and rather unsatisfactorily translates it as bog (Brit) — haven’t heard that in years — and john (Am). Diziario Italiano da un affiliato di Oxford University (built into iOS) defines it as the Italian, Latrina (latrine), and dates it to 1300. Although, as has been pointed out, its contemporary use is to indicate a primitive or dirty lavatory, its use in the book is neutral and secondary — to indicate the facility in use in the apartment block where the author grew up. The reason I dislike bathroom is that it brings up the image of a room with a bath, which is quite out of keeping with the poor area of Naples in which the book is set. The lavatory may well have been of the ‘Elephant’s foot’ type, still encountered in Italy today, and its cleanliness will have depended on social standards of hygiene etc. It would certainly have been different from a US lavatory of the time (except perhaps in poor rural areas) and it would not have had a bath in it. However, the question is what would the US equivalent have been called.
The British (non-dialect) answer would almost certainly be lavatory, and I am starting to wonder whether this is really so ‘un-American’. After all, this is the term used in US airplanes/aeroplanes.