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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!

Addendum 1
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.

Addendum 2
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.

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  • I can well understand why the Italian teacher in Britain does not like the translation of "bathroom". No one in Britain (other than an American ex-patriate) would refer to a "bathroom" to mean anything other than a room which contains a bath.
    – WS2
    Nov 14 '18 at 22:29
  • @WS2 — Of course. But one should, I think, accept that this is a US English translation. The question is whether children in US cities in the 50s would have used the term bathroom, and whether there is a better US English word or description for what was probably nearer to an outhouse.
    – David
    Nov 14 '18 at 22:43
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    The Italian term “cesso” is still commonly used in Italian for poor, dirty toilets. Outhouse is the AmE sense.
    – user 66974
    Nov 14 '18 at 22:47
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    Can you take the definition of "cesso" in Italian and translate that to English for us?
    – Jim
    Nov 14 '18 at 23:32
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    @WS2 - I'm afraid that you're wrong - as a native BrE speaker in my early 30s, I do tend to call any room with a toilet a "bathroom"... Collins does agree with you that this is an Americanism. I have no idea, unfortunately, whether I picked it up from my parents' speech or from watching American TV. I never thought I was unusual in calling a restaurant's toilets "the bathroom"...
    – AndyT
    Nov 15 '18 at 10:20
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My grandmother calls bathrooms in homes a wash closet and for bathrooms in public areas such as: offices, restaurants, theaters, etc.; she calls them washrooms. She was in her early twenties in the 1950's and grew up in a poor area in the outskirts of Chicago.

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    Can you explain why this is relevant (e.g. did she live in the US in the 1950s? Is she from the social background matching the question?). Because most of us here don't know her, we can't assess this anecdotal evidence without that context! Nov 15 '18 at 10:49

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