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Time to Powder Your Nose?

July 25, 2018

Here at BRI headquarters, we’re not all that ashamed to mention the bathroom, of course, but for hundreds of years, the more polite among us have used a number of euphemisms to refer to Uncle John’s favorite room. Here are the origins of the most famous ones.

The powder room

Today, liquid and powdered makeup are common, but in the 19th century and early 20th century, foundation was available only in powdered form. A woman might need to touch up her makeup while out in public, and the place where she could do that was a bathroom. The ladies’ room came to be known as the “powder room,” because needing to check one’s appearance was seen as a much more polite reason for stepping out than, say, other things one does in the restroom. Fancier buildings, like hotels and restaurants, even had vanities and chairs where women actually could “powder their nose.”

The head

This one originates in the Navy—and it’s still common slang onboard naval ships. Back in the early days of the U.S. Navy in the 1800s, the place where sailors would do their business was placed all the way at the front of the ship, near the bowsprit, the part of the ship where the figurehead was fastened to the hull. Another word for “front” is “head,” and the nickname stuck.

The loo

The origins of this extremely popular British slang term for a bathroom are shrouded in mystery, with linguists offering up a lot of theories. Some say that the English used to euphemistically refer to the bathroom as “Room 100,” and that “1-0-0” looks like the letters “l-o-o.” It could also come from the French “l’eau,” which means “the water.” However, it first appeared in print in 1922 in James Joyce’s novel Ulysses. A character asks, “O yes, mon loup. How much cost? Waterloo. Water closet.” That means Joyce invented it, or heard it on the streets of Dublin, a scene he tried to re-create in exacting detail in Ulysses.

Go see a man about a horse

Dating to the 1860s, this phrase—or its variant, “go see a man about a dog”—was something you might say to explain a need to suddenly depart. It originally and literally applied to a horse or dog: It was a euphemism said when one needed to go bet on a horse race or a dog race. It’s also been widely used to conceal other actions, that, like betting, might be considered slightly seedy, such as going to get a drink…or needing to use the bathroom.

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