What Can Words Tell Us About the History of the Culture That Uses Them?

David Shariatmadari

4 mins

28 Aug 2019

Has anyone ever taken you aside and said “here’s what this word really means”? Maybe you’ve used the word “decimate” and been corrected: it doesn’t mean “to devastate”, someone will argue, but to destroy one in ten, because that’s how Tacitus used it. Or perhaps you’d said “transpire”: it doesn’t mean “to occur” because it comes from the Latin words trans (across) and spirare (to breathe). So it really means “exhale”.

Well, the next time this happens, stand your ground. The history of a word doesn’t tell you what it means today. In fact, this idea has its own name: it’s called “the etymological fallacy”, after etymology, the study of word origins.

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The etymological fallacy

There are plenty of examples that show how unreliable earlier meanings are as a guide to contemporary use. For instance, did you know that “silly” meant “happy”in the 13th century, and “innocent” in the 16th? Or that “passion” used to mean “martyrdom”, and “nice” meant “foolish”?

My favourite is “treacle”, which traces its origin back to a word that meant “wild beast”: it comes from theriakon, a sticky concoction used to treat the bites of ferocious animals, or theria.

No, the only reliable guide to what a word actually means is how it’s generally used now. So does that mean that etymology is useless?

Far from it. In fact, the path a word has travelled can give you a wealth of information. Trace it back and you find out all sorts of interesting things about society and culture through the ages.

The history behind ‘toilet’

A Dutch lady at her toilet, 1650s.

“Toilet” was first borrowed into English from French in the 16th century. But back then, it didn’t mean what you’d imagine. In fact, it was a “piece of cloth, often used as a wrapper, especially of clothes”.

Why had this word jumped across the Channel? That in itself is a mini history lesson: at the time, cloth was a valuable commodity, with English and French merchants earning handsome sums trading it between the two countries.

The religious persecution of Protestants in France also meant that England, particularly London, hosted Huguenot refugees, many of whom were expert weavers. They bought their skills, but also their words.

Towards the end of the 16th century, toilet began to refer to a piece of cloth spread out over a dressing table. In those days, spelling was highly variable: toilet was sometimes written “twilet” or even “twilight”. Before long, it had come to mean simply the dressing table itself.

In 1789, Edward Gibbon was able to say about his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that it was “on every table and almost every toilette” – and that didn’t mean there was anything unhygienic going on.

At this point, the scope of toilet expanded, probably because it had become such an everyday word. It began to cover a range of things related to getting ready. You might splash on some sweet-smelling “toilet water”. Rather than get dressed, you might “do your toilet”, and “elegant toilet” could refer to a nice outfit.

Boucher, François – Marquise de Pompadour at the Toilet-Table.

So how did the word jettison these fragrant associations, and come to mean the thing with the bowl and the handle? To understand this, you need to remember that the bodily functions one performs in the toilet are taboo in the Anglo-Saxon world, as they are in most societies. And taboo-replacement is an incredibly common form of linguistic change.

The ‘euphemism treadmill’

We don’t really like saying the name of the thing that reminds us of the taboo, so we seek an alternative. Ideally, this alternative has associations that will take your mind off the matter at hand – while not being entirely irrelevant.

“Toilet” provided one such opportunity – it had to do with making oneself nice in the comfort of a private part of the house. As a result, in the 19th century, as individual toilet rooms became ubiquitous in public places and private houses, it was recruited as a euphemism – a word that sounded better than the existing one.

The problem is, the longer a euphemism is used, the more likely it is to take on the associations of the taboo. Toilet, after all, replaced “lavatory”, which was itself originally a euphemism to do with getting clean (think of the French verb laver, to wash). This had become contaminated, as toilet would eventually, as well. Linguist Stephen Pinker has called this process the “euphemism treadmill”.

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Why the history of words is so interesting

The history of a word is a magical thing: a thread that runs through society and culture, twisting this way and that, reflecting the changing material conditions and values of the people who have used it. Toilet’s one example, but there are hundreds of thousands more.

You can grab onto almost any of these threads and, by following it back, find out interesting things. All you need is an etymological dictionary. Happy hunting.

David Shariatmadari is a writer and editor for The Guardian. His book about the history of language, Don’t Believe A Word: The Surprising Truth About Language, was published on 22 August 2019, by Orion Books.