A toilet is a plumbing fixture devised for the disposal of bodily wastes, including urine, feces, menses and vomit. The word toilet can be used to refer to the fixture itself or the room containing it.
The word toilet came to be used in English along with other French fashions (first noted 1681), and originally referred to the whole complex of operations of hairdressing and body care that centered on a dressing table covered to the floor with cloth (toile) and lace, on which stood a dressing glass, which might also be draped in lace: the ensemble was a toilette. Alexander Pope in The Rape of the Lock (1717) described the intricacies of a lady's preparation:
- ‘And now, unveil'd, the toilet stands display'd
- Each silver vase in mystic order laid.’
Through the 18th century, everywhere in the English-speaking world, a toilet remained a lady's draped dressing-table. The word was adapted as a genteel euphemism for water-closet, perhaps following the French usage cabinet de toilette, much as powder-room may be coyly used today, and this has been linked to the introduction of public toilets, for example on railway trains, which required a plaque on the door. The original usage has became indelicate and largely replaced by dressing-table.
The word toilet itself may be considered an impolite word in the United States, whilst elsewhere the word is used without any embarrassment. When referring to the room or the actual piece of equipment, the word toilet is often substituted with other euphemisms (and dysphemisms) such as:
facility or facilities
ladies’/ men’s room
ladies’/ men’s lounge
little boys'/girls' room
place of easement
and water closet (or WC)
The origin of the (chiefly British) term loo is unknown, but a popular theory is that it derives from “Gardy loo!”, a corruption of the French phrase gardez l'eau loosely translated as “watch out for the water!” The phrase served as a warning to passers-by when chamber pots and other waste receptacles were emptied from a window onto the street, as was common practice before cities had sewer systems.
As old euphemisms have become accepted, they have been progressively replaced by newer ones, an example of the euphemism treadmill at work.
Types of toilets
There are many different types of toilets around the world. There are also many different ways to clean yourself after you are finished using the toilet. A lot depends on national mores and local resources. The most common choice in the Western world is toilet paper, sometimes used in conjunction with the bidet; see toilet paper for a discussion of the many alternatives used through history and in different cultures.
Some toilet areas are specially adapted for people with disabilities. These are wide enough to allow the entry by a person in a wheelchair and often feature hand-holds bolted to the wall, enabling the person to maneuver onto the toilet if necessary.
In the West, the most common type of toilet is the flush toilet, although the squat toilet is still somewhat common in public restrooms in France, Greece, Italy and Japan. However, there are many different types of toilets:
- Squat toilet
- Chemical toilet
- Toilet with built-in bidet
- Wall-hung urinal
- Floor-length urinal
- Gutter type urinal
- Big bath tub style urinal as in sport stadium men's room
- Dry toilet
- Pit toilet: very commonly in camping grounds in the United States. Also known as an outhouse in the U.S.
- Composting toilet: Very commonly found in camping grounds in Europe, and large climbing parks. Also found in some modern ecologically designed buildings.
In the home, a toilet may or may not be in the same room as a shower, bathtub, and/or wash basin.
A portable toilet in the Netherlands.
Public facilities often have many toilets partitioned by stalls, with the washing facilities in a separate area where other people of the same sex are present. The washing area may be common to both sexes. Facilities for men often also have separate urinals, either wall-mounted fixtures designed for a single user, or a constantly-draining basin or trough for collective use. Wall-mounted urinals are sometimes separated by small partitions or other obstructions for privacy, i.e., to keep the user's genitals hidden from public view.
Outdoor public toilets (in the street, around parks, etc.) are a form of street furniture. For mixed sex arrangements, there are cubicles varying from simple devices with little or no plumbing to more luxurious versions that automatically clean themselves after every use. Some facilities are mobile and can thus be put in place where and when needed, e.g., for a weekend at an entertainment venue. Additionally, some can be sunk into the ground (and thereby made inoperational) for the periods that they are less needed. The idea behind this is that some people do not like the sight of a public toilet in the street, and they are more easily hidden than repeatedly moved. This type is typically installed in entertainment areas and made operational during weekend evenings and nights. People tend to be less shy about using it at these times.
Outdoor public toilets that are not pit toilets can either be connected to the local sewage system or they can store the waste and be emptied from time to time. Many toilets can be cleaned on the spot, or at a central location in the case of a mobile toilet or urinal. In Europe public toiletts are also set up for cities as a compenstion for advertising permits. They are part of a street furniture-contract between the out-of-home avertising company and the city council. The reason for this combinations is the shortge in city-budgets.
Some public toilets may be used free of charge, but others require payment. Payment can be accomplished by :
- putting money on an unattended plate
- putting money in a box with a slot
- putting money in the slot of a turnstile or spring-door
- giving the money to an attendant (who is usually also in charge of the cleaning)
The practice of charging for use of public toilets is the origin of the British euphemism for urination, to spend a penny.
Many train stations and bus terminals have installed pay toilets during the 1950's and 1960's. Most of these have since been removed because of vandalism on the pay lock mechanisms.
The use of pay toilets has been made illegal by some municipalities. In other locations, public restrooms must have one free toilet for every 4 to 5 pay toilets.
Gender and public toilets
Separation by sex is so characteristic of public toilets that pictograms of a man or a woman are used to indicate where the respective toilets are. These pictograms are sometimes (e.g. in California) enclosed within standard geometric forms to reinforce this information, with a circle representing a women's toilet and a triangle representing a men's facility. Pictograms such as those shown at the right (from the D.O.T.) have been criticized for perpetuating gender stereotypes; however, there may be no practical alternatives.
Sex-separated public toilets are a source of difficulty for some people, for example, people with children of the opposite sex, or men caring for babies when only the women's washroom has been fitted with a change table.
Sex-separated public toilets are often difficult to negotiate for transgendered or androgynous people, who are often subject to embarrassment, harassment, or even assault or arrest by others offended by the presence of a person they interpret as being of the other gender (whether due to their outward presentation or their genital status). Transgender people have been arrested for using not only bathrooms that correspond to their gender of identification, but also ones that correspond to the gender they were assigned at birth.
Many existing public toilets are gender-neutral. Additionally, some public places (such as facilities targeted to the transgendered or homosexual communities, and a few universities and offices) provide individual washrooms that are not gender-specified, specifically in order to respond to the concerns of gender-variant people; but this remains very rare and often controversial.  (http://www.mcgill.ca/reporter/36/12/transgender/) Various courts have ruled on whether transgendered people have the right to use the washroom of their gender of identification.  (http://www.herizons.ca/magazine/issues/fal01/)
A significant number of facilities have additional gender-neutral public toilets for a different reason-- they are marked not for being for females or males, but for handicapped persons, and are adequately equipped to allow those in wheelchairs to use them.
Toilets in private homes are practically never separated by sex.
There are usually toilets in airlines, heavy rail trains, and often in long-distance buses and ferries, but not in metros, trams, and other buses. In trains they may have a reservoir, or the urine and feces may simply fall on the tracks, hence the notice which appears in many train toilets: "Please do not flush while the train is standing at a station".
Toilets appeared early in history. In the year 2500 BCE, the people of Harappa in India had water borne toilets in each house that were linked with drains covered with burnt clay bricks. There were also toilets in ancient Egypt and China. In Roman civilization, toilets were sometimes part of public bath houses where men and women were together in mixed company.
The invention of the flush toilet is credited to Sir John Harington in 1596, though it took improvements in the Victorian era (likely spearheaded by Alexander Cummings rather than Thomas Crapper as is commonly stated) for flushing toilets to become widely used. Before and during this transitional period (which extended well into the 20th century in some regions), many people used outdoor outhouses instead, particularly in rural areas.
- New Scientist magazine has had over the years articles on non-smelling, fly-less pit toilets.
- Australian National Public Toilet Map (http://www.toiletmap.gov.au/)
- History of Public Toilets (http://www.plumbingworld.com/toilethistoryindia.html)
- http://www.worldtoilet.org - official website of the World Toilet Organisation
- Long outdoor urinal (http://www.boners.com/content/384183.1.jpg)
- Four-sided transportable street urinal (http://www.palmgracht.nl/palmfotoos/plaskruisufo2.html)
- UK law against sex in a public toilet (http://www.legislation.hmso.gov.uk/acts/acts2003/30042--b.htm#71)
- Survey on transgender and gendered washrooms, including discussion of transgendered experience in using public washrooms (http://www.transgenderlawcenter.org/documents/safe_WC_survey_results.html)
- Toilets of the World (http://www.cromwell-intl.com/toilet/) - photo gallery and other resources.