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It’s all gone pear-shaped

A pile of pears
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Pears, Croppers and Lead Balloons

When something goes wrong, we have some interesting idioms in English to describe the situation. Let’s look at three of my favourites and the stories behind them.

It ‘s all gone pear-shaped

We say this when a situation has not lived up to our expectations. And a pear is the embodiment of a bottom heavy, unbalanced shape, unlike the spherical form of say, an orange. But where did this expression come from?

A plane looping the loop
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As usual with these things, there is more than one story about its origin. Some sources say it came from the art of glass blowing when, if the glass is overheated, the end result is pear-shaped object rather than round.

There is another school of thought that this expression dates back to the the 1940’s and was first heard in in the British airforce. It may have been used to describe a disaster such as a plane crash, but I prefer the other idea in circulation – that it was used to talk about pilots in training who didn’t manage to fly their planes in a perfect loop, a notoriously difficult task. Without the relevant practice, a trainee would produce a pear-shaped effort, rather than an oval or circle. The Oxford English Dictionary refers to this expression as Royal Airforce slang but does not venture any further explanation. If anyone has further evidence, then please let us know….

To come a cropper

We say that someone has come a cropper when they fall, or have failed at something. But what on earth is a cropper?

A dangerous fall from a horse
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This British expression derives from the word kropp, an Old Norse word which meant a swollen lump or bump. The logic seems to have been that you had a bump and therefore developed a lump on your injured person. A common cause of falls and subsequent injuries when people actually spoke Old Norse would have been falling from your horse.

By the 16th century, a serious fall from a horse was described as falling neck and crop. Hunting and riding were popular pastimes so the expression came to be used amongst the general poulation, having morphed into “to come a cropper”, to signify someone who had fallen headlong from their steed. The hindquarters of a horse are still known as the croup today.

Over time, the meaning was extended to include suffering a misfortune or failing in some way.

For example, ” The prime minister came a cropper when his lies were dicovered.” (No-one in mind here, honestly).

To go down like a lead balloon

The first two idioms are used in British English, but this one is also used in the States, although the expression is slightly different – ” to go over like a lead balloon.”

Balloons!
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Of course, a balloon made of lead is totally impossible as it would not be able to fly. So this phrase is used to describe something that has gone down very badly with its audience.

When this expression first appeared in the States in the 1920’s. it actually went down like a lead balloon itself ….. until it was revived in the 40’s, when it became part of our everyday langauge on both sides of the Atlantic, and is still in use today.

An interesting anecdote about this idiom is that in the 60’s, Keith Moon and John Entwhiste left their band, The Who, to join Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, and called themselves Led Zeppelin. The story goes that Keith Moon said, with reference to their departure from The Who, “This is gonna go down like a Lead Zeppelin“. The spelling was changed from Lead to Led to avoid misunderstandings with the pronunciation. They didn’t aspire to be the chief leader, it was just heavy material…..

One thing we can be sure of that Led Zeppellin certainly did not go down like a lead balloon with their intended audience.

So, wishing you all a happy weekend. Hope nothing goes pear-shaped, nobody comes a cropper and nothing goes down like a lead balloon for you.

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As sure as eggs is eggs

A carton of eggs
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Eggs in English idioms

A lot of English idioms – that is, expressions that have a culturally different meaning from their direct translation – have withstood the test of time and are hundreds of years old. Language reflects our way of life, and many of our older idioms link back to a rural way of life, before the urbanisation of Britain.

Chickens

Chicken and egg
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Chickens have long been domesticated and used as a food source as well as their eggs. It is thought they have existed in Britain since the Iron Age, although archeologists affirm that in this period chickens were worshipped rather than eaten, due to the fact chickens were buried undamaged and with great delicacy during this period.

When the Romans arrived in England it was a whole different kettle of fish ( or should I say chickens?) The Romans bred chickens for food, and so the chicken’s fate was sealed. They became part of our diet and remain a popular ingredient today.

Not only are chickens a source of white meat, but they also supply us with the protein packed and versatile egg, which you can boil, fry, scramble, poach and pickle and use in hundreds of different recipes.

A fried egg by Matthew Murdoch https://www.flickr.com/photos/54423233@N05/13916201522/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org

Eggs

So the humble egg has been a familiar object for a long, long time. Little wonder it appears in many English idioms. Here are a just a few that I have chosen:

A good egg /a rotten egg

Meaning : used to describe people’s character.

Example : He was a rotten egg, stealing and cheating wherever he could.

I think this one is pretty straightforward, don’t you?

Don’t teach your grandmother to suck eggs

Meaning : you don’t need to offer advice to people who are older and more experienced than yourself.

Example : Your grandma knows how to play bridge perfectly well, so she doesn’t need your help. Don’t teach her to suck eggs.

Where did this rather bizarre expression originate? Well, in past times, the dental care industry was yet to appear. It was common for elderly people to have lost some or most of their teeth so eating meat could be difficult for them. So by making a pinprick in an eggshell, they could easily suck out the rich, protein-high contents of the egg itself. So yes, grandmothers (and grandfathers) really did suck eggs.

To have egg on your face

Meaning : to be embarrassed by making a mistake in front of other people.

Example : After his disastrous presentation, the mayor certainly had egg on his face.

Let’s face it, no-one wants egg on their face, literally or figuratively.

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket

Meaning : don’t limit yourself to a single option; if it fails you will lose everything.

Example : He put all his eggs in one basket so when his business failed, he was left with nothing.

So take note. Keep your options open.

To walk on eggshells

Meaning : walking on eggshells without breaking them would be nearly impossible and you would need to tread very carefully, right?

Example : She was very sensitive that day and her friend felt she was walking on eggshells when she raised the subject.

Walking on eggshells is probably something we all have to do at some point in our lives i.e. choose our words with great care.

You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs

Meaning : you can have problems or unpleasant things to do in order to fulfill a bigger task.

Example : Even though the staff won’t like it, we need to get rid of all the out-dated equipment, to create a more modern office space.

That’s life, people.

To egg someone on

Meaning : to urge someone to do something that breaks convention or the rules.

Example : Don’t egg him on any more, he has already received a warning this morning.

Interestingly, despite being an “egg” idiom, this one really isn´t anything to do with eggs. The word egg here is derived from the old Norse eddja meaning edge. so you push someone nearer the edge, in other words. It usually means that the person who is egged on will fall foul of somebody.

A tough egg to crack

Meaning : a difficult problem or situation to solve. Also a person who is not communicative.

Example : The suspect hasn’t said much. He’ll be a tough egg to crack.

Tough eggs can be hard work.

As sure as eggs is eggs

Meaning : it’s definitely going to happen.

Example : It’s going to rain tomorrow, as sure as eggs is eggs.

It is also said that this expression could be a corruption of ” as sure as x is x “. It would certainly explain why we say eggs is eggs instead of the more gramatically correct eggs are eggs. But I like to think that eggs have been providing us with sustenance for centuries and will remain with us for a long time into the future. Sure as eggs is eggs.

And by the way, if anyone knows if the chicken or the egg came first, can you let me know?

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Wordpower

Top Drawer and Hunky Dory

Finding the right word is sometimes a remarkable feat.
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Good isn’t always good

Experienced writers know that they need to keep their readers hooked. And one of these ways is using a wide range of interesting vocabulary.

Even if you are just writing an email, an essay, a report or anything else at all in English, chances are that you will use the word good sooner or later. Now, there is nothing wrong with the word good in itself. But it’s boring, very, very boring. And over-used. And there is a huge variety of more attractive substitutes. If you are an English language student, getting away from basic vocabulary and using more unusual words is a step towards a high mark in a writing or speaking exam.

Good is multi-functional

Think about the way we use good as an adjective. Part of the reason it is so commonplace is because we use it to describe such a wide range of different scenarios – a book, a hotel, the weather, our state of health or mind, a behaviour, a skill, and several zillion other situations. If you look in any English dictionary, there will be a good long entry devoted to this word. (See what I did just now ?)

Suggestions

Please note that these are only a tiny fraction of possible replacement words or phrases for good. I have chosen them mainly because they have a some history attached, and even then it may not be 100% exact…….who knows when it comes to the often long-forgotten history of language? But a story which comes attached to that piece of vocabulary will help that word or expression stick in your memory. So here goes.

As fit as a fiddle
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How are you?

In answer to this you might say – well, good, great, fine, okay, thanks.

Or:

As fit as a fiddle

Fiddle is a colloquial term for a violin and fit originally meant fit for purpose, in that the violin was a very suitable instrument for making music. Its meaning has shifted along with the word fit so that it now describes someone in very good health. The expression is at least 400 years old, first documented in 1616.

“Is your grandad ok after his bout of flu ?” “Yes, he’s as fit as a fiddle.”

In fine fettle

Another option is in fine fettle. To be in fine fettle means you are in great spirits and /or health. Fettle is a fossil word, that is, a word still used in a certain expression, but otherwise it has fallen out of use. It derives from Old English and was used as a verb to prepare a horse for riding.

“Are you in fine fettle today ?”

Hunky dory

This one comes from American English, specifically from New York. Hunky dory appears to have evolved from the Middle Dutch word hunkey, meaning satisfactory and secure. Nowadays we use it to say something or someone is doing well.

“How’s your latest project coming along ?” “Everything’s hunky dory, thanks.”

As right as rain

We say this after someone has been ill, to say they are now back in good health. It is tempting to think that rain in England is the usual state of the weather, and that’s why we say as right as rain. However, there were many different versions of this expression, which have now, sadly, fallen into disuse. As right as a book, as right as nails, as right as ninepence, as right as a trivet, as right as a gun and as right as my leg have all been documented in the past. Theories, anyone ?

“Are you feeling better now ?” “Yes, as right as rain, thanks.”

Situations

Shipping containers in ship shape and Bristol fashion
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Ship shape and Bristol fashion

This phrase is used to affirm that something is well-organised. Like many other idioms in English, it has a nautical origin, referring as you may have guessed, to the early 19th century port of Bristol, a city which was not only prosperous, but had developed a Floating Harbour in order to prevent ships from running aground due to extreme variations in water levels.

The expression ship shape is about 200 years older, originally ship shapen. It meant securing all the cargo on a ship correctly to stop it from being spoilt, something which could occur if the ship was beached, for example. Eventually the two expressions were joined together to signify that an operation was working efficiently and in perfect order.

“The warehouse is well organised with everything stored ship shape and Bristol fashion.”

What’s in your top drawer?
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Top drawer

Not only in the past, but still to date people tend to keep their essential items in their top drawer so they can find them easily. So therefore the top drawer is a container for our useful and therefore valuable objects. So if something is top drawer, it is indeed something worth having.

“My smartphone is top drawer, with all the functions I could ever need.”

Amazing sliced bread
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It’s the best thing since sliced bread

I imagine, that like me, you can think of approximately a million things that are better than sliced bread, but pre-packed and sliced bread was a pretty revolutionary idea at the beginning of the 20th century. This phrase is used to describe an excellent and/or innovative idea that makes our lives easier.

“That new addition to the computer programme is the best thing since sliced bread.”

A dab hand

If you are a dab hand at something, it means you are an expert or highly skilled. The phrase – a dab hand – was first recorded in the early 17th century but nobody really knows the origin of this expression for sure. To add to the confusion, to dab actually had two meanings in the 16th century – it meant both to strike heavily or to touch lightly. If you are a dab hand at unravelling mysteries, the origin of this phrase is something you could investigate …….

“My cousin is a dab hand at making lasagne.”

So there you have a tiny fraction of some words and expressions to replace good. If you would like to improve your English, start using an online dictionary and with practice, you’ll become a dab hand.

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Wordpower

Things that native English speakers don’t know that they know

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I teach English as a second language. I see the learners’ struggles and triumphs with the vagaries of the English language. And when I started in this profession, I sometimes had to research the reason why we say certain phrases in the way that we do – in other words, grammar. There are many things that, as a native speaker, you have assimilated into your speech patterns without even thinking about it.

Our brains are amazing

A child’s brain is like a sponge. Think about the fact that any child learns their own language simply by imitating the other members of their family. But not only do children copy words, there are any number of grammatical formats automatically incorporated into their language patterns without ever having to learn the “rules” in a way that a non-native speaker does. And they assimilate these things with very little effort on their part.

This is also why being a native speaker of any language is not necessarily enough to be able to teach it. You may know the correct answer but often your students will ask you the reason why. I cannot deny that there are some things in the English language that are not terribly logical. I do apologise for my unruly language. However, there are many logical grammar rules which can be explained clearly to learners, and which reassure them that the English language is not just a crazy hodge-podge of madness,

Pesky irregular verbs

You may or may not know that English as a second language learners are often given long lists of irregular verbs to learn which is the most horrifically boring task. English teachers have invented a myriad of activities to make the task more palatable. Think be-was/were, drink- drank, eat-ate, go-went. Absolutely all over the place, right ? But as a native speaker you just learnt these terms as you heard them, started including them in your speech, and carried on.

Countables and Uncountables

Another thing you may not know if English is your first language is why we have two different ways to ask about quantity, using “How many?” or How much?”. The basic grammar rule is that “many” is used with things we can count – people, chairs, turnips, shoes. And “much” is used for things we can’t count – happiness, incompetence, wine, petrol, noodles ( ok, you can, in fact, count noodles, or spaghetti, or cereal but surely no-one in their right mind would want to ).

But as often happens, there is an exception. Any noun which is composed of a mixture of things such as traffic, fruit, furniture is classed as uncountable and therefore uses the word much. But not vegetables. We say There aren’t many vegetables. Why and who decided this, no-one knows. Most languages completely ignore whether something can actually be counted or not and have one word or phrase for all cases. This grammar rule for non-native speakers is pretty mind-blowing the first time they encounter it. Don’t you feel sorry for them trying to figure this out?

Order of adjectives

Another issue was explained in my post of 10th Sept 2019, “Order of Adjectives in English”. Check it out if you want to see why we say “lucky black cat” and “black lucky cat” sounds so horribly wrong….. http://order-of-adjectives-in-english

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Oxymorons are oxymorons

Wordpower
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What is an oxymoron?

An oxymoron is a figure of speech where there appears to be a contradiction. For example, “accidentally on purpose”, where we know that an action was intentionally carried out but devised to look as though it was purely by chance – or what about a “deafening silence”, or an “honest crook” or a “definite maybe” ?

Etymology

The term oxymoron itself can be traced back to a Latinized Greek word, oxymōrum, meaning “sharp-foolish”, so the word oxymoron is itself an oxymoron. It can comprise two words or it can be a longer phrase. However, an oxymoron is not just two words which contrast each other, such as light and dark or good and evil, because the two ideas do not overlap. In an oxymoron there needs to be a clash of two seemingly different meanings in one phrase, which make the reader stop and think. The Merriam -Webster dictionary broad definition is ” something (such as a concept) that is made up of contradictory or incongruous elements.” For example, an “open secret” or “friendly fire”.

Literary Oxymorons

Oxymorons have been used in English literature for centuries, generally for dramatic effect, and to show that two opposing ideas can often paint the picture of a deeper truth. Shakespeare used a whole string of 13 oxymorons to great effect in Romeo and Juliet, to express the complicated nature of love , amongst which are ” brawling love”, “loving hate” and “heavy lightness. And remember the famous line ” parting is such sweet sorrow ” from the same play? John Milton wrote about “darkness visible” in Book 1 of Paradise Lost. The idea of ” warm, scalding coolness” was used by Ernest Hemingway in For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Still used today

But don’t make the mistake of thinking that oxymorons are a dusty relic of the past. Moving on into the twentieth century, remember Simon and Garfunkel’s number one hit The Sound of Silence? Or the Verves’ Bitter Sweet Symphony, from 1997?

Oxymorons are also used to introduce new concepts such as virtual reality and working holiday. They can be used ironically to gain laughs, for example, happily married, affordable caviar, corporate responsibility. And sometimes they can be produced by accident ; see if you can spot the unintended example in the expressions below….

And finally…

Let’s look at at some funny phrases usisng oxymorons which have gained their place in history.

” I can resist anything, except temptation. ” Oscar Wilde

” It takes a lot of time and money to look this cheap.” Dolly Parton

” A joke is a very serious thing.” Winston Churchill

” If I could drop dead right now, I’d be the happiest man alive.” Samuel Goldwyn

” The budget was unlimited, but I exceeded it.” Donald Trump

Which one do you like the most ?

Do you know any others ?

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Words with no opposite

Negatives and positives
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Wordpower

Everyone knows that in English we often add a prefix to the beginning of a word to make it negative, right? A tidy room can become untidy, an honest person can be tempted to act dishonestly.

But do you know there are several words in the English language which only exist in negative form?

Let’s start with this example.

She showed her disdain for the dishevelled and disconsolate boy.

So how about she showed her dain for the shevelled and consolate boy? Nope, that’s incorrect.

Dain, shevelled and consolate simply do not exist in contemporary English vocabulary.

We can, however, trace their usage back to the Latin and old French used in the Middle Ages. The etymology of disdain, for example, is rooted in the Latin dignari , meaning “worthy”. The dis was added to convey the opposite and the word disdain came to mean a feeling of aversion and contempt. Dishevelled comes from the amalgamation of dis and the French word for hair – cheval – and later extended its meaning to clothing. The Latin verb consolari – to comfort – provided the linguistic basis for the word disconsolate.

The English language has plenty of negative words without a positive counterpart – probably more than you would think. A few more examples : inertia, ineptitude, immacculate, impeccable, nonchalant, nonplussed, unkempt, uncouth.

I could write a story here about a macculate and peccable guy who tried to radiate a sense of ertia and eptitude by being chalant and plussed despite the fact that he was neither kempt nor couth.

But sadly, all these antonyms either never existed or are no longer in use in my language.

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Ta (or in other words, thanks)

Thank you
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Yes, ta is a word.

An informal word, but all the same ta is used in many areas in England instead of the more conventional thank you. In turn, thank you (or if you prefer it, ta) to Ellen Hawley, author of Notes from the U.K., for asking why we say ta, and therefore providing the inspiration for this post.

Thinking about expressions of gratitude also takes me to my previous post of 25th March, Why do we say cheers ? which looked at the origins of the word cheers as a drinking toast. But in the U.K. we also use cheers as another friendly way of saying thank you. The use of cheers as a synonym of thanks started in the 1970’s. In 1976 P. Howard wrote an article in The Times pointing out ‘By a remarkable transition from the pub to the sober world at large outside cheers has become the colloquial synonym in British English for “thanks.” ‘

But anyway, back to the humble ta. Toddlers learning how to speak often use ta as a subsititute for thank you – basically it’s just much easier for a young child to pronounce. This childish form of thank you, first documented in the 18th century, has slowly become absorbed into our adult vocabulary.

Ta is also part of Northern English dialect, and is widely used in the North. An interesting theory is that it could have originated from the Scots Gaelic expression for thank you, tapadh leibh. Or possibly from a Scandinavian language in the times of Viking invasions. As is the case with these things, we will never be entirely certain.

And we might as well look at the origins of thank you while we’re here. In Old English the word thank was a noun, meaning thought. Its meaning shifted so that by the Middle Ages it defined thinking favourably of someone in return for their services. And so it evolved into our modern day expression thank you.

There’s only one way I can end this post today. Ta, cheers and thank you for reading.

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Why do we say cheers ?

Cheers everybody !
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Why cheers ?

We raise our glasses, clink them together and say “Cheers.” But do you know why this custom began ?

Across the world, people generally accompany the clinking of glasses with a toast, be it “salud” (Spain), “proost” (the Netherlands), “skál” (Scandinavia) or many others we could add to the list. All these expressions refer to health or happiness or both.

The custom of toasting your companions is thought to originate from the Ancient Greeks and Romans who would toast the gods when feasting and celebrating at their banquets. Bound up with the celebratory toast would be the desire for a long, happy life and since then, humans have expressed the same idea with by raising their glasses upwards and wishing each other well, even if we do this almost without thinking about it today.

The word “cheer” is derived from the Latin “cara” which meant face, but by the Middle Ages, the meaning had evolved and it signified mood or expression. By the late 1500’s, the word began to be linked to positive sentiments, and from there it became a toast to health and happiness.

I’m off for a drink. Cheers, everyone.

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March hares and hatters

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A hare with a look of insanity ?

Why do we say these expressions ?

The expression “as mad as a March hare” alludes to the excited behaviour of hares during their mating season. The phrase was first coined around 1500, and has been in continuous use since then. It was employed by eminent writers such as John Skelton, Thomas More and notably, by Lewis Carroll in Alice’s Adventures of Wonderland in 1865.

Another lighthearted phrase we use to describe deranged antics is “as mad as a hatter.” This expression is thought to have its origins in the hat-making profession of the 18th and 19th century where the use of mercury ultimately poisoned the workers, giving them slurred speech, memory loss and tremors, and sometimes even hallucinations. Again, Lewis Carroll used this idea in his character the Hatter, who interacted with Alice in a nonsensical manner. We generally refer to to this character nowadays as the Mad Hatter, although Lewis Carroll only ever called him the Hatter.

Do you know any other expressions to refer to crazy behaviour?

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Why do we call it the “loo”?

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A typical sign for the “loo”.

History of the word “loo”

We have lots of words we can use as a substitute for toilet – loo, lavatory, w.c., restroom, bathroom, the ladies’/ the gents’ and I am sure that many people can probably add a few more informal or slang words to this list. But why do the British use the word loo?

There are several theories about how this word became part of the English language ……

Gardyloo

The most popular suggestion is based on the idea that before plumbing was invented, servants would empty the contents of a chamber pot into the street with a cry of “gardyloo” – which was a corrupted form of the French “gardez l’eau” meaning “mind the water”. However, the stumbling block to this idea is that the word “loo” first appeared in a dictionary in 1940 and began to be commonly used long after the “gardyloo” warning had disappeared from the streets.

The French term “lieux

Lieux” (with a similar pronunciation to “loo”) referred to “lieux d’aisance “, which translates as “places of comfort ” and was a French euphemism for the toilets. During World War 1, English soldiers serving in France would have been aware of this expression. Maybe they brought the term back with them to Britain where it became mainstream ?

Leeward/Looward

Leeward, signifying the side of the ship travelling in the opposite direction to the wind, was often pronounced “looward”, and would be the logical choice for sailors to relieve themselves. But it has to be pointed out that there were places onboard specifically designed for this purpose, and therefore it seems unlikely that the word “loo” originated from here.

Lady Louisa

There is a story that in 1847, Lady Louisa, the Earl of Lichfield’s unpopular wife, was staying with relatives, when the name card on her bedroom door was removed and placed on the bathroom door instead as a joke. The guests then used the phrase “going to Lady Louisa” which later became shortened to “going to the loo”.

Room 100

Yet another theory is that the toilet was often supposedly situated in Room 100 of buildings, and that 100 was misread as the word “loo.”

Waterloo

Waterloo was a trade name which appeared on cast iron cisterns at the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1922, James Joyce in his book Ulysees, appears to make a reference to this : “O yes, mon loup. How much cost? Waterloo. Watercloset.” Waterloo was very much in public awareness due to Wellington’s defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, and the name lends itself easily to this play on words.

In short, not only are there are several possibilities, but the etymology of the word “loo” is a minefield with little conclusive evidence. It seems that its origins will remain obscure for the time being. Which explanation do you think is the most likely?