A handful of people, perhaps a mere half dozen, share a unique distinction. They were an Australian manufacturer, a French mistress, and (from Britain), a soldier, a plumber, a travel writer and a divine.
What did these diverse people have in common, that all the rest of the world lacks? Each of their names became a name (eponym) for the equipment serving one basic but unmentionable human function. I refer of course to the privy, the chamber-pot, the commode and the toilet. (I leave it as an exercise to readers to provide the distinctions between these four items.)
A caution: some of my evidences may not be solid. Some of my conclusions may not hold water. But I've been able to verify that all these people were connected to the subject, and for each at least one source stating that they became eponymous.
twiss – a chamber pot
For Richard Twiss, whose account of his travels in Ireland (1776) was condescendingly nasty to the Irish. A sample:
Well deserving of hell-fire:
Every one who likes may p____
Upon the learned Doctor T____.
TWISS (IRISH) a Jordan, or pot de chambre. A Mr. Richard Twiss having in his "Travels" given a very unfavourable description of the Irish character, the inhabitants of Dublin, by way of revenge, thought proper to christen this utensil by his name--suffice it to say that the baptismal rites were not wanting at the ceremony.
– Col. Grose, Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811)
Fabulous, WC! What a hilarious group of words this will be.
"Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions.
fontange – a commode
The young duchesse de Fontange (Marie Angelique de Scorraille de Roussilles), was 'beautiful as an angel, silly as a goose", and led an active life. At 18 she became mistress of Louis XIV; the next year she delivered a his child stillborn, and in 1681 she died at age 20. Meanwhile she launched history's most extravagant hairstyle, which remained in style for over three decades.
The tale is that when her hair became disarranged during a royal hunt, she resourcefully she piled it upon her head and bound it up with fabric she had about her. (The saucy girl seems to have used her garter ribbons or lace from her pantaloons.) The king admired the upswept look, and the ladies of the court aped it and competitively elaborated it over the years into a pile of hair towering two feet or more, bound by ribbons and lace and called the fontange. The French also called the hairstyle (or the its supporting apparatus) commode, meaning 'convenient'; Brits called the hairstyle both a fontange and a commode.
Some say that when one needed a polite euphemism for the other form of commode (the one used for bathroom functions), one called it the fontange. (Facts on File Encyclopedia)
A bit of skepticism is in order, though, because OED's earliest cite for this sort of commode is dated 1851, well more than a century after the demise of the hairstyle. On the other hand, we can be sure that the fontange/commode hairstyle had not been forgotten: Grose's 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue mentions it twice. It seems curious that Grose would include a hairstyle in such a dictionary, but I can offer no explanation.
Oliver's skull - a chamber pot
This allusion to Oliver Cromwell, obviously from his detractors, was in slang use from the late 1600s to the late 1800s. My personal guess is that the "skull" alludes to the name of Cromwell's party, the Roundheads. Can anyone tell me whether a chamber pot was roughly the size and shape of the crown of an adult's skull?
Well, considering that most people's backsides are larger than their heads (and sometimes seem to talk more sense) I would say the average Po (UK slang for the item) would be bigger than the average skull.This message has been edited. Last edited by: Richard English,
I have an early memory of running around playing soldiers with my grandmother's chamber pot (empty and washed, I assure you) on my head as a helmet. Perhaps the Roundheads' helmets reminded Cromwell's detractors of a chamber pot?
Build a man a fire and he's warm for a day. Set a man on fire and he's warm for the rest of his life.
sacheverell – a chamber-pot
In 1709 preacher Henry Sacheverell published violent sermons against the Whigs' tolerance of religious dissenters. He became a hero to the Tories and of course was hated by the Whigs.
Sacheverell’s name became used to mean a stove-blower, the logic being (says Grose) that the preacher "made himself famous for blowing the coals of dissention." Grose also tells us that Sacheverell, like Twiss some years later, was portrayed in portrait on the bottom of chamber pots:
furphy – Austral. informal: a far-fetched rumor [Wordcrafter: I would say "a latrine rumor"]
Prof. Tim Lindsay (Director of the University of Melbourne's Asian Law Centre): No, that is completely false. … unless the prosecution can prove guilt, the person is innocent. So the common furphy that is being circulated in Australia in the media at the moment that people in the Indonesian system are presumed guilty until proven innocent is totally false.
– The World Today, April 29, 2005
Mr Herskope said rumours of 4000 job cuts were "a complete furphy”.
– Melbourne Herald Sun, April 23, 2005
The Furphy firm’s website proudly claims credit for this word, citing Compact OED. Another theory, less likely, is that the term comes from James Furphy, an Australian writer who authored tall tales. (Few note that James was John’s younger brother.)
But the question remains: exactly which Furphy products were involved? Furphy provided mobile water tanks for delivering water to the troops; it also provided latrine buckets. The company takes the genteel approach, attributing the term to "Furphy water cart operators ... renowned for spreading gossip." But Australian language authorities of the 1920s explained that "unfounded rumors seemed as a rule, to originate among the sanitary squad, or from conversation among men visiting latrines, caus[ing] the word to be used in this way." (Glossary of Slang and Peculiar Terms in Use in the A.I.F.)
crapper – a flush toilet
[from Thomas Crapper (1836-1910), British manufacture of such products]
Much confusing and contradictory nonsense has been published on this matter, and copied uncritically on the web. It's amusing to note the source of the confusion.
Turn to two books by Wallace Reyburn, tracing the supposed history of the flush toilet and of the brassiere. Their very titles (Flushed with Pride: The Story of Thomas Crapper (1969) and Bust Up: The Uplifting Tale of Otto Titzling (1971)) ought to give a fair warning that the books are flights of fantasy, Reyburn giving free reign to his imagination and wordplay. For example, the bra history has such characters as Mr. Titzling, his German assistant Hans Delving, his competitor Philippe de Brassiere, and the female athlete Lois Lung. The toilet book tells that Mr. Crapper, to perfect his toilet, required "many dry runs" before reaching the "high-water mark" of his career.
But Reyburn wrote with the tone of serious history. Some later and sober authorities were taken in, and have relied upon Reyburn as if he were gospel. Conversely others, noting the fantasy element and the exaggerations, assume that nothing at all in Reyburn has any basis in fact -- indeed, that Thomas Crapper never existed.
As best I can detangle it, the truth lies somewhere in between. Thomas Crapper truly existed. The word "crapper", meaning toilet, comes from his name. He is also responsible for "crap" meaning "fecal matter", in that although the word "crap" predates him, it basically had only other meanings, the "fecal" sense being rare and obscure until Mr. Crapper came along.
My conclusions are contrary to OED. You'll find my rationale below.
Englishman Thomas Crapper truly did exist, and truly did manufacture toilets and other sanitary fixtures. You can see his factory pictured on the Thomas Crapper & Co., Ltd website.
'Crap' is a word of long-standing in England, but crapper first appeared after WWI, and first appeared in America. This strongly suggest it comes from American doughboys who, while stationed in England, became acquainted with the Crapper products.
Further, although 'crap' was used in English before Mr. Crapper, this does not prove that it has no meaning derived from his name. For until Thomas Crapper came along, the word crap was not particularly associated with dung. It had multiple senses pertaining to "rejected matter, residue" -- the earliest being "chaff from grain" -- and OED notes, "It is doubtful whether all the senses here placed belong to one word."
The specific "fecal" sense seems to have been barely in use before WWI. OED gives a 1846 source which mentions "the crappy (sh-ten) end of the stick", and "a crapping ken" (or privy). But apart from that OED has no "fecal" usages until 1925 (John dos Passos: "You don't want to shovel crap..all your life."). Until then, OED's examples of the "fecal" sense are merely dictionary definitions (not usage) of 'crap' or its forms, and OED's usage examples mean at most "useless dregs, not necessarily fecal".
In other words, just as crapper (meaning toilet) did not appear until after Mr. Crapper's career, so too the sense of crap as "fecal matter" was at most practically invisible before then.
There are still some orginal Victorian Crapper WCs in use. I went to a pub quite recently that had a Thomas Crapper No 1 patented noiseless water waste preventer, still working (though far from noiselessly) in the gentlemen's loos. I can't speak for the ladies', of course.
What a creative theme, Wordcrafter!
Much appreciation for your personal research, Richard.
Don't forget bourdaloue.