Why Do They Call Bathrooms Lavatories?

The common household bathroom seems to have more nicknames, slang terms and alternate titles than any other room in the home. One name for a bathroom is "lavatory." Although North Americans rarely call a bathroom a lavatory, airlines and people from the United Kingdom still do--for several reasons. From the original Latin meaning "to wash," the term lavatory still finds meaning in today's society.

A lavatory is another name for a bathroom.

Origin of the Word "Lavatory"

Latin root word "lavare" means "to wash."

Many words in English can be traced back to a Latin root word. Lavatory is based on the Latin "lavare," which means "to wash," or the Late Latin terminology "lavator," which means "to launder." From these beginnings, Middle English then adopted the word "lavatorium" to mean the place where one washes. This could mean either washing clothes or washing for personal hygiene.

Lavatory Becomes a Common Title

A pitcher and basin were used for personal hygeine before indoor plumbing.

At one time, the only people who owned lavatories with bathing tubs were royalty because only they could afford to fill them with hot water. Common people performed their daily cleaning rituals by keeping a pitcher of water and a basin for washing in their bedrooms. Because Middle English became the prominent root of language in England, many people adopted this common usage of the word "lavatory," or "a place to wash."

The Lavatory Becomes an Important Room in the Home

The first indoor plumbing was extremely expensive.

With the invention of indoor plumbing, the lavatory became an important room in the home. Now a person could easily turn on the tap and have water for washing food and clothing, drinking and bathing. With the introduction of the toilet into the home, the need for privacy moved the commode, the bathtub and hand sink behind closed doors. Formally, this new private space was called the lavatory.

The Lavatory Travels Overseas

Using the word bathroom made more sense to North Americans.

As people immigrated from the Old World to the New World, they brought with them customs and traditions. New settlers in North America looked to Europe, and mainly England, for trends and fashions. When indoor plumbing became common in Europe, North Americans found ways to build these "wash" rooms, as well. Wanting to become a distinct entity from Europe, Americans began to call the lavatory by its common name "bathroom," which simply described "the room containing the bath."

Where Lavatory is Used Today

Most airplanes call their washrooms lavatories.

Most North Americans use the words "bathroom," "restroom" and "washroom" interchangeably. A bathroom can also be called by other slang terms generally understood by the public. However, the formal word for bathroom, "lavatory," can still be found if traveling. Most airlines still refer to their washrooms as lavatories for two reasons. First, airlines are continental and try to make terms as universal as possible. Second, a bathtub would never fit on an airplane.