Q&A: Why is it called a ‘dunny’?

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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week we are in the outhouse!

Q: Hi AWC, why is a dunny called a dunny?

A: You are of course referring to the Australian and New Zealand slang for the toilet, yes?

Q: That’s right, how did it get its name?

A: We don’t want to pooh-pooh your question, but perhaps we should take a wee tour of the history of toilet names first?

Q: Yes, sounds good. I’m flush with excitement.

A: Of course, the number one place for number ones and number twos was originally in the “outhouse” – although this was often just used to describe the building itself, with a pit “latrine” inside.

Q: Side question, why do all pictures of outhouses have a moon shape cut into the door?

A: The hole cut was typically for light and ventilation and one theory suggests that men’s outhouses had a star and women’s had a moon. Over time, men’s ones fell into such disrepair that only the women’s structures remained.

Q: Because men can’t aim?

A: Perhaps. It’s only a theory – as other historians struggle to find proof of these shapes at all.

Q: So did the “outhouse” have other names?

A: Yes. Other names include your “dunny”, “bog” or “privy” (from private). Some of these names would eventually follow the toilet inside.

Q: Okay, so yeah – where did the name “toilet” come from?

A: This might be the most interesting story of them all. It’s French from “toilette”, originally describing the small cloth used over shoulders during hairdressing.

Q: Hairdressing? I mean, I’ve had some sh*tty haircuts in my time, but still…

A: Haha, no it really was initially all about the equipment for personal body grooming – notably hairbrushes, mirrors and make-up. This was around the late 1600s.

Q: When did it become its own room?

A: Not until the 1820s did the name “toilet” get used for the place of personal grooming – initially as a fancy sounding euphemism for that place you did your business.

Q: Like powder room?

A: Exactly like that.

Q: Hmmm, because THAT is what I think of a euphemism, along with “restroom” or “bathroom”. Not “toilet”.

A: Yes, but considering toilet’s fancy origins (referring to hair and make-up grooming), it was definitely a euphemism originally. However by the time we got to the 20th century, “toilet” now just meant the hardware itself, along with the room.

Q: That was quite a long drop from grace.

A: Haha, we see what you did there. And indeed, the word “toilet” is these days not considered fancy at all. We might instead use “commode” or “lavatory” (from Latin “lavare” – to wash) to describe the unit in a more eloquent way.

Q: And so the reference to personal grooming disappeared completely?

A: Not quite – it lives on in the use and meaning of the word “toiletries” – typically personal grooming items akin to the original French meaning. And of course, the French perfume “eau de toilette” makes more sense now you know the origins.

Q: Yes, “toilet water” never sounded very attractive to me.

A: When “personal grooming water” is more accurate.

Q: Okay, so there are actually quite a few names for toilets aren’t there?

A: So many, all with interesting back stories.

Q: Haha, “back” stories…

A: Oh, we weren’t even trying to do that one. This is like shooting fish in a barrel. Anyway, it might seem like a bad joke but Thomas Crapper did indeed pioneer the flush toilet in Britain, leading to that name.

Q: Wow.

A: Meanwhile, “WC” stands for “water closet” – another British name that appeared as flush toilets arrived on the scene.

Q: What about “loo”? That’s very British.

A: It is, and despite only appearing in the English vocab less than 100 years ago, its origins are murky. The most popular theory relates it to “Waterloo” – perhaps in the “water closet” context. Another intriguing suggestion takes inspiration from Europe’s “room 100” – which is slang for toilet. From “100” you derive “loo”…

Q: That’s a 1-ply theory right there.

A: It does seem thin, but it’s true. Would you like to know about “dunny”?

Q: Yes please! Lay it on me… so to speak.

A: It dates from the early 1800s, Scottish in origin, from dung + ken (house) to give “dunnekin” as another name for the outhouse. Once the toilet moved inside, Australians and New Zealanders dropped the kin and kept with the dunny.

Q: Well, that was a crappy description.

A: Nice toilet humour. We were on a roll.

Q: And now – just like a fancy hi-tech toilet – we’ve reached the bottom.

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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