The language curmudgeon . . .

Can I take a bath in the bathroom?

Conrad Weisert
© Information Disciplines, Inc., Chicago—10 August, 2009

NOTE: This document may be circulated or quoted from freely, as long as the copyright credit is included.

Until recently I thought that a bathroom is a place where one can take a bath. It follows that it's equipped with a bathtub or some other device that helps one to accomplish the same result, such as a shower stall.

But recently we've seen increasing use of that term to denote public washrooms or restrooms, none of which is a suitable venue for taking a bath. Restaurant reviews praise or condemn the "bathrooms" in a dining establishment. One Chicago café actually has signs directing patrons to the "bathrooms upstairs".

The term has even been extended to describe bodily functions themselves:

"Your dog just went to the bathroom on my new carpet!"

None of my dictionaries lists that sense of the word. The Microsoft Encarta gives an alternative definition as "a room with a toilet", while my Concise Oxford doesn't list "bathroom" at all, presumably because the meaning is obvious from its components. The others all define it as a room with a bathtub.

Needless to say, this is confusing to foreigners visiting our country. (In French homes and upscale hotels the toilet is commonly not even in the bathroom.) International standard signs in airports designate "toilets", a term many Americans consider indelicate, even though that word was itself originally a euphemism.

Fortunately, there's a rich variety of more accurate and genteel terms that everyone understands. If you're in need in an American1 public place you can ask for directions to the washroom, the restroom, the men's room, the ladies' room , or the lavatory. If you're terribly shy and old fashioned you'll even be understood (but thought quaint) if you ask for the facilities. But don't ask in any country where the bathrooms are unless you're prepared to take a bath.

1—In Europe just ask for the toilets (les toilettes) or the W.C.

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Last modified 10 August 2009