You may have heard older people, or British folks, use the term “water closet” or “WC” when referring to the bathroom or toilet. Even if you have never heard this, you have probably seen the initials “WC” engraved outside bathrooms in both Britain and the United States. Where did this term come from? Is a water closet the same as a toilet? Or is there a nuance of difference we should bear in mind when using these terms?
Read on for a quick and fun overview of the differences between a “water closet” and a “toilet,” and the history of one of the most universal amenities of modern life.
British vs. American Usage of the Term “Water Closet”
According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a water closet can refer to either a room or compartment containing a flush toilet, or it may refer to the toilet bowl itself and its accessories. The term is chiefly British. While it originally referred to a room with a toilet (and not necessarily a bathtub or sink), it is now used somewhat interchangeably with the terms “bathroom,” “restroom,” and “loo” (British slang for toilet). To complicate matters even more, the term “toilet” – as in, “Hold on a second, I have to use the toilet!” – is also often directly interchangeable with water closet, bathroom, or restroom (try replacing the word toilet with any of these terms, and you will see that the meaning of the sentence remains essentially the same). In other words, despite a slight difference in meaning, the British now often use the terms “water closet” and “toilet” to refer to the same thing.
In the United States, the term “water closet” is used much less often, and it is probably safe to say that some younger Americans and children may have never heard it at all. Even if they recognize the acronym “WC” as indicating a restroom in a public place, they may not realize what the letters stand for. To the extent that the term is used in this country at all, it tends to refer to a bathroom rather than simply a toilet, although the nuance is slight and perhaps somewhat irrelevant because rooms containing toilets in the U.S. almost always have at least a sink as well. In other words, like Britain, the terms “water closet” and “toilet” are used interchangeably in regular, everyday American speech despite a slight nuance in their actual meaning.
Remember, though, that a WC must always contain a flush toilet. In the somewhat rare situation of a room containing only, say, a sink or bathtub, you would not use the term “water closet” or “WC” no matter what country you are in. This is evident, for example, in American plumbing codes, which use “Water Closet” or “WC” in reference only to a flush toilet, and not a urinal or any other device you may find in the modern bathroom.
The Origins of the Water Closet and Toilet
In order to understand the slight difference between a water closet and toilet, it is important to understand the history of the bathroom. In the nineteenth century, few people in the U.S. or Britain had indoor toilets. Instead, they had rooms with a bathtub inside called “bathrooms,” and relieved themselves in primitive, outside sheds. A series of inventions, mostly by the British, between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries led to the first patented design for a toilet in 1775. By the mid-1800s, people had begun to worry about the infectious diseases and contamination spread by the careless disposal of human waste. This led to the creation of indoor WCs containing flush toilets.
In North America, toilets have almost always been placed in the same room as bathtubs and sinks, and the term “bathroom” has come to mean a room containing some or all of these amenities. Homes in the UK built during or after the 1960s often also have what we think of as standard American bathrooms with toilets, sinks, and a tub or shower. That said, in Great Britain and continental Europe, it is still common to see separate “water closets” where only the toilet (and perhaps a sink) is kept. In fact, even modern homes in countries like Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands still often keep the toilet in a separate room called the “WC.” Unlike the U.S. or even Britain, “WC” is often a direct synonym for the word “toilet” among Belgians and the Dutch.