How long does it take to teach someone to use the loo? For some, learning this fundamental part of life apparently takes a lifetime. I’ve lived in the UK for 22 years, and I was married to an Englishman for a further 10 years before that. I am also a qualified TEFL teacher and have a master’s degree in English. Yet it took me until this summer to grasp a quintessential British fact: it’s a posh thing to go to the loo.

A loo is a toilet. I get that. Water closet, lavatory, ladies’, cloakroom, restroom, bathroom… a beloved child has many names, as the Finnish saying goes. I hear the word loo in conversations every day, so I naturally know what it refers to. But I always thought it an informal, colloquial word that sounds a bit childish. After all, it rhymes with poo! All these years I have been asking where the toilet is, whereas my friends have been frequently going to the loo. Whilst I thought my manner was the more proper and grown-up, it now turns out I have been the more unrefined and crude.

A question of register

Register is the term we use to define the level of formality in language. The correct register is always determined by the context and by what the speaker or writer wants to convey. Formal language is proper, whereas informal language is conversational or casual. After my discovery, sheer curiosity drove me to look up the register of loo. Some dictionaries and online sites seem to define it as an informal word for lavatory. They definitely say it is “informal, British”. But when I asked real, living specimens of British native speakers, they rather uniformly agreed that loo is a posh word.

Some words, and how to use them, we only pick up by observing how other people deal with them.

When acquiring language skills, we learn many words through formal education and by reading books. But some words, and how to use them, we only pick up by observing how other people deal with them. Even the best dictionaries fall short of explaining how synonyms – words or phrases that are supposed to mean the same thing in the same language – relate to each other. And they most decidedly can’t teach us what impression we give when we use one synonym instead of another.

What illustrates this challenge beautifully is words used to describe body parts. Yes, those body parts. What should I call them when I speak with my mother, what words should I use on a girls’ night out, how do I discuss them with my boyfriend, what terms do I teach my children and how do I refer to them at the doctor’s surgery? All words have connotations and whilst on occasion sounding like an adult movie buff is beneficial, another context might necessitate the overtones of someone with a degree in human anatomy.

Deliberate choice or learner error?

It’s tricky enough in your mother tongue. Taken over to a foreign language, the margin of error increases. And yet the tolerance for errors in register may not, especially if you are deemed a fluent speaker of the language. The better you are, the less people expect you to make mistakes; they interpret your tone of communication as a deliberate choice. In fact, most readers and listeners never pause to analyse elements like register in our language use – the impressions simply seep into their consciousness unnoticed.

Which brings me back to the loo. There are many euphemisms for asking about the smallest room in the house – I believe using the word ‘toilet’ is considered slightly bad form in America too – and there are equally many theories about the origin of the word loo. Since this is not an etymological article, I won’t explore those topics here.

Symbolic of a deeper hierarchy?

What I’d like to end on is the British notion of class and how it is betrayed by the way they speak and the words they use. How people used to refer to their midday meal, the lavatory and the living room in the 1950s were explicit markers of their class. The same words continue to be seen as class indicators today.

It seems simply misleading that a word like ‘pudding’ should be considered posher than ‘sweet’.

The apparently innocent choices of dinner (middle class) vs luncheon (upper class), toilet (m) vs lavatory (u) and lounge (m) vs drawing room (u) still prompt people to make judgements about the speaker’s class. The perceptions will of course keep changing and are impacted by the speaker’s and listener’s geographical origins as well. As an outsider using the English language without a value system attached to it, I find some of those vocabulary choices counter-intuitive. From an onomatopoetic point of view, it seems simply misleading that a word like pudding should be considered posher than sweet.

Class distinctions may not be a factor in global communications, but they illustrate the fact that language is used to create a sense of belonging. When language is used to persuade, influence and motivate, the aim is to get the audience to identify with or aspire to what is offered.

Successful marketing relies on the effective use of persuasive language. In this age of digital and social media analytics, marketers use data analysis to build buyer personas and create smaller-scale, focused campaigns for them. For the words used in each campaign, it takes native speaker skills to create messages that are adequately nuanced. That is why producing content to this effect is a task for qualified language experts working in their mother tongue. Any other solution carries the risk of missing the mark – and missing the mark repeatedly could become your particular Waterloo (pun intended).

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Director’s Cut, English language