Blue View - The British Loo


The word 'Loo', which is a bit foreign to most of us Americans, is the British slang for what we call a restroom or bathroom. The origin of the term is not known for sure, but the most plausible theory is that it is derived from the name 'Waterloo', which was the trade name for a very common cistern used in British outhouses in the early twentieth century. Go into any pub in England and ask for the loo or the toilets, and you'll be directed to the little room that has toilets and sink.

A Brit in the U.S. who asks for the loo may get a puzzled look in return. If he then asks for the toilets, the American will think he doesn't understand our language all that well to use such a crude term for the restrooms – unless he's in a Home Depot, whereupon he'll be directed to aisle 19 where the plumbing fixtures are. Once the American works out what is really needed, he'll likely direct the Brit to the nearest restroom or bathroom. The Brit, of course, is now thinking that he really doesn't have the time or interest in having a bath at this particular moment, nor is he in need of a rest – he just wants to use the damn toilet.

Beyond our respective names for the facilities, there are a number of other differences between our restrooms and their loos. For one thing, they do a much better job of keeping their loos clean. On the whole their public toilets were, if not spotless, cleaner than 90% of our our public restrooms. In fairness, I didn't visit any gas station toilets while there, and there were a couple of public park facilities that were somewhat on the foul side, but nowhere near as disgusting as many of ours.

Another difference is how the toilets actually work. I think we have a definite edge in the technology department here. Our toilets, especially the newer ones, use very little water and still seem to do quite a good job of flushing the waste down the drain. British toilets have two flush modes – a 'half-flush' mode for urine and the normal flush mode. Sometimes there are two buttons on the tank lid, one for either mode, and sometimes there is a handle on the side, where pressing it down half-way versus all the way selects one or the other flush mode. We do, of course, have these in the U.S. as well, but they are much more common in Britain.

The small button is for a half-flush and the big button is for the full.

The small button is for a half-flush and the big button is for the full.

The half-flush mode releases just enough water to turn the urine from a vibrant yellow color to more of a lemonade color. For those of us who are picky (or anal?), it usually takes two or three of the half-flushes to return the water in the bowl to a clear color.

The full flush mode is quite dramatic. Seemingly gallons of water are released, causing a torrent of gushing, churning water in the bowl lasting several seconds. When the maelstrom finally subsides, however, and this is absolutely amazing, there is usually a little toilet paper and some, uh, solid matter still floating in the bowl. How this is accomplished – how so much water being so forcefully released - can leave anything behind is a mystery to me. Except for the fact that it is quite boring waiting the ten minutes or so while the tank refills, I could spend the better part of an afternoon being entertained by their toilets - and trying to get the last of the remnants to go down the drain.

Next week, hopefully after you've managed to move on from all the imagery in this blog, I'll talk about some of the other differences we've noticed between our two cultures.