For my June Visual Thesaurus column, “Clean Language,” I take a deep dive into three familiar words—words I see regularly in the Dolphin Club locker room, where I spend time before and after swimming in San Francisco Bay. The three words are TOILET, SHOWER, and SAUNA, and they tell interesting (even surprising) stories about the history of the English language.
Full access to the column is paywalled for three months. Here’s an excerpt:
The native word in the trio, shower, comes to us from Old English scur, a couple of whose original meanings we retain today: “a short fall of rain; a fall of missiles or blows.” The word has survived many spelling changes: scyr, chowris, shoure, shure, and shorow in Middle English; schouer, showere, sure, shewer, and shore in the 1500s and 1600s. Despite their (currently) similar spellings, shower is unrelated to the noun and verb show, but it may be related to the noun and verb scour, one of whose senses is “to move about hastily in search of something.” It’s that concept of “fast motion” that connects scour and shower: a rain shower passes quickly, unlike a “downpour” or a “drizzle.”
Very early on—before the 15th century—shower proved its usefulness in metaphorical expressions: a shower of ashes, a shower of riches, a shower of bad fortune. Meteor shower, however, didn’t make an appearance until 1850, and the parties known as bridal showers and baby showers—North American inventions for “showering” honored guests with gifts, according to the OED—were first documented in the 1890s.
Blog bonus: Some bathrooms, including mine at home, have bidets (or, in my case, a bidet attachment*). Bidet is a French word that entered English in the 1630s; it had nothing to do with toilets or bathrooms then: the word, whose origins are a mystery, meant “small horse.” Around 1769, the pony moved indoors: bidet now meant “a vessel on a long, narrow stand, which can be bestridden,” according to the OED. (Bestridden is such a great word.) Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, from 1785, refined the definition further: “Bidet, commonly pronounced biddy, a kind of tub, refined for ladies to wash themselves, for which purpose they bestride it like a little French poney, or post horse, called in French bidets.”
The French connection is partly to blame for Americans’ rejection of bidets. (And Britons’, for whom “French” has historically been an insult.) Worse still was the connection with French women. As Maria Teresa Hart wrote in a 2018 article for The Atlantic (with a marvelous illustration), American GIs first encountered bidets in French brothels, and the taint of sin made them off limits for domestic consumption. “In the United States, bidets recalled all kinds of feminine failings: women’s sexuality, women’s unwanted pregnancies, and women’s biology,” Hart writes. “As such, they were shunned.” Not so in Italy and Portugal, where since 1975 the installation of a bidet in every household has been mandatory.
More on bidets: my 2018 Strong Language post about an ad campaign for Tushy.
* I love mine, from Luxe.