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Musings on the letter W

June 11, 2017

I’ve just come back from a philosophy conference at the University of Minho in Braga, Portugal, and one of the things I noticed is that they call the toilet the WC over there. The WC – now, why is that, I wonder? The term is an English one – short for “water closet” – but is rarely used in English, so I am puzzled as to why it has become such a popular export, especially to languages where the letter W is rare or non-existent. French, which also uses the term WC, does have a W but it’s very seldom used; in French Scrabble the W is worth 10, and if you get it pretty much the only words you can put it in are wagon and weekend. But Portuguese doesn’t even have a W in its alphabet, although it occasionally uses the letter for foreign words. Very strange.

The W is an interesting and, strictly speaking, a redundant letter. We think of it as a consonant, but it is actually what linguists call a demi-vowel – it is the vowel oo pronounced very briefly before another vowel (try it – water is really pronounced oo-ater, if you say the oo quickly enough). The other demi-vowel in English is y – that is, the vowel ee pronounced very briefly before another vowel.

So languages like French, Spanish and Portuguese do actually have the sound w – they just don’t have, or they hardly ever have, the letter. Except in WC. Strange, that.

P.S. May I bring to your attention my comic fantasy YA novel The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers – here is the link: https://unbound.com/books/adam-gowers . Go there and you will see a neat little 2-minute video of me explaining why the time for this novel has come! And if you support it you will get your name in the back and an invitation to the launch party.

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13 Comments
  1. Simon Carter permalink

    It is strange that French has several imported words that do start with W (whisky, webcam, wok, weekend, etc) but so few of their own.

  2. Spiritman permalink

    I wonder if, in more polite conversation, they are actually quite happy to use a foreign euphemism for that particular room, especially one containing a phoneme not identifiable with their own language, providing a bit of reassuring detachment from the concept.

    By the way, is your new book targeted solely at teens or is it something a kidult with an imagination and a liking for ‘what if’ scenarios might enjoy?

  3. Yes, you may well be right – it’s a sort of distancing term, perhaps. As to the book, yes, it could certainly be enjoyed by kidults!

    • Spiritman permalink

      Funny, I had ‘distance and detachment’ in that post before I trimmed it down (as I often do… I can be rather verbose).

      Will you be doing a book signing? It would be fun to say hello. 🙂

  4. There will be a book launch, to which all those who have sponsored the book will be invited! So far 140 people have pledged support. If you would care to join them, go to this link: https://unbound.com/books/adam-gowers

    It would be great to meet you at the launch party!

  5. Thanks very much – really appreciate your generosity. See you at the launch party!

  6. Simon Carter permalink

    Odd too that Paris should have been home to the now disappeared, but uneuphemistic, pissoir.

  7. Mark Brafield permalink

    On the subject of euphemisms for the toilet, I always enjoyed ‘Pearl and Dean’ at the PPP cinema in Oxford, whilst an American bar apparently had the Elton John and the Olivia Newton John. But my favourite was at Cecil Sharp house in Camden where I used to attend music rehearsals. Cecil Sharp was a great collector of folk songs, and Cecil Sharp house was a centre of folk singing and folk dancing. The toilets there were labelled ‘lads’ and ‘lasses’.

  8. Yes, that’s nice word-choice!

  9. Simon Carter permalink

    Remember a pub which had a sign with a picture of two dogs and arrows labelled setters and pointers.

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