Posted by: irmayasari | September 8, 2009

When a toilet is not a ‘toilet’

This afternoon, I visited Chifley Library. When I was there, I went into one of its toilets in level 4. I have seen the notification about ‘to keep the toilet cleans’ in several languages for many times but this afternoon, there was one word in my language; Bahasa Indonesia that made me thinking about one of the topic in Language and Society class. The word is WC.

 WC is an Indonesian word for toilet referring to ‘Water Closet’. When I saw this word in the notification, I asked to myself, is it the matter of register or style? Sometimes I confuse about these terms; register and style.

 In Bahasa Indonesia, there are some words referring to toilet such as jamban, kakus, WC and toilet and these words are listed as Indonesian words in Kamus Besar Bahasa Indonesia (KBBI; a valid Indonesian Dictionary published by The Ministry of Indonesian Education). However, it depends on what occasion you are going to use that particular word. For example, when I was in West Papua, I used to heard the word ‘kakus’ when I worked with the people in rural area or when I was a kid and played with some classmates, but I will not use that word. For me, it seems that that is like the ‘taboo’ word but not for some of my West Papuan friends in my neighbourhood. It is because since I was a kid, my mother would not let me to use that word since she considered that word is very informal and inappropriate to use. That is why, influencing by my mother, I never use this word in any casual and formal context even though I know that this word exists in my community.

The word for toilet is different when I was in my father’s village in Central Java in another island in Indonesia. The term used referring to toilet is ‘jamban’. It is quite common to be used in my father’s village and yet I still felt discomfort to use this word since personally I reckon that this word is inappropriate in such formal situation. Let’s say, when I want to write that word in an academic essay, I will not recommend that word either.

When I was in primary school until high school, the way I referred to the toilet is WC. However, influencing by my discipline when I was in undergraduate program (English Literature), I replace the word WC to ‘toilet’. I also see the shifting of WC to toilet when I was in Jakarta; the capital city of Indonesia where every sign in public place preferred this word ‘toilet’ rather than ‘WC’. In my opinion, it is because the society changes, so the word choice also changes, depending on community perspective in that time. I will not make any generalization about this phenomena but I personally think it is because in Indonesia today, English word is considered as the exotic language and has prestige, that is why, it seems that Indonesian people especially in the big cities prefer to see that ‘toilet’ sign rather than ‘WC’ even though WC is also an Indonesian term for ‘toilet’.

 In talking about the words relates to ‘toilet’, in Bahasa Indonesia, there are also some PC words (is my term correct?). The phrases are kamar kecil ‘small room’and ke belakang ‘to go behind’. These phrases are really common to be used especially in such formal situation e.g. when you are in a formal reception.

Anyway, In West Papua, especially in the coastal areas in Bird Head Peninsula, there is also a phrase referring to toilet; rumah berlabu/ rumah balabu, sometimes called in shortening form ‘rumberlab, literally meaning ‘floating house. In my opinion, I reckon that this is probably a slang in this area since most of the coastal people live in the sort-of floating wooden house which has ladder and wooden-legged stick to hold the house to get into it and it looks like a stage and there is a hollow space under the house where you can see the water and sometimes can be used to raise the fish (I don’t know what is the English word for it). About 10 to 15 meters from this kind of house, there is a separate wooden roofless building similar to the house used as the toilet. Sometimes, it so hard to tell whether people talk about the real floating house or the slang of the toilet, that is why, when I was there, I used to listen to the context and asking promptly when I heard that phrase.

I reckon that I write a lot about the words related to toilet, but I still wonder and ask my self, why a single room can have so many ‘names’ in one language and can create different effect of use? That is why, I personally reflect to myself that the matter of register/style is not as easy as it seems.



  1. This would be a fantastic topic for the practical assignment. What word do people use? I think I change my use depending on the formality of the context. At home I’d say ‘loo’, but I don’t think I use that at work. It doesn’t seem quite right. I would use ‘toilet’. But more recently, there is a tendency to use ‘bathroom’, although ‘bathroom’ sounds quite American to me and so I want to resist this trend. Does it make a difference if we are talking to a different gendered person?

  2. There are at least 6 expressions in Hong Kong to refer to the word “toilet”: :washroom, bathroom, toilet, W.C., and two chinese words 洗手間 and 廁所. I believe those words are ranked and used in differnt situation.

    “washroom” and “bathroom” are commonly seen in “high class” places in Hong Kong, such as hotels and large shopping malls. Those words sound to me relatively “high class”

    W.C. is commonly seen in tourist sopts. It sounds to me “international”.

    ”toilet” sounds to me relatively “lower class”.

  3. I’m not sure if “WC” is international, although it is used in many more countries than I assumed – I’ve never seen it in Australia, although that could just be me – the first time that I saw the word was in Europe… I haven’t been to Hong Kong…

    I personally use “toilet” more regularly than any other word, and I sometimes interchange between “toilet” and “bathroom”, I think because it sounds closer to the Spanish translation “baño” and also because it sometimes sounds better if I’m in strange (or new) company…. I don’t think my use has anything to do with gender overall, just how comfortable I feel with the person I’m talking to… I think I have used “powder room” at some stage, but I don’t think it would have been a serious conversation….

  4. Recently, I noticed that the word ‘Jamban’ (toilet) is commonly used in any health publication in my country (Indonesia) and becomes the valid term to refer to ‘toilet’ rather than ‘WC’. I personally believe it is because the influence of the culture since most population of people in Indonesia live in Java island. However, how this term becomes the valid term to use in formal health publication, I suppose it also deals with language power and ideology of those people who proposed this term for the first time. As Bourdieu (in Mesthrie 2009:333) says that “every linguistic interaction, however personal and insignificant it may appear, bears the traces of the social structure that it both expresses and helps to reproduce.” So I reckon that it might be because the first people who proposed this term ‘jamban’ rather than ‘kakus etc’ because they live in certain place that uses this term. I also think that it is because Indonesian’s capital is in Java island and this thing, to some extent, influences the word choice for using ‘jamban’ in formal publication.

    Regarding to Johanna’s question about is there any difference of the word choice of ‘toilet etc’ depends on the gendered person, I would say that for me, I do not distinguish on the basis of the gender but more as u4499075 says about how comfortable I am. It is because when I talked to the stranger in my home country, I prefer to use the euphemism word like ‘kamar kecil’ or ‘ke belakang’ rather than WC or toilet, but the close I am, less formal I am in using the word.

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