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Since You Asked: We haven't a square to spare

I'm wondering why toilet paper is referred to as "bath tissue"? I don't take it in my bath, so why isn't it called toilet tissue? "Toilet" is a word recognized anywhere, regardless of language.


— Beverly H.

We think you're a bit confused, Beverly, but that's OK because we're used to it ourselves. As we know it, "toilet paper" is the section of the newspaper left behind in the "rest room," where, one presumes, you go purely to relax and ponder the day's events. And it's usually the section of the paper you are least likely to read elsewhere, but what are you going to do?

You've stumbled onto our culture's delicate sensibilities and our predilection for words that say little or nothing, least of all anything that might offend. "Toilet tissue" is far too blush-inducing, wouldn't you say? "Bath tissue" is so much cleaner and nicer, yes? Almost smells of daisies!

George Carlin had a great routine on this semantic doublethink. In the rest room it's annoying but harmless, but in other uses it can sterilize things to the point of damaging meaninglessness. For instance, Carlin pointed out the negative evolution of "shell shock" in World War I to "post traumatic stress disorder" in Vietnam, and argues that the sterile term we ended up with helped make that horrible condition less credible and prone to questioning.

Back to the powder room, we could easily come up with a long list of more appropriate and direct names for the product you mention, but we're a family newspaper and we wouldn't want to offend.

And we're not so sure "toilet" is as universally recognized as you think. You didn't hear this from us, but did you know the French think "toilet water" is a perfume?

Forgive us ... words are among our favorite toys, and we find ourselves easily amused.

Send questions to "Since You Asked," Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by e-mail to youasked@mailtribune.com.