Monday, 13 August 2012

Academic Excesses

Gaaah! After a weekend of academic excesses of varying and startling kinds, we feel intellectually lubricated (to use an Intellectual-Friend-esque expression) enough to deal with this lavoir issue again. Faithful readers may remember our previous reportage on the curious contraption called a "lavoire", which we encountered in a museum. The problem was that, though we have proof of the existence of this object, we can find no information about the word "lavoir/lavoire" in this context; according to Wikipedia, a lavoire is a contraption for washing clothes in rural France. Thankfully, Intellectual Friend is always happy to engage in bloody etymological battles!

If you are sitting down and have a coffee at hand, it may be safe to read the following information from our favourite academic lunatic (be prepared for Middle English and Middle French references).

The lavoire: a hygiene-related mystery
HA. Frustratingly, the first answer to this conundrum would be that lavoire is NOT a French word and never was. That much is clear from its absence in both the Trésor de la Langue Française ( and Godefroy's exhaustive and exhausting dictionary of Old and Middle French and dialects ( There was only lavoir. However, while lavoir came indeed to mean a place to go and wash clothes, the earlier meaning, still surviving but rare and archaic, was a vessel or basin for washing one's hands, often apparently a silver washbasin. None of the various spellings of this masculine word ends in -e. Cf. Godefroy, s.v. LAVEOR, [I give these French references only for their virtue of sounding academic and pedantically annoying; I wouldn't personally encourage anyone to try and actually read them. (Though one citation apparently refers to the washing of heathen sacrificial victims...)]

Why then distinguish between
lavoir and lavoire in English? (or Swedish? or whatever -- anyway let's assume it's ultimately English's fault.) Well, maybe precisely to actually distinguish between the two meanings. But such a twattish answer sounds too easy. The OED pretends not to know either word, but here's what the Middle English Dictionary has to say (
lvur (n.) Also laver, lavre, lavoire, law(e)r, lawowre, (errors) laber, labour.

[OF lavëoir]

(a) A water pitcher, ewer; vessel for pouring; bowl; bacin and ~, basin and pitcher; (b) a washbasin; also, lavatory in a monastic cloister, trough for washing, sink; hanging (pendaunt) ~, hanging basin; harneis ~, sink for washing harness; also, baptismal font; ?holy water stoup; ~ stock, ?a pedestal or base for a laver; hind labour, water ~, q.v.; [some quots. in (b) are difficult to distinguish from (a) and may belong there]; (c) a medicinal wash, lotion which heals or cleanses; also fig.; (d) in surnames. 
Ha! so it could sometimes end in -e, and the form lavoire is attested. The MED entry proceeds with a lot of citations, but they don't help much in seeing what's special about the -e forms. In fact these seem to have been very rare; however they are quite interesting; one is from a homily and the other is quoted by G. Henslow in his 1899 edition of Medical Works of the Fourteenth Century:
He made forto full a gret fet full of watyr..and cast her þeryn..Then scho besoght God how þat fet most be her fonte, and þe watyr, þe lauere and waschyng of her synnys.

Take..hockys and sexfrage, and make a lauoyre, and do hit in a vessel þat he may sitte Inne a-non to þe breste or to þe gurdel, and baþe hym þer-Inne.

As a last desperate attempt get a glimpse of a lavoire, well there's an ancient French word lavatoire, confusingly a partial synonym of lavoir, and also confusingly not a feminine word despite -e suffix (the actual degree of correlation between gender and the -e ending in French is a question best never tackled). A lavatoire was a place for washing, or for washing oneself, or a lavoir, or a pool or a baptismal font. It could conceivably mean a lavatory in some of the latter word's earlier senses. The word lavatory, by the way, looks like coming from lavatoire, but it probably doesn't, coming instead from the Vulgar Latin etymon of the French word, making it, technically speaking, a bastard cognate! As to that vulgar filthy little etymon (which I will not utter here), it probably also underlies lavoir(e).

Argh. I now feel like I've provided a satisfactorily unsatisfying heap of self-content non-answers and shall make no further inquiry into that bloody matter!
Ha! We feel like we've got excellent value for all the alcohol we poured down Intellectual Friend's throat last Friday. Thank you, Intellectual Friend!

To further complicate the issue, however, we found that, in Swedish, a "lavoir tap" (lavoirkran) is what we would term an English-style tap, but which might, perhaps, be described as an old-fashioned French tap. The lavoir tap is, apparently, usually a NON-MIXER TAP. We didn't think this type of aberration existed outside of Britain, but apparently it does. We even found a blog by someone who deliberately, in cold blood, installed lavoir taps in their bathroom:

Lavoir tap, from this website

We note with relief that it is also possible to get lavoir taps in a mixer version.

Tap from this website

Tap from this website

 If you heard a loud melting noise there, it was the sound of our brain collapsing into a post-hangover meltdown state.

Related reading: 
Terminator Toilet 
Lavoire of Love

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...