Tongue in Cheek: Lavatory and other student misunderstandings in words and phrases.

When I first taught garden club, I would say to the students, “If you need to use the lavatory, now is the time.”

This direction was often met with, “What’s that?”

And, so I would explain that it meant the bathroom. Year after year, student after student, asked this of me when I referred to the lavatory. It even happened a time or two when I served as a substitute teacher for a day.  I always ended up explaining that the lavatory meant the bathroom!

Kids today just do not know the term lavatory.  It is a term derived from the latin word lavare, which means to wash. It usually means a room in which to wash up, having a sink or other vessel in which water is held to wash one’s self. The water is then drained away. Later, or more recent, versions of the word include a place of convenience in which one can wash up AND use the toilet. Often, in lavatories, there are many toilets. You can check out the definition at And, no, I did not have to look  up the word lavatory to know what it meant. I try had not to use words I do not know.

I suppose this is where some of the confusion comes in. We refer to going to the bathroom as a place usually with only one toilet. When at home, you might say to your young child when they appear jumping up and down or tightly crossing their legs, “do you need to go to the bathroom?”

But, as I started my enrichment groups and had to carefully provide for many more children, I found myself referring to the bathroom as the lavatory. To someone who took two Regents Latin courses (although, it was 40 years ago), it must have innately made sense to me to use the word.

That was until, no one repeatedly knew what I was talking about! It did take me several years to realize that the students just did not use the word lavatory. I tried of explaining it just was another word for bathroom, so I eventually stopped using it.

There’s been a few other times over the years in which I found a disconnect between my word choice and the student understanding of what I said. This has been observed at home as well as in school settings.  Just before my youngest was in third grade, I commented it was muggy out, as it often is in August in the mid-west. His reply went something like, “Muggy? What do you mean mom? I don’t see any mugs.” It was a somewhat snarky and innocent retort all at the same time.

Anyway, after explaining that muggy meant humid, he got it but still thought it was very weird.  Then, I really confused him by letting him that one could also describe the sticky, warm, moisture-filled air as “close.”  I don’t think I ever explained my way out of that one. But, it is truly a word used to mean humid. Check it out here, if you don’t believe me.  All in all, I have found that my use of archaic or less used words lead to some very funny and teachable moments.  I have also learned that I have to watch what I say, especially if I have a day when I really don’t feel like explaining myself or the weirdness of the english language!

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