We all have our favorite endearing term for the restroom or, more specifically, the toilet. A common term that most have heard, whether you use it or not, is “the john.” If you’ve ever wondered where the term came from, we’re here to uncover the mystery.

Why Is a Toilet Called a “John”?

Medieval Lingo

Taking a look through history, there are actually two probable causes that led to calling the toilet “the john.” The first dates back to Medieval times, when “Jake” and “Jack” were popular names for common men, and later, common objects. At one point in time these names began to be used for describing a small, smelly restroom area inside of a house. Only the very wealthy had jakes/jacks inside of their homes—most others were located somewhere outside. The name “John” was later derived from “Jake” and “Jack.”

Sir John Harington

Secondly but most notable amongst historians, John was the name of the first man credited with inventing the first flushing toilet. John Harington was born during the time in which Queen Elizabeth reigned. His mother was a member of the Queen’s chamber. Praised for his work as both a poet and an inventor, Harington created a written plan for a mechanism that would serve as a flushing toilet. At the time, court members in England were thrilled at the idea of a device that could carry waste farther away from private homes.

From “Ajax” to “John”

While Harington named his invention the “Ajax,” a playful nod to the Greek hero as well as a pun on the slang term “jakes” for privies, it was his own name that would eventually become synonymous with the device. The transition from “Ajax” to “john” as a term for the toilet is believed to be influenced by several factors.

Harington’s invention, though initially not widely adopted, was a topic of intrigue and discussion among the literate and nobility, given its publication and the novelty of the idea. As Harington’s name was attached to the design, it’s conceivable that references to “Harington’s jakes” or simply “Harington’s” began to circulate as shorthand for the novel flushing toilet.

The personal connection between the invention and Harington himself made it natural for the term “john” to emerge as a euphemism for the toilet. Over time, as flushing toilets became more common and Harington’s invention was recognized as a precursor to modern sanitation, the term “john” solidified in the English language as a casual name for the toilet.

Sir John Harington: A Renaissance Man Beyond the Flush

Born in the captivating era of the English Renaissance, Sir John Harington emerged as a figure of ingenuity and wit. His life, spanning from 1561 to 1612, was set against the backdrop of Elizabethan England, a period renowned for its cultural flourish and intellectual awakening. Nurtured in the household of his godmother, Queen Elizabeth I, Harington was privy to the era’s luminaries, a privilege that shaped his varied interests in literature, science, and invention.

Contributions Beyond the Toilet

Though most famously credited with inventing the flushing toilet, Sir John Harington’s contributions to the cultural and intellectual landscape of his time were multifaceted. A scholar and a courtier, he was equally at home composing witty epigrams as he was devising mechanical innovations.

The Writer and the Poet: Harington’s literary output was considerable, with his works ranging from poetry to polemics. His flair for satire was evident in his most controversial work, “A New Discourse of a Stale Subject, called the Metamorphosis of Ajax” (1596), where he not only described his invention of the “toilet” but also used it as a metaphor to critique the contemporary social and political climate. His wit often landed him in trouble with the court, yet it cemented his reputation as a sharp-minded satirist.

The Inventor and Innovator: Beyond the Ajax, Harington’s inventive spirit saw him dabbling in various other mechanical and engineering projects, albeit with less historical footprint than his sanitation efforts. His curiosity and innovative mindset were emblematic of the Renaissance man, seeking knowledge and improvement in a wide array of fields.

Harington’s life embodies the Elizabethan age and the era’s spirit of exploration and innovation. His legacy, however, would be forever intertwined with a device that brought about a quiet revolution in personal hygiene and public health.

Queen Elizabeth Gets a John

Harington named his flushing toilet concept the “Ajax.” While “A New Disclosure upon a Stale Subject: The Metamorphosis of Ajax” highlighted his invention, the larger focus was on the idea of excrement poisoning the state. The book was later banned for a time due to making accusations about the Earl of Leicester. This angered the Queen, but Harington still installed a flushing toilet for her in 1596, in addition to one in his own home.

The Legacy of Sir John Harington

Unfortunately, John Harington died at age 51. The “Ajax” invention did not take off. Instead, English citizens had to wait until the 18th century for the creation of the S-bend, when lavatories everywhere saw a true improvement. On the bright side, wherever Harington is today, he can be proud of his namesake and the fact that people worldwide still sometimes reference the toilet as “the john.”

Mr. John Porta-Johns

Mr. John offers a wide range of products, including portable toilets, restroom trailers, office trailers, storage containers, and ground-level office containers. Mr. John’s restroom fleet now exceeds 5,000 poly-plastic units, including standard, flushing, and wheelchair-accessible models. We continue to focus on offering a diverse product line and strive to provide the highest level of customer service.

Interested in what we can do for your ‘John’-related needs? Get in touch