“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
― William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
What a strange combination — Shakespeare and water closets. However, I have found that his name has magical power with many people — and for good reason — he has a way with words.
He stands in sharp contrast to another famous Englishman (though probably decidedly less so) — Thomas Crapper (TC for short — and just in case you don’t like to read about crap).
Shakespeare is given credit for all sorts of wonderful plots and stories, turns of phrases and literary images. Indeed, reading his work today (or better yet, seeing it performed) is still richly rewarding.
On the other hand, poor TC has been tagged with one thing — crap has come to mean something at least unpleasant, useless, untrue, offensive or trashy— and also a crude and unattractive term for bodily waste. Hardly a rose!
What is so unfortunate for the descendants of TC, and those others who carry his surname, it is completely undeserved. There is no evidence suggesting he himself did anything to put the tag on his himself. History can be cruel. Just ask Romeo and Juliet about how others judge a thing (or person) by its name rather than what is.
So who is the TC fellow, and did he do?
Let’s first start with his surname – Crapper.
Our TC was hardly the first to bear that name. According to Name Origin Research (www.surnamedb.com), the name has been around for centuries.
The name probably derives from the picker of fruit or vegetables or a reaper of corn. The head of a plant or swelling was a “cropp”; that over time became “crop.” The word “cropen” came along to mean to pick or pluck. Over the centuries the variations led to alternative spellings — and then at some point surnames began to be used.
Like many other early surnames, they were at first taken by what the head of the family did. For example, a man named John who worked making tin pots might become John Smith, or a man known as a fruit picker might become Tom Crapper (or variations of the spelling). Use of surnames became far more widespread with the rise of personal taxation (the Poll Tax) starting in about the 14th century — there had to be a way of identifying the taxpayers.
Suffice to say, it is virtually certain that our TC had a long surname history having nothing to do what he is now best known for.
A quick search with Google brings up many sites and articles showing TC was born in England in the middle 1830’s and died in 1910. He did in fact have a highly successful plumbing business for many years. It would seem he was a man of industry, marketing creativity and imagination.
At about 16 he went to work his brother, George, who was a master plumber in Chelsea. In 1861 TC had learned enough to declare himself a sanitary engineer, and set up his own business. His hard work and skills apparently paid off.
According to toilet-guru.com, in the 1880s, Prince Edward (later King Edward VII) purchased his country seat of Sandringham House in Norfolk and asked Thomas Crapper & Co. to supply the plumbing, including thirty lavatories with cedar wood seats and enclosures, thus giving Crapper his first Royal Warrant (an image and phrase that allowed one to discreetly advertise that one supplied members of the Royal Household with a particular product. They are still awarded today to the makers of many products used by the Royal household). The firm received further warrants from Edward as king and from George V both as Prince of Wales and as king.
TC retired in about 1904, and died in 1910. The company continued for some years, but apparently lost its prominence.
TC is sometimes credited with being the inventor of the flush toilet but that – like his name being the origin of the term crap — is wrong as well. It appears he did make improvements to the flush toilets that were becoming into more general use in the middle of the 19th century and thereafter.
Still it is not true he was the inventor. According to Nick Valéry at More Intelligent Life, the flush toilet was patented by Alexander Cummings, a watchmaker “who was granted the first patent for a flush toilet in 1775,” more than 60 years before Crapper was born. Other sources say Joseph Bramah of Yorkshire patented the first practical water closet in England in 1778.
Still other sources say John Harrington should be given the credit for the invention (dating from 1596). And it is also true there were much earlier variations that had been in use for centuries before that, although it is fair to say the use was hardly wide spread. This is not the place for the history of that topic to be sorted out (and I doubt that I am up to the task in any case) — my brief research did not lead me to any clear conclusions other than that TC is not the inventor.
Urban legends are, however, powerful forces, and there are some stories that take on a life of their own.
So, does it make any difference if he isn’t the inventor? Aside from a trivia or Jeopardy game, I suggest the short answer is no, at least to the vast majority of us. But I still think it’s generally better to fill my brain with correct information rather than incorrect information.
So we can still be thankful for TC and his work which helped popularize the modern facilities many of us in the Western world accept without much thought as part of our modern life. Great products need great exposure and marketing. Few items sell themselves, though no doubt it is far easier to sell an ice cream cone in the desert than it is a sand box.
Urban legends generally say the word crap, meaning bodily waste and some of the other less appealing terms mentioned above, comes from a shortened version of TC’s name.
Sorry folks, it’s not true.
Origin of the word “crap”
The following is from Wicked Words, by Hugh Rawson (Crown Publishers, Inc., 1989):
Crap, labeled “course slang,” finally gained entrance to the OED in 1972, the term is nevertheless euphemistic for the stronger shit both literal, physical sense and in extended uses where it stands for rubbish, nonsense and insincere or downright deceitful talk, ………
Perhaps the most interesting thing about crap itself recently it has acquired its excremental meaning. In the general sense of chaff, residue or dregs of something (such as husks of grain or settlings of beer) the word dates to the 15th century. As to the residue of people, it appears first in the late 17th century in the form of cropping ken, or privy, (where ken is a house and the crop may allude to the leftover crop that is left on the ground after harvesting).
In the 18th and 19th centuries people began paying visits to crapping casas, cases, and even castles …… The short form crap doesn’t appear either as a noun or a verb referring to defecation until the mid 19th century, however, and it took some years for this sense to contaminate the term.
Mr. Rawson cities an example of Mark Twain using the term crap in the opening of Gilded Age, published in 1873. The term was used to describe the man’s unwanted belongings. The author notes it would have been highly unlikely that the term would have passed muster for publishing had it been also know in 1873 to mean bodily waste.
So where does this leave us? Is it a historical coincidence that the word crap came into use as a term relating to defecation just about the time TC was busy in his business and marketing his products? Or did the term feed off the company name, and vice a versa? I don’t know, and I am not able to draw any meaningful conclusions.
Perhaps a lot more search would tell me more, but my musings on these words and name are about over. Language and words are means of communication — and many times the words mean far more than the speaker intended or thought.
The two names of the objects, one sweet and the other far less than sweet, offer examples of how words take on new meanings and eventually take on their own life. Over time they pick up their own images, associations and yes, even morality (good/bad; clean/dirty). Thus it is virtually impossible, other than the passing of time, for the meanings to change. And with rare exceptions, no single individual has any significant control over how the meanings grow and change.
For most of us, the word “rose” conjures up a beautiful flower arrangement or a wonderful smell. On the other hand, “crap” means at least something unattractive, useless and trashy, and for most of us, it means bodily waste. As a verb, it means to defecate. Shakespeare reminds us that the inherent nature of an object is what is important and meaningful, and not just its name. It is the smell of the rose that is important, not that we call that particular flower a rose.
Usage over time however, takes a word, and gives it meaning, regardless of the context in which it is used. Thus, in this instance, TC has lost his name and it has now come to be associated with that which for the vast majority of us is unpleasant, or at least trashy, useless and unattractive.