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Un tour des toilettes

Most tourist phrase books are bound to include the handy little phrase Où sont les toilettes s’il vous plaît ? ("Where are the toilets, please?") The word toilettes is self-explanatory, but it has other meanings besides the obvious. So, let’s explore some toilette-related vocabulary and discuss the evolution of public restrooms.


The French cognate of "bathroom" is la salle de bain. But whereas "bathroom" is a catch-all term for any type of restroom, la salle de bain specifically refers to a bathroom containing une baignoire (a bathtub) or une douche (a shower)—in other words, a bathroom you can bathe in (salle de bain literally means "bathing room"). You'll typically find this type of bathroom in someone's home:


Alors ici, c'est la salle de bain.

So here, this is the bathroom.

Caption 35, Joanna Son appartement

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Inside Joanna's salle de bain, you will find les toilettes (the toilet) and a few other essentials:


Vous avez un placard ici, les toilettes, le lavabo, avec du savon pour me laver les mains.

You have a cupboard here, the toilet, the sink, with some soap for me to wash my hands.

Caption 36, Joanna Son appartement

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La salle de bain is where one goes to faire sa toilette (wash up):


Allons Susie, il faut rentrer faire ta toilette.

Come on, Susie, you have to wash up.

Caption 5, Il était une fois: L’Espace 6. La révolte des robots - Part 1

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To do that, you may want to use un gant de toilette (a washcloth), an item that the piglet Piggeldy always carries in his suitcase:


Pyjama, dentifrice, brosse à dents, savon et gant de toilette.

Pajamas, toothpaste, toothbrush, soap, and washcloth.

Caption 13, Piggeldy et Frédéric Voyage à Pont-à-Cochon

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As for Sacha in the video below, she doesn’t travel light, since she carries deux trousses de toilette (two toiletry bags):


Trois brosses à dents, deux trousses de toilette...

Three toothbrushes, two toiletry bags...

Caption 15, Extr@ Ep. 11 - Les vacances - Part 4

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Most people don’t usually include le papier toilette (toilet paper) in their travel kit, but this essential item was in short supply in the early days of the COVID pandemic:


Les ventes de pâtes ont été multipliées par cinq, celles de papier toilette par trois et demi...

Sales of pasta have increased fivefold, those of toilet paper by three and a half...

Captions 21-22, Le Monde Coronavirus : bientôt la pénurie dans les supermarchés ?

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In France, les toilettes publiques (public toilets) come in various shapes and sizes. Some are round and made of cast-iron. Known as les vespasiennes in reference to the Roman emperor Vespasian, these vintage urinals date from the 1900s and are fast disappearing. Daniel Benchimol gives us a glimpse of one of the last remaining ones in his tour of Paris's thirteenth arrondissement:


...ce sont ces toilettes: on les appelle les  « vespasiennes ».

....are these toilets: we call them "vespasiennes" [urinals].

Caption 16, Voyage dans Paris Le Treizième arrondissement de Paris - Part 1

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French speakers also adopted the British acronym "WC" (water closet) to refer to public toilets. Note that it’s always known as les WC (plural), and it's pronounced "vay-say" (as if it were written VC). The term WC is somewhat dated in France, but you'll still see it around:


Le terme « les WC » figurent encore sur les plans de ville.

The term "WC" still features on city maps.


You might even hear the term les waters


« Les waters » est un autre synonyme pour les toilettes publiques.

"Water closet" is another synonym for public restrooms.


Even more dated is les cabinets. Be careful with this one: in the plural form, it refers to a toilet, but un cabinet is a professional office:


Les cabinets extérieurs sont plutôt rares.

Outhouses are rather rare.


Je suis secrétaire dans un cabinet médical. 

I'm a secretary in a doctor's office


For a more modern type of toilet, we have les sanisettes, which are fully automated restrooms on the streets of major cities like Paris:


La première sanisette a été ouverte le 10 novembre 1981.

The first sanisette opened on November 10, 1981.


More recently, an environmentally-friendly invention called l'uritrottoir (sidewalk urinal) was introduced in 2018 to help curb les pipis sauvages (peeing on the streets). First tested in the cities of Nantes and Paris, they caused a bit of an uproar, as the public complained that these minimalist urinals afforded little privacy and encouraged exhibitionism. Per Wikipedia


« Un uritrottoir est un urinoir public écologique...destiné à lutter contre les incivilités urinaires ».

uritrottoir is a public, eco-friendly urinal...aimed at curbing public urination.”


Many public toilets have separate male and female facilities. To make sure you enter the correct one, look for the letter F (for femmes) or H (for hommes). This is the way to ask for the men’s room or ladies’ room:


Où sont les toilettes pour hommes ? Où sont les toilettes pour femmes ?

Where is the men's room? Where is the ladies' room?


But nowadays, restrooms are not necessarily gender specific:


Les toilettes unisexes ou mixtes sont utilisables par les deux sexes.

Unisex and all-gender toilets may be used by both sexes.


That’s it for our tour of the toilettes! Wishing you a stress-free search for public restrooms in French-speaking countries. If you're ever in need of one in France, try consulting


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