The quirky and worldly origins of common outhouse monikers

outhouse Photo by Dee Browning/Shutterstock

Whether you call it the outhouse, the privy, the kybo or something more, ahem, descriptive, there’s no doubt there are endless names for an outdoor toilet. Here are some of the most interesting:


“Outhouse” may be a common modern word, but its origins — the Middle English “outhous” — are pretty old. Its use as a word to describe an outdoor toilet, however, are considerably more recent: American English from approximately 1819.


Donniker is a word originally used by circus and carnival folk to refer to any toilet, not just an outdoor one, but it’s been picked up by privy aficionados as well. Some think the term is a corruption of the German phrase “Donner und Blitzen,” which means (appropriately) “thunder and lightning.” While that’s certainly descriptive, “donniker” (or its variant, “donnicker”) could also be an evolution of the eighteenth-century English dialect word dunnekin, which means, of course, toilet. Fun fact: in parts of Australia and New Zealand, an outhouse is known as a “dunny.”


“Privy” — derived from the French “privé,” meaning intimate or familiar — has been in use as a word to describe an outhouse since the middle of the thirteenth century. The word is surprisingly literary, making an appearance in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Interestingly, in the twentieth century, the word also become synonymous with “genitals.”


Kybo is a word that’s common in the North American scouting movement, originating with the practice of some troops using a Kybo brand coffee can to hold lime or lye, which is sprinkled into the hole to reduce odour. Some folks think “kybo” stands for “keep your bowels open,” but this is likely a “backronym” — an acronym formed to fit an already existing word. In Dutch and Belgian scouting as well as other places throughout the world, a shallow latrine pit covered with a tarp or tent is known as a “hudo.”


No one’s entirely sure where “biffy” comes from, but it’s common in parts of Canada and the midwestern US states. Some think it’s a variation of “privy,” while others point to the word “bivouac” as its likely origin. Still others think it may have come from “BFI,” the initials of portable toilet company Browning-Ferris Industries.


This term has lots of meanings (some less savory than others), but its toilet-related etymology starts in the American military in the 1940s. (The Brits, on the other hand, preferred “thunder box.”) Honeypot has a lot of other meanings, though, and was actually the title of a 1967 film starring Rex Harrison — proving, once again, that context is everything. Not fond of “honeypot?” Use “honeybucket” instead.


This term has only been around since the mid-1960s, and tends to be more popular in parts of the UK than in North America. Also spelled “carsy,” “karzi” or “carsey,” it’s thought to be a corruption of “casa,” the Italian and Spanish word for “house.”


This is a Scottish term is thought to be a combination of “closet” and “lodge” — which, if you think about it, isn’t a bad way to describe a privy, although the word actually refers to all toilets, not just outhouses. If a Scot — likely from Edinburgh or Glasgow — tells you something’s figuratively gone “doon the cludgie,” don’t expect to salvage the situation easily.


This one is really obscure, dating from approximately 1860 and thought to originate from forica, which is Latin for, of course, “public latrine” which in turn has its roots in the Latin word for diarrhea.


Backhouse was originally just a term that meant “outbuilding behind the main house.” Of course, since outhouses were usually located at the back of the house, the name became synonymous with an outdoor toilet.

Now that you have a vocabulary of outhouse terms, here’s a fun fact: there’s little evidence to suggest that the moon-shaped cut-out in traditional outhouses was an early sign for a women’s privy. While people have theorized that the moon represents the goddess Diana or the moon goddess Luna, both of whom symbolize femininity, there’s no hard evidence to back that up. In fact, according to Georg Papp, a builder and restorer of privies in Connecticut, the moon cut-out had a much more prosaic purpose: in an era where door hardware might have been expensive or hard to find, the crescent moon cut-out was simply an easy substitute for a door handle.

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