Few phrases sound as uncomfortably pedophilic as referring to the men’s bathroom as “the little boys’ room.” But surprisingly for a country that likes to insert a weird incestuous bent to everything (for evidence, see our profound obsession with pseudo-sexual terms like “Daddy,” “Mommy,” and “Baby”) the history of this phrase isn’t nearly as sordid as it might suggest.
It all started well enough: The term “bathroom” began to be used for places where people relieve themselves as early as 1780, and was considered a polite way to refer to the lavatory in early America, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.
By 1825, “ladies’ room” was being used as a faster way to say, “the ladies’ cloakroom,” while “restroom” (which appeared around 1856) became the euphemistic expression used to describe a place for “a room with a toilet” (aka a place where you can read the paper in peace for 15 minutes). From there, the ladies’ room evolved to become the “women’s room” by 1918, while records of the term “men’s room” first appeared 11 years later in 1929.
This is where it all goes to shit.
According, again, to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the term “little girls’ room” set the foundation for the clumsy reference when it first appeared in John O’Hara’s 1935 novel, BUtterfield 8:
“The women’s toilet (as distinguished from the ladies’ room in a speakeasy, the johnny at school, the little girls’ room at a party in an apartment and the wash-my-hands on a train) was clean enough.”
Though there’s no paper trail to explain exactly when the phrase “the little boys’ room” became the male equivalent to O’Hara’s “little girls’ room,” it can be assumed that it was in fairly common usage not long after, as the phrase is used in Lenny Bruce’s 1965 autobiography, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People:
“If I’m at your house, I can never say to you, ‘Excuse me, where’s the toilet?’ I have to get hung up with that corrupted facade of, ‘Excuse me, where’s the little boys’ room?’”
Clearly, somewhere between 1935 and 1965, the term “little boys’ room” had gained such prominence that it was being used on a regular basis. And despite even Bruce calling it out for the bullshit term it is, we’re still using it today.