Latrinalia and the Linguist – studies in toilet writing

by Craig Evans

O the noises that come from beyond the public toilet cubicle door, but you probably weren’t expecting exclamations of intrigue and discovery. ‘Aha, this is most interesting indeed, most interesting!’ Then the door opens, and from behind it appears a lecturer or a fellow student; they smile at your gawping face reflected in the mirror and then leave.

Clearly, the labours of study have taken their toll.

On another day you see them again coming out from behind the toilet cubicle door. This time they are staring intently at an image on a digital camera, nodding their head meaningfully; they may have lost the plot.

Or perhaps there’s a magical wonderland hidden somewhere inside that cubicle? (Backs of wardrobes are so 1950s – maybe for the twenty-teens there’s a miniature jet-ski in the cistern waiting to swoop you off to another dimension.)

When you go to investigate, there’s nothing to be found, just the usual broken toilet seat, soggy paper in the corner and variously etched and scrawled graffiti markings:

This country is being destroyed by immigrants the EDL

For a good time, call some friends and invite them to dinner

Michael K sucks cock!

Your linguistic curiosity is piqued.

What motivates a person to take a marker pen to public toilets for the purpose of expressing a political view? More curiously: what motivates another person to respond to the first person’s graffiti as part of a communicative exchange?

And conventions are being observed too. In spoken political debates, opponents will often try to out-talk each other; in toilet graffiti political exchanges, less is more and amending an opponent’s wording can be the most effective way to make your point.

This is surprisingly civil for a genre that typically attracts unimaginative insults, which themselves are never too far away, but then neither are the creative efforts to subvert the genre: for a good time, call usually suggests a sexual proposal, but it can also be the start of something far more chaste.

And then the penny drops.

Of course! Your lecturer / fellow student (whoever you saw) is not having a breakdown – they are just behaving like the good linguists that they are, investigating language data wherever it is to be found. It just happens that it is to be found on the walls of their local public amenities.

This does not quite fit the romantic image of an Indiana Jones-style linguistic adventurist battling adversities in a quest to unlock the secrets of human civilisation. Pierre-Francois Bouchard, perhaps: the heroic Napoleonic soldier-scholar, in the heat and dust of el-Rashid as the French war machine tears down decaying walls, and then he sees it, a black basalt slab of three scripts, the key to the tongue of a lost ancient world – behold, the Rosetta Stone!

Behold! Apparently someone was ‘ere in 2014.

No, it doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. Nevertheless, there is a lot more to public toilet inscriptions than graffiti tags and illicit propositions.

I’m thinking of two studies in particular that shed some interesting light on the value of investigating toilet graffiti (or latrinalia, as termed by the American folklorist, Alan Dundes). These include the widely reported master’s thesis on latrine literature by University of Bonn student, Katrin Fischer, in 2009; and Social issues on walls: graffiti in university lavatories (1993) by O.G. Nwoye, who studied graffiti in the men’s toilets at the University of Benin, Nigeria.

While their friends and colleagues probably fretted over their frequent and prolonged trips to the loo, the linguists got to work.

Fischer collected 122 samples from the women’s toilets at the University of Bonn, as well as any responses to these initial communications, which for one on the subject of veganism included 60 responses. The most popular topics were relationships, love, sex, other students, and religion.

The student’s analysis of her data revealed a number of communicative patterns. For example, the tendency for authors to fall into the two categories of either being polite and objective or vulgar and dominant; the latter group would often assert their dominance by taking up a large amount of space and circling their messages.

For Fischer, public toilets are one of the last places where free speech is truly anonymous and therefore truly free. She contrasts this with the internet, where most people can be traced by their IP addresses.

The notion of free speech is something quite different in the world where Nwoye was collecting his data. It was 1991 at the University of Benin, at a time before worldwide internet access. Nigeria in particular, as Nwoye describes, was a difficult place for students to express themselves:

Nigerian university students have been seen as agents of destabilization by successive governments in Nigeria. Within the individual universities, they are not involved in decision-making in matters that affect their academic and social life as students. Nationally, they are not allowed to contribute to discussions of socio-economic and political issues. Even where campus newspapers exist, they are often subject to censorship by university authorities.

(Nwoye 1993)

In this context, the toilet walls became an important outlet of expression for many students. The topics primarily covered would be of a political or socio-economic nature, although less serious subjects would also be discussed. Nwoye observed how the graffiti went back years, and for this reason space was scarce. It also meant that dialogues would occur over long periods of time, with writers adding to discussions about changing world events.

With meaningful discussions sustained over time, Nwoye found that the graffiti from his study would often resemble spoken face-to-face discourse, such as with the use of ‘return-to-topic’ strategies and supportive statements.

Both these studies reveal that graffiti has been vibrant as a medium of expression and discussion for university students. The same can probably not be said about graffiti in many other public domains where the primary object seems to be to cause offence. Little wonder then that graffiti continues to be widely regarded as destructive and disrespectful. It is this taboo that probably fuels its appeal to those who wish to use it as a means to challenge societal norms, but to do so it needs to be relevant and engaging. Where it is not is where it seems most meaninglessly anarchic.

Toilet graffiti can also be a source of great humour. Here are a couple of links to some fun posts for anybody who fancies a look…


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