The Jakes

I’m still reading that Shakespeare book (work and househunting is time-consuming), and still learning interesting things. Well in this case, it was being reminded of something I’d heard about before: the jakes.

While reading about how the name of the character Jaques in As You Like It was pronounced like jakes. This was significant because in Elizabethan England jakes was a euphemism for toilets, so this was probably a deliberately play on words on Shakespeare’s behalf.

Jakes was originally spelled jacques, and the name had a simple enough reason behind. Like its equivalent Jack, it was intended as a generic male name, so someone going to  the toilet could euphemistically they were going to visit Jacques/Jake. Or, as it’s survived into American English, (the) John.

Though something more similar to the jakes is still in use here in Ireland, particularly Dublin, where people go to the jacks. 

I mentioned all this before of course, but I was struck again while reading the book how something so specific can last for hundreds of years, when most slang is usually so ephemeral.

And it’s also curious because people like to claim that the American accent, especially in southern states, is closer to the accent of Elizabethan England. And while that isn’t really true, some aspects of historical English have been preserved in international dialects, while they disappeared in England itself. It’s a useful reminder that the idea of a simple contrast between standard and non-standard English doesn’t always reflect reality. After all, how can someone who uses basically the same euphemism for the toilet as Shakespeare be accused of using non-standard English?

2 thoughts on “The Jakes

  1. I was reading a fantasy alternate history novel and the author appeared to sneak this one in.

    Best and worst defecation euphemism I’ve heard: File some paper(work).

    Like

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