Why is a lavatory on a boat called a head?

Boating has its own unique vocabulary, and one term that often puzzles newcomers is the use of the word “head” to refer to the toilet onboard. It’s easy to understand why this could be perplexing – after all, there doesn’t seem to be any obvious connection between a toilet and a head. But the truth is, there is a perfectly logical explanation for this strange terminology.

The most widely accepted theory about why a boat toilet is called a head has to do with the history of sailing vessels. In the days of old, seafarers would relieve themselves off the bow of the ship, simply directing their movements towards the water below. This practice became known as “going to the head of the ship”. As time went on, sailors began to use a designated area at the front of the ship for this purpose, which they called the head.

When enclosed lavatories were eventually installed aboard ships, the same term was used to refer to them. The head became a walled-off area where sailors could do their business in privacy, while still maintaining the tradition of “going to the head of the ship”. Over time, the word gradually crossed over to other types of boats, until it became the generally accepted term for any bathroom on the water.

Another theory regarding the origins of the term “head” involves the construction of early boat toilets. These early versions often involved a simple wooden box placed at the front of the vessel, with a hole cut in the front for waste disposal. According to this theory, the word “head” comes from the Old English word “hede”, meaning “to cover or conceal”. The wooden box would have had a hinged lid to cover the hole when not in use, and it’s possible that the term head came to be associated with this feature.

Regardless of the specific origins, the fact remains that boat toilets are often called heads, and it’s a term that is well entrenched in boating culture. Understanding the fascinating history behind the word can help newcomers to boating feel more connected to the storied tradition of life on the water.

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