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August 15th, 2007

Entitled / memoir vs. autobiography / bathroom, restroom, washroom, toilet

by Barbara Wallraff

Andrew Squires, of Shaftsbury, Vt., writes: “My dispute is with the use of the word ‘entitled,’ as in ‘according to a document entitled ...’ ‘Entitled’ means to have the right to something. ‘Titled’ refers to the name of a publication, speech, song or movie.”

Dear Andrew: I like to make the distinction you describe. I figure if “entitled” sometimes means the same thing as “titled” and sometimes means something else, it’s only sensible to stick with “titled” for the first meaning and save “entitled” for the second. But “entitled” has been a synonym of “titled” for as long as the two words have existed -- at least 600 years. And correct English usage isn’t always sensible. Even though we have a sound reason for our preference, we can’t call other people wrong if they don’t join us in it.

Mary Ann Kollinger, of Warren, Mich., writes: “What is the difference between a ‘memoir’ and an ‘autobiography’? Aren’t they both written by a person who wants to tell the world his or her life story?”

Dear Mary Ann: Dictionaries will tell you that a “memoir” can be an autobiography as well as other things, such as “a report or record of important events based on the writer’s personal knowledge” or “a narrative composed from personal experience.” By the same logic I used when I agreed with Andrew above, I’m in favor of using “autobiography” for a life story and “memoir” for books that are mainly about people the author knew or events he or she went through. But of course people who write books are allowed to title -- or, sigh, entitle -- them however they want.

Fran Casselman, of Middleton, Wis., writes: “Regarding a column of yours published earlier this summer: You of all people should know that a public restroom is not a ‘bathroom.’ If you can’t bathe there, it isn’t a ‘bathroom.’ Why can’t we say ‘restroom’ when that is what it is?”

Dear Fran: I don’t know about you, but when I go to a room of the kind we’re talking about, it isn’t to rest. Both “bathroom” and “restroom” are euphemisms. So are most of the words mannerly people use for such rooms. Even “washroom” is a euphemism, though the rooms do have facilities for washing, and so is “lavatory,” which is just Latin for “washroom,” the way “dormitory” is Latin for “a place to sleep.”

A “toilet” is really what it is. Asking the way to the toilet in a public place is polite in some other countries -- such as Italy, where I lived much of the past year -- but it strikes many of us in English-speaking North America as unpleasantly blunt. Then again, when a grown woman like me, and presumably you, asks the way to the “little girls’ room” or asks where she might powder her nose, it strikes many people as silly. “Bathroom,” like “washroom,” hits a balance between the crude and the coy -- or so it seems to me. Either one, or “washroom” or “lavatory,” is fine to say.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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