Sir John Harrington – Inventor of "The John"

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In American slang, one of the terms used for toilet is “the john.” Although the phrase “the john” was first used in the United States, the origin of the term can be traced back to its roots in England.

Sir John Harrington

Sir John Harrington was born in 1561 in Somerset, England. He was a member of Queen Elizabeth I’s court and was even identified as the Queen’s “saucy grandson.” He was also a writer and because of his literary works, his relationship with the Queen and her successor shifts in different directions.

His most famous literary work is “A New Discourse of a Stale Subject, called the Metamorphosis of Ajax.” And even though he has established himself as a writer, he is still most known for his invention of the first flushing toilet.

His Family Life

Sir John Harrington is the son of poet John Harrington and his second wife, Isabella Markham. Because his mother was a gentlewoman of the Queen’s privy chamber, he became one of the childless Queen’s 102 godchildren.

It has not been established if Sir John Harrington is related to John Harrington, the first Baron Harrington of Exton. It is assumed, though, that he also belong to the descendants of the Lord Harrington of Aldingham.

John became attracted to the life at the Queen’s court. With his free spirit and his writing talent, he was able to get Queen Elizabeth I’s attention.

His Works

His first popular work was his translation of “Orlando Furioso” by Ariosto. Because of the sharpness of his initial translation, the Queen asked him to leave and not to return until he finished his work. The Queen did not expect him to comply because it was a difficult work. However, in 1591, he came back and was praised for the full translation of the poem.

Before he wrote his most popular work, “A New Discourse upon a Stale Subject: The Metamorphosis of Ajax,” he invented the first flushing toilet in Britain. It was called “ajax” coming from the old English slang for toilet “a jakes.” When he wrote the book, “A New Discourse upon a Stale Subject: The Metamorphosis of Ajax,” he was referring to his invention. However, this work have political allusions which caused him to lose the favor of the Queen.

His Life as a Member of the Court

After the Queen’s death, he spent time in prison because of his cousins debts. Later, King James I appreciated his loyalty and brought him back to his court as a Knight of the Bath.

It is interesting to find out how the toilet got its name. By knowing the roots of a word, students learn to appreciate the value of the invention and the richness of the language.

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