By Mark Forsyth (edited), excerpt from The Etymologicon
What is the real relationship between Thomas Crapper and the word “crap” (or “crapper”)?
Thomas Crapper was born in Yorkshire in 1836. In 1853, a year after Edward Jennings’ patented his version of the modern toilet, Crapper moved to London to start an apprenticeship as a plumber. As it turned out, he was an excellent at plumbing, and the 1850s were the golden age of the toilet trader. The new London sewers meant that everyone could just flush away their troubles.
Crapper was also an excellent entrepreneur; he set up a company, Thomas Crapper & Co., and designed his own line of thrones. He invented the ballcock for refilling, which stopped water from being wasted, and added extra devices to stop anything unpleasant flowing back into the bowl after the flush. His were well-designed lavatories, and as a result were widely popular.
Crapper’s bathroom fixtures were chosen for the residence of the Prince of Wales and for the plumbing of Westminster Abbey. The brand name Crapper was everywhere, but the word “crap” had been around for a while.
Dictionaries claim that “crap” first appeared in the 1840s; but, in fact, the word can be traced back to a poem by J. Churchill published in 1801; a poem written 35 years before Crapper was born.
However, if Crapper’s name didn’t spawn the word “crap,” he associated himself with it closely. All of his lavatories had Thomas Crapper & Co. stamped on the tanks, and these lavatories were installed all over Britain. But in America, nobody had ever heard of either Crapper or the word “crap.”
There isn’t an American reference to crap all through the 19th century. In fact, there’s nothing before WWI. Then, in 1917, America declared war on Germany and sent 2.8 million men across the Atlantic where they would have been exposed to the ubiquitous Thomas Crapper & Co. on every second lavatory.
It’s only after WWI that “crap” and “crapper” appear in the United States. So it would seem that though the English word “crap” doesn’t come from Thomas Crapper, perhaps the American one does. Even if Crapper didn’t invent it, he definitely was responsible for popularizing the word.