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Getting To The Bottom Of The Chanty

The word chanty meaning 'chamber pot' is attested in Scots from the late eighteenth century, but the editors of the Scottish National Dictionary (SND) had no suggestion as to a possible etymology for this term, marking it as 'unknown', and the word does not appear (as yet) in the Oxford English Dictionary. The original SND entry contains no quotations, and the first Supplement (1976) only includes a single line of a poem quoted more fully in the 1825 supplement to Jamiesonís Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language:

The like has been, whan late at night,
Yeíre dauníran hame right canty,
That on your pow an envoice light,
Het reekan frae some chanty.
(Pickenís Poems, p. 52)

This 1788 work is the earliest known attestation of the word, with little else on record until the Broadside Ballads a century later:

On Wednesday night as in bed she lay,
Go wash the floor, to me she did say,
Go wash it yourself, you jade, said I,
When she up with the chanty at me she let fly
(The Woeful Marriage, c.1880)

Dismissed by Jamieson as 'a cant term' and by SND as 'slang', it was actually included in the 1896 publication Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present by John Stephen Farmer and William Ernest Henley (p.16) as a 'slang' word for a chamber pot. And although many modern quotations can now be found in the second SND Supplement of 2005, the lack of early evidence makes it somewhat difficult to trace the origins of the word.

One possible indication may lie in the nature of the article in question. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Scotland was trading extensively with the Continent, with imports including wine, textiles, ceramics and 'a wide range of luxury goods and a great variety of manufactured articles' (Gordon Donaldson: Scotland: James V-James VII 1965, p.389). It was not unusual for such goods to be named from their place of origin, with examples including cheeny (from China), bongall 'silk material' (from Bangala), Dornick 'tablecloth linen' (from Doornik), Older Scots Millane 'cloth' (from Milan), Alasant 'striped silk' (from Alexandria), Osnaburgh, Older Scots Ozenbrigs, Onsbrow 'coarse linen' (from Osnabrück), Older Scots Gascon 'wine' (from Gascony), Older Scots burdeous 'wine' (from Bordeaux), Older Scots holland 'linen' (from Holland), polonie 'a gown or coat' (from Pologne), Older Scots allacant 'wine' (from Alicante), Older Scots Lilles 'cloth' (from Lille) and Older Scots rissillis 'woollen stuff' (from Rijsel, the Flemish name for Lille).

It may therefore be significant that one of the earliest soft-paste porcelain manufactories in Europe was established at Chantilly in France. Founded around 1730 by Louis Henri de Bourbon, prince de Condé, the factory produced and exported a range of luxury porcelain ware including chamber-pots (Chantilly in History and Art by Louise M. Richter 1913, p.277). Chantilly was famed for its porcelain prior to becoming famous for lace-making, and it seems plausible that the word chanty may derive from the place-name Chantilly, particularly given that in the original French pronunciation the 'l' was not pronounced (as in Marseilles), rather than the Americanised shan-tilly. Thus it would appear that rather than simply belonging to the register of 'slang', the word chanty may instead belong in a very different category of lexicon formed from place-names.

Alison Grant and Pauline Cairns Speitel