The word commode causes some confusion. Some people use commode as a euphemism for toilet. But the word can also be used to describe a chest of drawers—a usage that is perhaps more common among antique furniture enthusiasts. Here is bit of history on how this single word came to have two such different meanings.
The evolution of the word is an example of a phenomenon that linguists call semantic drift—a gradual change in the meaning of a word as it becomes used in changing contexts. In early 18th-century France, the word commode meant a chest of drawers or a cabinet for storing personal items. The word commode derives from the French word for "convenient" or "suitable."
Later on, the word commode became reserved to mean a particular type of cabinet that held chamber pots. And gradually it also came to be used to refer to a piece of wooden chair-like furniture that held the chamber pot. In the final stage of the word's semantic drift, the term was used to refer to the porcelain plumbing fixture that replaced the chamber pot altogether—the toilet. This usage of the term still exists today.
The Commode Cabinet
Commodes were introduced in the 18th century in France and were both decorative and useful. A piece of antique furniture from this period is still called a commode. A French commode is a low cabinet or chest of drawers, often with elaborate decoration and usually standing on cabriole legs or short feet. Earlier commodes had a bombe or convex shape with a flat back that went against the wall. Later, the shape became more rectilinear with straighter legs.
Commodes were meant to stand against the wall and were wider than they were tall. This piece of furniture provided convenient storage and also had a surface on top for placing additional items. A commode often had a marble slab top and was displayed prominently in the home. Sometimes commodes were paired with mirrors, and matching pairs of commodes were often used in a room.
Because of its usefulness, the commode became an indispensable piece of furniture and before the mid-18th century, it made its way from royal and aristocratic houses to more humble ones. It was well on its way to becoming the humble yet useful piece of furniture that it is today. Gradually by the late 19th century, the commode became even more subdued in form and ultimately a purely functional piece of furniture that is now referred to as a chest of drawers.
The Toilet Commode
The association of the word commode with a toilet began with the night commode, a 19th-century Victorian term for a bedside cabinet with doors that was kept in the bedroom. These enclosed cabinets provided an area for storing chamber pots and had a basin and pitcher on top for personal cleansing. It was a Victorian-style version of the master bath—even if lacking a bit of the luxury you find today. At this time, a chamber-pot commode was no doubt the height of convenience in the middle of the night.
By the early 20th century, the word commode became associated with the porcelain toilet and that is now the more common usage of the term. Only antique furniture enthusiasts are likely to own a commode that is not a fixture in the bathroom.