Who Is This Ajax Guy, and What Does He Have to Do With Toilets?

I don’t know much about ancient Greek mythology, except the most obvious and well-known aspects, of course. But I know how one character from this genre is usually used.

Ajax. He is usually associated with the toilet, otherwise known as the bathroom. I know John Harington, Elizabeth I’s “godson”, wrote a book about her new flushing toilet, he called A New Discourse of a Stale Subject, called the Metamorphosis of Ajax. And then there is Ajax, a commercial cleaner meant for the toilet. I think it is clear, the name Ajax, is associated with this indelicate subject, and has been for some time.

But who was Ajax? And more specifically, what does he have to do with the toilet and commode? Oh, I am sure he was war hero, or something like that. But why the association with the bathroom? That is what has perplexed me for some time now.

I patiently await your replies:)

I have a Ph.D. in Ancient Greek (and other dead languages), and this is not something they taught us. Unfortunately.


“Ajax, the foaming cleanser, ba da do do do do do, cleans dirt, right down the drain.” No cite, but that’s gotta be it.

In Homer’s Iliad, Ajax was the strongest of the Greek warriors fighting the Trojans.

The original slogan for Ajax powder was “Stronger than dirt!”. Furthermore:

So it looks as though the makers chose a name associated with great strength to underline their product’s strength at fighting germs.

In Homer’s Iliad, Ajax was a heroic warrior on the Greek side during the Trojan war, and fought a duel at least once (twice? Can’t remember) with Hector, the Trojan hero.

Edit: Walken After Midnight beat me to it.

Two of them really, since both Ajax (the Great) and Ajax the Lesser fought in the Trojan War. I think I would have just changed my name rather than accepting the “lesser” epithet.

So Ajax is associated with toilets? Is that better or worse than what Trojans are associated with? If you dump a Trojan down the toilet, you’d better send some Ajax in too to renew their ancient battle.

Weren’t there actually two characters named Ajax in the Iliad?

I think Harington was attempting a pun on “a jakes” (an outhouse or privy).

The OED backs me up, except that Harington did not invent the pun as I assumed. Shakespeare had used it 12 years earlier in Love’s Labour’s Lost.

The name was adopted for a particularly strong laundry soap brand. The significance is obviously lost when applied to toilets.

Resolved: toilet cleaners must have a different name. How about “Home Throne,” or “Best Seat in the House?”

Well, as Walken said, Ajax is associated with strength. Pretty much everywhere he’s named in classical Greek literature, he’s referred to as “the mighty Ajax”.

In fact, his very name became a shorthand reference for size, strength and martial valor, somewhat like “Hercules”.

1911 article mentioning an “Ajax of a man”

1819 biography of Revolutionary War leader Nathanial Greene:

A fifteenth-century abbot calls the earl of Shrewsbury “a very Hector in strength, an Ajax in bravery and an Achilles in ferocity”.

So naming a household cleanser “Ajax” isn’t about toilets, it’s about creating an image of power and, well, grit.

But what about John Harington? I mean, why the reference to Ajax? Yeah, I know, he jokingly was referring to “A Jakes” (already explained in a previous post). But why did he make a reference to Ajax at all?

You see my confusion.

I came in to explain this, but see that the relevant points have already been hit. The answer to your question is above.

In Shakespeare’s time, a toilet/privy was jokingly called a Jakes, as already observed. It’s the Elizabethan equivalent of calling a toiler a John (because every man uses one, and John or Jakes – they’re different forms of the same name – has to use it).

So he was writing about a toliet, “A Jakes”, and, to those classically educated Elizabethans, the transformation of “A Jakes” to “Ajax” is irresistible. Heck, the equivalent is irresistible today. That’s why we have a chain of portable toilets called “Johnny on the Spot”.
Whether the classical equivalence of “A Jakes” = “Ajax” had anything to do with the naming of the cleanser I do not know. I doubt it. I suspect that they were just looking for a striking name, and the association with Greek mythology added class, the association with a hero suggested strength, and a short name with the juxtaposition of the rare letters “J” and “X” made it memorable.
Of course, it also ruined things for readers of the Iliad. I can’t read “Ajax” without thinking of the scouring cleanser. Cartoonist J.B. Handelsman even drew a cartoon about the Iliad in which he shows a cylindrical can of cleanser, sword in hand, fighting on the side of the Greeks.

I was impressed when translator Robert Fitzgerald rendered all the names of the characters in his translations of the Iliad and Odyssey in their original Greek forms, rather than the more familiar Latin equivalents. Not ony does this make it Odysseos rather than Ulysses, it turns Ajax into the baggage-less form Aias.

While the connection with “a jakes” is a fortuitous one, the Ajax brand was originally used by Colgate-Palmolive for their powdered cleaning product in the late 40s, and was not a toilet bowl cleaner at first. The first use was for a floor cleaner; other products were added to the brand over time… Add to that the “stronger that dirt” slogan and jingle (Performed by the Doors ;)), it’s clear the name was chosen to imply it was strong, like the Greek hero.

;)Cloaca cleanser sounds disgusting.

Seems like the “Trojan War” would have more problematical associations than that.

Consider also that the somewhat similar-sounding borax had long been popularly used as a cleanser for, e.g., laundry, and was even used as a brand name in that context at one point. (I still remember “Boraxo” brand handwashing powder from the mid-20th century, advertised as an effective cleanser for seriously dirty hands from working in the garden, with machinery, etc.).

The sound of the traditional cleanser carbolic soap was similarly echoed in brand names such as “Germbolic” and “Nubolic”.

(Ajax cleanser history timeline.)