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The form "dunnakin" appeared in 1790, where it is described as a cant term for "a necessary". Its exact etymology is obscure, but it seems to derive from some form of "danna", dialect or slang for feces, added to the suffix "ken", a pejorative slang term for a house. Other forms included "dunegan", "dunikin", "dunniken", "dunnyken", and "dunnekin".
Its use spread to Australia and New Zealand, where it was contracted to "dunny". The Australian National Dictionary says "dunny" was "Orig[inally] an unsewered outside privy; now used loosely of any lavatory", and gives as related forms "dunny can, a removable receptacle in a privy; cart, a vehicle for the collection and disposal of human excrement, etc.; man, one who mans such a vehicle." The first example of "dunniken" in Australian English is cited from 1843.[n 1]
Traditionally an outhouse could be found in unsewered areas and consisted of little more than a seat placed over a can or pit latrine. The latter variation can be referred to more specifically as a longdrop. The outhouse would be maintained at some distance from houses for reasons of smell and hygiene. The sheds themselves were generally made of either wood or corrugated iron, to facilitate the moving of the outhouse if required. In mining areas outhouses are sometimes placed over disused mine shafts.
By the middle of the twentieth century, outhouses had become much less common as modern plumbing allowed flush toilets to be built inside the house.
In built-up areas it was unhygienic to rely on cesspits and the usual arrangement was for waste to be collected in a can placed under the dunny. The cans would be collected, emptied, washed and replaced weekly by contractors hired by the local city or town council. This practice, of municipal collection of the so-called "pail closets", is known as the Rochdale system, and was widespread in England. "Dunny cans" persisted well into the second half of the twentieth century. Brisbane relied on "dunny carts" until the 1950s (one source says until the 1970s); because the population was so dispersed, it was difficult to install sewerage. Tar, creosote, and disinfectant kept the smell down. Academic George Seddon claimed that "the typical Australian back yard in the cities and country towns" had, throughout the first half of the twentieth century, "a dunny against the back fence, so that the pan could be collected from the dunny lane through a trap-door" The person who appeared weekly to empty the buckets beneath the seats was known as the "dunnyman", see gong farmer.
Dunny collection lingered on in Tasmania until the early 1980s.
In modern times, many outhouses on old houses remained in use, but have been refitted with modern plumbing and flush toilets.
Longdrops are also used in areas too remote to justify the expense of pumping water and sewage piping to, but where there is a need for toilet facilities, such as at remote campsites or along walking tracks. Farmers and station owners sometimes also construct outhouses at remote but often used yards or sheds.
- Potter, Humphry T. (1790), A New Dictionary of All the Cant and Flash Languages.
- "dunny, n.²", Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1901.
- Hotten, James Camden (1859), A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words Used at the Present Day, Preceded by a History of Cant and Vulgar Language, with Glossaries of Two Secret Languages, by a London Antiquary.
- "ken, n.²", Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1901.
- Grose, Francis (1811), "Dunegan", A Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.
- Buchan, John (1922), Huntingtower, Ch. vii.
- "That's a tough lot for ye... Used a' their days wi' sleepin' in coal-rees and dunnies and dodgin' the polis."
- Cited in the June 1959 Three Banks Review.
- "If we wished to secure anything he had found a dunney under his house as dry as this room."
- "Dunny, n.", Scottish National Dictionary, Glasgow: University of Glasgow Press, 2005.
- Paul, Rhyll (2012). Pebbles in the Road.
- Essays in the Political Economy of Australian Capitalism, Volume 2. Australia and New Zealand Book Company. 1978. p. 115.
- Smith, Graham (2011). Shadows of War on the Brisbane Line. Boolarong Press. pp. 183–184.
- Craven, Ian; George Seddon (1994). "The Australian Back Yard". Australian Popular Culture.
- The Great Australian Dunny Race Retrieved on 14 March 2009
- Minus, Jodie. "The judge turning a $1 'dunny lane' into a $1m-plus property windfall". The Australian. Retrieved 8 June 2016.