"spend a penny" -- the TLS is at it again.

Joel S. Berson Berson at ATT.NET
Thu Oct 6 17:40:25 UTC 2011

On secret commission from George Thompson, known only to himself,
myself, and Jon Lighter, I have researched whether "spend a penny"
appears in the letters of "Bishop Edward Synge to His Daughter Alicia
/ Roscommon to Dublin / 1746--1752".

Source:  "The Synge Letters..." [subtitle above], ed. Marie-Louise
Legg (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 1996).
[Page 66, letter 26:]

Elphin, July 31, 1747
My Dear Girl
I am glad your Salts[1] agreed so well with you. I wish Mrs Jourdan's
had done the same. But perhaps tho' they us'd her a little roughly,
they may have thereby prepar'd the way the better for the Water[2]. I
shall long to know how it agrees with you both. I hope it will make
you spend your penny bravely.
[To explain "Water", I have included the following.  Synge
immediately after the above writes about apricots being scarce, and
how his daughter spelled the word; then:]

While you drink the Spa, you must neither eat fruit nor Garden
things. So that, to you, cheap or dear, they are now of no consequence.
[Note 1 merely suggests "Epsom salts, ... used as a laxative."]
[Page 67:]

2. There are frequent references in Edward Synge's letters to the use
of purges, laxatives, bleeding and of spa waters. According to
Hippocrates, Aristotle, and Galen, the belief in humoural physiology
... Balance was restored by ridding the body of excess by purges,
vomiting, bloodletting and blistering and the use of laxatives. The
physician approached the disease by examining the patient's symptoms,
rather than by examining the disease itself. The analysis of urine
and vomit formed part of this approach.
[Examining symptoms and analysis of urine and vomit does not sound
humourous -- it's what modern physicians do, and should do!]
I observe that the spelling and punctuation appear modernized to me,
but unfortunately I did not read Legg's introductory material.
This "spend a penny" certainly sounds like "go to the toilet" -- see
penny, n., P2, In various idiomatic phrases, g. (OED third ed., Sept. 2005).

1742 antedates 1945--.

Congratulations, George!


George had written us:
>I've found the passage in Humphry Clinker Ms Legg aka Jennings must
>have had in mind:
>. . . mistress said, if I didn't go [to the baths at Bath], I should
>take a dose of bum-taffy; and so remembring how it worked Mrs.
>Gwyllim a pennorth, I chose rather to go again with her. . . .
>the letter from Winifred Jenkins to Mrs. Mary Jones, April 26; or p.
>42 in T. R. Preston's edition, U Georgia Pr., 1990;
>Jennings aka Legg connects this with a sentence by the Irish bishop,
>Edward Synge, in a letter to his daughter Alicia on July 31, 1747,
>recommending her to take spa water so that she will be able to
>"spend her penny bravely".
>I have the class number of the book of Synge's letters at the NYPL,
>but I don't know when I will be in that library again. If JB could
>check the copy that I suppose Harvard must own, or if JL would get
>it through ILL, the mystery would be solved a deal sooner.  Not that
>our penpals at ADS-L are showing any impatience to learn the true story.
>Meanwhile, my reading of the Clinker passage is: mistress said if I
>didn't go to the baths and drink the water again, she would make me
>take a laxative; and remembering how the laxative had worked on Mrs.
>Gwyllim. . . .
>In short, it has nothing to do with having to spend a coin to use
>the loo at the baths, and has nothing to do with the modern
>expression that isn't recorded till 150 years after Clinker.
>Meanwhile, I don't see "bum-taffy" in the OED nor Green's Dictionary of Slang.

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