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

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at GMAIL.COM
Thu Oct 6 17:52:06 UTC 2011

And to you too, Joel.

As special bonus, the phrase seems to have nothing to do with pay toilets.


But who could be that skeptical of a two-hundred-year antedating?


On Thu, Oct 6, 2011 at 1:40 PM, Joel S. Berson <Berson at att.net> wrote:

> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
> -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       "Joel S. Berson" <Berson at ATT.NET>
> Subject:      Re: "spend a penny" -- the TLS is at it again.
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> 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!
> Joel
> 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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