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

George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Fri Oct 7 21:28:12 UTC 2011

I wrote to JB:

"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 spa 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

I am still reading the book, evenings, (and enjoying it), so it's possible I
will come upon another passage that fits even better.

But as for this quotation:

My reading of the Clinker passage is:

. . . mistress said if I didn't go to the spa 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.

I don't see "bum-taffy" in the OED, nor in JL's HDAS, nor in Jonathon
Green's new dictionary of slang, and I don't see anything in JG's dictionary
under "taffy" that would explain how this would mean a laxative or a
medicine.  The letter is written in the persona of a servant woman, whose
letters are marked by amusing misspellings and malapropisms.  But I don't
see a way to respell "taffy" to make better sense here.

The OED has a long file of citations under "pennyworth", illustrating the
sense of "money's worth" (sense #3, if I recall -- looked it up a couple of
days ago).  Seems to me that this passage has an implication I didn't see in
any of the citations, and that is, "more than she wanted", "more than her
money's worth".

Meanwhile, JB has gotten fuller context of the passage from the bishop to
his niece that Ms Legg aka Jennings had quoted briefly in her letter to the

"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."

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

It certainly seems to me that this poor lassie and Mrs Jourdan have both
taken a dose of laxative salts in anticipation of drinking water that will
have a laxative effect on them.  Not my idea of how to pass an afternoon.  It
does seem that they will purge themselves of solid waste rather than liquid.

Now, the pay-to-piss extortion racket has been around since the emperor
Vespasian, but surely with a long dark ages between the fall of the Roman
empire and the invention of the coin-operated stall door.  I'm with JB in
not understanding how spending a penny bravely has anything to do with the
vigorous emptying that the niece has ahead of her.  Occasionally I patronize
a men's room with an attendant who hands me a towel as I turn from the sink
and expects a tip for his service.  Something like this might have been
going on at Bath, but I don't think of giving a tip as "spending".

I'm left puzzled.

I leave the Freudian flapdoodle to those with a fancy for it.


On Fri, Oct 7, 2011 at 2:31 PM, Joel S. Berson <Berson at att.net> wrote:

> At 10/7/2011 12:42 PM, Jonathan Lighter wrote:
>> Precisely.
>> If it's real and  - and even I have to admit it seems so - and refers to,
>> er, Number Two (as it seems to) I can only hark back to my Freudian ref.
>> of
>> last week.
>> Everything you want to know (and, of course, more) is here:
>> http://www.enotes.com/**psychoanalysis-encyclopedia/**feces<http://www.enotes.com/psychoanalysis-encyclopedia/feces>
> Does this tell me about pennies?  If so, my search engine missed it.
> Seriously, are there any hypotheses -- now, since the 1700s antedate
> penny toilets, I assume -- as to the etymology of the expression?
> Joel
> ------------------------------**------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African Theatre", Northwestern Univ.
Pr., 1998, but nothing much since then.

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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