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

George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Fri Sep 23 17:17:36 UTC 2011

A review in the TLS of September 9, 2011 (p. 12) by Gillian Tindall, of "If
the Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home", by Lucy Worsley
[Worsley] does not seem aware that . . . female public loo doors always
required one old penny to open, and that this, not the Great Exhibition of
1851, is the source of the enduring euphemism.
This brought out the following reply, in the issue of September 16, 2100 (p.
6), from Marie-Louise Jennings, 17 Stamford Brook Road, London W6:
***  This phrase is used by Tobias  Smollett in Humphry Clinker, and 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".
She does not indicate a specific source for the Synge quotation.  A
searchable version of an 18th C edition of Clinker showed only one
appearance of the word "penny", not in this phrase.
I checked the OED last night: as I recall, its earliest cite was 1965;
Jonathon Green's new slang dictionary has 1935.
JL frequently refers to another world in which the P-Z volume of HDAS is to
be consulted.  That world is a nobler and more just world than the one in
which I live.

I don't know how "the Great Exhibition of 1851" gets into the story.
I don't frequent "female public loos", but men's rooms in NYC required a
coin to access a throne until perhaps 25 years ago.  But I suppose "spend a
penny" is a woman's euphemism, since men could always piss for free.

If I recall, the previous format of the OED was up-front about what section
of the alphabet had most recently been revised.  The current format lists an
array of words beginning with A, and on and on.  Surely the project to
revise systematically hasn't been abandoned?  Has it reached "penny" yet?

You all will recall that at the beginning of the year, TLS allowed its
correspondents to spend two months pointlessly kicking about the history of
the word "cool" in slang.  This may be the start of another such spell.

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

More information about the Ads-l mailing list