Fraser’s Phrases: ‘Spend A Penny’

Lady and Gentleman

The history of slang is intimately related to the history of taboos, for fairly obvious reasons. If you can’t call a thing it’s proper name for fear of offending delicate sensibilities, and the swear word people most commonly use to describe whatever the filthy practice may be is similarly out of bounds, other, less descriptive terms will have to be brought into use instead.

And so it is with going to the bathroom. Now, first and foremost, I should point out that while we Brits are fairly aware that this is the term Americans use for going to the toilet, it’s not something we would say ourselves. If we want a bathroom, it’s because we want to take a bath, and a restroom would need to contain a sofa or a comfy bed. That’s just something to bear in mind next time you’re caught short in a foreign land and you want to get to the point as quickly as possible.

Not that our terms for this most basic of needs are any clearer unless you’re used to them, of course. If someone asks to use the WC, they’re probably from the past. WC stands for water closet, as we all know, and used to be a fairly common (and by common I mean posh) word for toilet. As did lavatory, but both of these terms have long been in decline.

More often than not, if someone from Britain needs to answer an urgent call of nature, they’ll ask for the loo. It’s thought this term derives from a play on water closet, around the time of the Battle of Waterloo (geddit?), but no one’s really too sure. My favorite theory is to do with sailors urinating over the side of a ship, and making sure to use the leeward (pronounced looward) side, so the wind doesn’t cause a backwash, so to speak. Even if this isn’t where loo comes from, it’s almost certainly where those terms that end “… in the wind” originated.

Anyway, it’s a nicely nondescript word, and that’s really the key to its longevity. In the North East of England they’d ask for the netty, some people call it the jakes, and elsewhere the word khazi is still in fairly regular use. That’s another term with hotly contested roots, although it appears to come from 19th Century London and originally referred to a brothel, thieves’ den, or toilet, as if the pure of heart don’t need to use the facilities too.

Then there’s spend a penny, which comes from the earliest public toilets, which had locks on the doors which cost a penny to open. This practice appears to have begun in the 1850s, when the first public toilets were opened in London, however the phrase wasn’t recorded in literature until nearly a century later. In any case, it caught on rather better than phrases such as powder my nose, use the little girls’ room, or the catch-all I’m going to see a man about a dog, although these are all now in decline too, sadly.

It’s not wrong though, and if you’ve been sold on the chocolate box, Dick Van Dyke village wonderland vision of Britain, where everyone greets each other with a chipper tip of the bowler hat and bids farewell with a hearty “cheerio,” then by all means tell British friends you need to spend a penny. They’ll know what you mean, but they may also giggle.

Otherwise, if you stick with loo, you can’t go wrong.

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Fraser McAlpine

Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 15 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME, Guardian and MSN. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Radio 2.

He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.

Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic

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