Columns » Words

Words, March 12



In for a penny, in for a pound:

“Irish carrier Ryanair, Europe's largest budget airline, might start charging passengers for using the toilet while flying, chief executive officer Michael O'Leary said on Friday. ‘One thing we have looked at in the past and are looking at again is the possibility of maybe putting a coin slot on the toilet door so that people might actually have to spend a pound to spend a penny in future,' he told BBC Television.”

You can pretty well figure out from the context what spend a penny means, although a couple of authorities disagree slightly. Spend a penny is (or was) British slang for “To use a public lavatory [what Americans would call a ‘restroom'],” according to The Phrase Finder, or “To urinate [using either public or private facilities],” according to Jonathon Green's Dictionary of Contemporary Slang. Both say the phrase was derived from the penny once required by coin-operated locks on public toilets in Britain. (Required mostly of women, TPF says; men's urinals were free. ERA needed here.) These locks were introduced in the 1850s, but spend a penny didn't appear in print until nearly a hundred years later. It began disappearing from print 30 years after that, partly because the toilets were charging more, partly because the phrase seemed too coy for modern times. People speak more boldly of body functions these days, for better or worse.

No matter how it's worded, Mr. O'Leary's proposal is brutish. He sounds like a character from a Charles Dickens novel, or Mr. Burns on “The Simpsons.” There was a movie awhile back called “Snakes on a Plane.” “Pay Toilets on a Plane” is scarier.


Tara, Georgia, is where Scarlett O'Hara did her treading:

“The Hill of Tara, Ireland: Where Kings Once Tread.” Or should it be “Where kings once treaded”? No, it should be “Where kings once trod.” A cultured magazine like the Smithsonian is expected to know these things.

Add a comment