Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Words and Phrases - To Spend a Penny

The phrase to spend a penny means to use the toilet, especially, but not exclusively, a public toilet.

It originates from the use of coin operated locks on public toilets. It was used mostly in the UK and mostly by women (men's urinals were often free of charge).

Such locks were first introduced, at a public toilet outside the Royal Exchange, London, in the 1850s. The term itself is later though. The first recorded citation of it is in H. Lewis's "Strange Story", 1945:

"'Us girls,' she said, 'are going to spend a penny!'"

'Spend a penny' has now largely gone out of use, partly because charges have changed and partly because it was always a coy euphemism, which now seems rather dated. The writing was on the wall for this phrase, so to speak, from 1977, when the Daily Telegraph printed an article headed "2p to spend a penny".  Nowadays it costs at least 20 new pence to spend an (old) penny.


  1. I didn't know the expression. Funny!

  2. I remember our English teacher in 5th grade (when we were 10 years old) telling us about this! I've not heard the phrase in a long time but have never forgotten its meaning.

  3. Many years ago, the phrase here was "i'm going to see a man about a horse!" Grandma tells me her father used to say that, and it always disappointed her that he didn't actually buy her the pony she always wanted when he said that.

    1. My Dad used to say he was going to 'see a man about a dog' or going to 'the woods to pick bluebells' if he simply didn't want to say where her was going...

  4. At Victoria Station it is 50P! And you might know I had to go and buy something to get the 50 pence, running back to the loo as fast as I could go!

  5. I first heard it on the British TV show, "Are You Being Served?" What a great show that was!

  6. I always like learning where old phrases came from and now I am going to use this one and amaze my friends.

  7. Much better than "I'm going to take a leak"...sorry, that's just gross! Never heard the term "going to spend a penny" so thanks for the lesson! Hope all is well with you John!

  8. It's a term I still use but then I can remember when it really was a Penny.


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