Spend a penny

Spend a penny is an idiom that has been in use since the latter half of the twentieth century. We will examine the meaning of the idiom spend a penny, where it came from, and some examples of its use in sentences.

Spend a penny means to go to the toilet, especially a public toilet. One usually is said to be going to spend a penny. The expression is derived from the fact that public toilets were installed in the United Kingdom in the mid-1800s that required a penny to be unlocked. These pay toilets were used mostly by women, public male urinals were free. The idiom spend a penny does not seem to have come into use until the mid-twentieth century, though pay public toilets existed long before that time. By the 1970s, the public toilet cost more than a penny, and use of the idiom declined. Today, the idiom is rarely used and is considered quaint.

Examples

The 39-year-old TV presenter went to spend a penny during an ad break on ‘This Morning’, but she didn’t realise her blunder until she walked back into the studio to see everyone looking bashful. (Female First)

My grandmother, when I would visit her as a kid, would often announce that she was “going to spend a penny” after dinner, meaning that she was excusing herself to the restroom. (Michigan Daily)

Elsewhere, one person who went to spend a penny was left dumbstruck upon discovering a live baby rabbit in their toilet bowl, which they quickly saved – and another baffled user fished out a very bedraggled-looking squirrel. (The Daily Mail)

“I’m sure people would happily wait an extra minute or two while their GP went to spend a penny in a more conventional manner.” (The Telegraph)

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