Spend a penny

Spend a penny is an idiom that has been in use since the latter half of the twentieth century. An idiom is a word, group of words or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Often using descriptive imagery or metaphors, common idioms are words and phrases used in the English language in order to convey a concise idea, and are often spoken or are considered informal or conversational. English idioms can illustrate emotion more quickly than a phrase that has a literal meaning, even when the etymology or origin of the idiomatic expression is lost. An idiom is a metaphorical figure of speech, and it is understood that it is not a use of literal language. Figures of speech have definitions and connotations that go beyond the literal meaning of the words. Mastery of the turn of phrase of an idiom, which may use slang words, or other parts of speech is essential for the English learner. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions such as in a blue moon, spill the beans, let the cat out of the bag, in the same boat, bite the bullet, barking up the wrong tree, kick the bucket, hit the nail on the head, face the music, under the weather, piece of cake, when pigs fly, and raining cats and dogs, as they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. English phrases that are idioms should not be taken literally. In addition to learning vocabulary and grammar, one must understand the phrasing of the figurative language of idiomatic phrases in order to know English like a native speaker. 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.


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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