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Spending a penny

Posted by Lewis on August 07, 2003

In Reply to: Re: Going to see a man about a horse posted by ESC on August 05, 2003

: : : : I've written previously about some of my grandfather's expressions.

: : : : It also occurs to me that when I used to visit my grandparents as a child, my grandmother and grandfather had different ways of referring to going to the toilet. He would say "I'm going to see a man about a dog" and she would say "I need to spend a penny". I can guess the origins of her expression but am less clear on the origins of his. Any ideas?

: : : : Could both be classified as euphemisms? Are there many similar expressions?

: : : Yes. "Going to go see Miss Murphy."

: : To explain the phrase for non-native English speakers: When someone says that they are going to see a man about a dog they really mean that they are unwilling to reveal the true nature of their business.
: : The expression comes from the long forgotten 1866 play Flying Scud by a prolific Irish-born playwright of the period named Dion Boucicault. One of the characters uses the words as an excuse to get away from a tricky situation. This character, an eccentric and superannuated old jockey, says: "Excuse me Mr. Quail, I can't stop; I've got to see a man about a dog". This is the only thing that seems to have survived from the play.

: Interesting. A variation: see a man about a horse. That form was used by a musician on a CD I own. The guy was leaving the stage to use drugs so I am guessing that the "horse" was heroin.

Back when I was a kid - public toilets were operated by putting an old large penny into the slot that worked the door. Paying 1d (a penny) for the use of public conveniences must have gone back a long way - my grandmother (born 1892) used the expression and said that's what they'd said when she was a child.

In Italy, pre Euro, they must have said, "Just going to spend a couple of thousand lirs..."

The man about a dog is just as the poster above said - it means that the sayer doesn't want to reveal their business and is not specific to using the jakes. In fact, it used to have a slightly criminal overtone along with the forefinger tap on the side of the nose.