If there’s one thing that can be said about language, it’s that it’s dynamic. Blink for a second and you might miss the coining of a neologism or an old turn of phrase becoming obsolete.

The latter in particular can have amusing consequences, especially if re-used by someone possibly too young to appreciate the original connotations of the word or phrase.

One such most likely occurred today in a Bristol Post piece about free travel in the Bristol area on Unibus services.

The item’s second paragraph reads as follows:

Passengers will able to hop on the Unibus U2 service, from Monday February 18 until Friday, February 22 without spending a penny.

To someone of my age (rapidly approaching where I qualify for a pass for free bus travel. Ed.), the phrase has connotations other than obtaining buckshee travel.

As Collins Dictionary helpfully points out:

If someone says that they are going to spend a penny, they mean that they are going to go to the toilet. [British, old-fashioned, politeness]

old coin-operated public toilet lockThe origins of the phrase stretch back to the Victorian era and refer to the use of coin-operated locks on public toilets in the UK. Such locks were first used in a public toilet outside London’s Royal Exchange in the 1850s.

The phrase “to spend a penny” has now largely died out and been forgotten, except by those with greying hair, due to changes to public toilets themselves (many of which have been closed by austerity-hit local authorities. Ed.) and changes in the charges to use a toilet. Last time I looked while on my travels, the toilets at Manchester Victoria railway station cost an exorbitant 20p, i.e. 4 shillings or 48 times the original cost of one penny.